What Actually Changes as a result of golf practice? Dr. Tim Lee's Introduction to Motor Learning in Golf, Part 3

Dr. Timothy D. Lee
  • Author: Dr. Timothy D. Lee
  • Motor Learning Expert
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In Part 1 of this series we introduced motor learning of golf skills as a type of “perceptual-sensory-motor-cognitive learning.” In Part 2, we defined learning as an internalized, relatively permanent improvement that results from practice. Here, in Part 3, we discuss motor learning at a deeper, conceptual level. We explore what actually changes as the result of practice.

As stated earlier, motor learning is not a process of ingraining something in “muscle memory.” Motor learning requires an improvement in the system responsible for movement control – the brain and central nervous system. Although researchers do not always agree on how that occurs, a highly-regarded theory for the control of discrete movements (brief, ballistic actions, such as the golf swing) is what Richard Schmidt described in his schema theory.

The Myth of Muscle Memory With Dr. Tim Lee | GLT Podcast Radio Season #2

The basic idea of the theory is as follows. Two flexible memory systems, 1) the generalized motor program, and 2) the movement schema, operate together to control a “class” of actions. Your handwriting, for example, would represent a class of actions – regardless of the medium on which you write (on paper, on whiteboard, in the sand on a beach, etc.) there are some fundamental similarities in the way you handwrite. The timing and shape of your hand movements are very individualized, yet stable and repeatable, and represent the features of the generalized motor program. How you actually produce the letters – be it with a pen, marker, or toe in the sand, and using your dominant or non-dominant arm or leg – represents the application of parameters supplied by the schema. The schema does not change the fundamental characteristics of the program, but instead allows the program to be performed in a variety of ways.

NOTE: Skip to 9 minutes & 30 seconds on the podcast above and Dr. Tim Lee goes into a lot of detail with the handwritting example.

Applying this theory to golf, the full swing would represent a single “class” of actions (the putting stroke might represent a different class.) The generalized motor program controls the basic features of the swing, such as the well-known rotational kinematic sequence (in which the occurrence of peak rotational speeds of the pelvis, thorax, arm and club occur in same sequence and time pattern during the swing.) The basic components of the program (in this case, the order and timing of the kinematic sequence) do not change from shot to shot. What changes from shot to shot is how the schema applies the parameters to the program in order to create shots of varying trajectory, force, and by using clubs of different characteristics, etc.

golf practice

Schema theory has two strong features. One is that memory is not overburdened by having to store many thousands of memories for all the possible different shots faced on the course. For example, a new program need not be learned for wedge shots, say, from 50, 75 and 100 yards. A single generalized motor program would be used for all three (and for shots in between and beyond,) with the schema memory system used to scale the distance of each shot. The second is that the theory allows for completely new shots to be improvised “on the spot.” The flexibility of the schema memory allows the program to be scaled in infinite ways, including for some shots that you may have never practiced before.

By this viewpoint, the motor learning process in golf is a matter of creating and refining these two memory systems so that: 1) the generalized motor program becomes a reliable basis for producing a repeatable golf swing, and 2) the schema becomes capable of producing accurate parameters for all possible applications of the program.

Over the next series of short articles, we intend to discuss how motor learning is involved in golf instruction, the factors that influence how the generalized motor program and schema are acquired and retained, and how these skills are transferred from the range to the course. Our focus will be on factors that lead to temporary changes in performance, and to contrast those with factors that encourage learning that sticks. Our goal is to provide golfers and instructors with knowledge about the scientific evidence underlying how real improvements result from practice. Ultimately, we are hoping that this knowledge will result in golfers and instructors making evidence-based decisions regarding effective and efficient practice choices.

We'll start with 'Making Practice Mentally Effortful'

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

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