Demystifying Random Practice, Part 1 | Motor Learning in Golf Instruction

tim lee
  • Author: Dr. Timothy D. Lee
  • Motor Learning Expert
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Golf Practice

Consider these two practice scenarios: 1) Following an initial warm-up period on the driving range, you are left with 60 balls and plan to hit 20 each with a driver, 7-iron and wedge. In what order will you hit them? 2) You drop three balls on the green and putt them toward a hole. Will you putt all three balls from the same spot or one ball from each of three different spots?

Golf practice that is “blocked” usually means that ball after ball is hit with the same club and to the same target. In scenario 1 above, that could mean 20 driver shots in a row, 20 7-irons in a row and 20 wedge shots. In “random” (or interleaved) practice, a different club might be used for each successive shot. In scenario 2 above, blocked practice would mean that all three balls are putted towards the hole from the same position; random practice would be starting putts from three different locations. If you can think of other ways to differentiate blocked and random practice, then you get the gist of the idea.

So, why might this be important? Hundreds of research studies have now been conducted that have compared blocked vs. random practice, using many different tasks and skills (including golf,) and a consistent theme has emerged in the results. Blocked practice results in accelerated improvements during the practice session; random practice tends to slow the rate of immediate improvements. However, and this is critically important, the immediate improvements observed with blocked practice do not stick and transfer well to the course. The gains following random practice, though modest, are well retained and transfer better than following blocked practice. And, if you recall the discussion in Part 2 of our introductory articles, then the conclusion would be that random practice is superior to blocked practice for motor learning.

But, why is random practice better for learning? Consider this analogy. A friend asks you to mentally calculate the product of 15 x 18. OK, 8x15 is … 120. Got it. Now, 10 times 15 is … 150. So, 120 + 150 is … 270! Now, let’s say your friend asks you to mentally calculate the same problem again. Since you still have the answer in short-term memory then you can quickly provide it (“270”) without having to go through the mental arithmetic again. And, if you were right the first time, odds are very good that you will be right again. So, if speed and correctness in providing the answer are important performance criteria, then one could say that this was a good method.


golf practice drill


But a good method for what? Certainly not for practicing the skill of mental arithmetic. Note, however, that if your friend asked you the same problem some time later, after you had forgotten the answer, then you would have needed to conduct the arithmetic steps again. It would have been slower and perhaps more error-prone than just remembering the solution. But, forgetting the solution would have forced you to actually go through the process of mental arithmetic again. 

Blocked & Random Golf Practice

The differences between blocked and random golf practice share similarities to the mental arithmetic problem above. Golf is a problem-solving task in which the problem involves sending the ball from point A toward point B. As we described in our previous article, the solution to the problem involves a process that involves situational awareness, perception, movement planning, retrieving a motor program and schema from memory, all before the swing is executed. Blocked practice only requires this process when hitting the first ball (e.g., with the driver, or the first putted ball,) but not on each subsequent ball (or at least, not to the same degree.) The memory of the solution (the process) for the previous golf problem is usually adequate for the repetition, and so can be bypassed, and the golfer merely re-executes the swing, perhaps with some minor changes.

So, what is blocked practice good for? As with the math problem, it is good for repeating the “answer” again and again – which, with minor changes, can be done with increasing accuracy. But, that is not what a golfer needs to learn in order to perform on the golf course. Instead, the golfer needs to learn how to execute a single shot based on the performing the process. In other words, effective practice means practicing the entire process.

Random practice “works” because it requires that a new process be executed with each subsequent ball. On the range, a new club requires a new process. On the putting green, a new starting location requires a new process. Random practice “works” because it encourages the learner to practice the skills necessary to play on the course.

So, is random practice a magic formula for better learning? Not necessarily. We will explain why in Part 2

Demystifying Random Practice Part II | Motor Learning in Golf Instruction 

For more on Motor Learning, be sure to check out Matthew Cooke's FREE Online Motor Learning Course.


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