Motor Learning Concepts - Training Aids
I once spent some time on a putting green at the wonderful LPGA International practice facility in Daytona Beach, FL, where I witnessed one of the most amazing uses of training aids. The golfer was lined up for a 5-foot putt. The ball was positioned at the start of a chalk line, drawn on the grass that led directly to the middle of the front lip of the cup. Also laid on the ground was an arc, above which the putter head passed during the backswing, downswing, and follow-through. Two tees were positioned on either side of the ball allowing just enough room for the putter head to pass. And there was a stand with a soft cushion, against which the golfer lightly rested her head while making the putting stroke. With this setup the golfer struck five balls in a row; a coach replacing the departed ball with a new one after the putter head had passed backwards through the two tees. The golfer struck five consecutive putts, without hesitation, in a metronome-like action. Then the coach retrieved the balls from the cup and the whole process was repeated, again and again. I watched for 20 minutes and during that time the golfer never missed a single putt! I was awestruck.
To me this scene captured the essence of a philosophy that learning in golf is a process of grooving a swing, in which errors should be avoided at all costs and repetitive executions of perfectly-executed swings should be the ultimate goal. If you have read the 10 previous articles in this series then you will know by now that the results from the motor learning literature do not support this view. In fact, the research suggests quite the opposite.
As a reminder, random practice by its very nature will increase errors in performance compared to blocked practice. But random practice leads to better learning. Also, when augmented feedback is withheld it encourages the learner to search for solutions, leading to errors in performance that a coach or instructor could have fixed quickly. But it also leads to better learning. Making errors in practice does NOT lead to learning to make errors! Making errors in practice leads to a higher probability of avoiding them on the course.
And that is also true with “physically-restricted guidance aids” – devices that are designed to restrict the amount of error that can occur in a movement. Results from motor learning research are quite clear that, in most cases, guided practice leads to very poor retention and transfer. Frequent and continuous use of a training aid (as with the golfer discussed at the beginning of this article) will boost performance in the short term, but these improvements do not to stick or transfer to play on the course.
But that does not mean that training aids are useless. In fact, they can be quite beneficial for learning. A training aid is just another source of augmented feedback (as discussed in the three previous articles). The main difference is that most sources of augmented feedback provide information after the swing; training aids provide information during the swing. Both provide information to the learner that (initially) is not understood from inherent feedback sources only. And when used sparingly, a training aid can help the learner to understand one’s own inherent feedback by highlighting specific information that can be felt, seen and/or heard.
Let’s use a very low-tech training aid as an example – two tees on either side of a ball to be putted. Using these tees can highlight many things to the golfer at once. You can feel, see and hear your putter hitting one of the tees if the face is not square at the point of ball contact. That information might not be obvious to the golfer without the tees, but becomes very salient once they are in place. So now the golfer makes adjustments to try to avoid contacting the tees and realizes something about how to correct a fault. Once the source of error is known however, the tees are no longer needed. In fact, continued use of the tees will become a detriment because the learner has now becoming dependent on the training aid to square the putter face. It is not surprising that a golfer will become discouraged when the putter face is no longer square out on the course. If this is true for very low-tech training aids, it will be likely be even more so for high-tech ones.
Like other forms of augmented feedback, training aids are useful to the degree that you learn from them, and detrimental to the degree that you become dependent on them.