Making Practice Mentally Effortful | Motor Learning in Golf Instruction

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

Consider this: your golf ball lands just short of the green, about 15 yards from the pin and several feet from the putting surface. There are questions to answer before playing your next shot. How is the lie? How smooth is the grass between your ball and the putting surface? Should you pitch, chip or putt the ball? What is the best club to use – wedge, 8-iron, hybrid, putter? Which generalized motor program is most appropriate – the swing or putting stroke?

These, and other similar scenarios, confront golfers numerous times in each round. Each requires a process that involves situational awareness (reading the situation, assessing risk/rewards, etc.,) perception (how is the lie? what is the wind direction and speed? is the chip into or with the grain of the grass? etc.,) and movement planning (should I move the ball back in my stance? does the chip need extra speed to get up a hill? etc.,) all before you start the swing.

Golf Practice range

And yet, the typical golfer does none of this process when practicing. Instead, most golfers focus on the mechanics of the golf swing. They hit ball after ball after ball, often without so much as a change in club, target, intent, grip, stance or thought. This mindless method of practice does have one advantage – it often produces ball strikes that increasingly results in success. And with that, the golfer leaves the range under the mistaken impression that true progress has been made. But, this is often not the case.

The concept of mentally effortful practice implies that to make real changes in golf skill – the kinds of changes that stick and transfer to the course – one must practice the process of playing golf. Executing the mechanics of the golf swing is an important skill, but it is just one of many in the process. Practicing the skills of assessing situational awareness, perception, and movement planning as individual components of the entire process of making a golf shot is difficult, but critically important. The effort that is required is not particularly physically demanding, but it is mentally demanding. A productive practice session requires discipline, advanced planning and evaluation in order for real progress to be achieved, and challenging the learner is essential.

In the next two articles, we will look at what some of the motor-learning research suggests regarding conditions that encourage mentally-effortful practice.

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

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