Learning golf – The key factor to optimise in practice

Besides practice volume there is one variable that affects your rate of learning more than any other. That variable is feedback. Most golfers and golf coaches think they understand feedback when it comes to learning golf, but I don’t think they do.

I’ve researched and lectured motor learning for the past eight years at university and I will happily tell students – I don’t fully understand how to optimise feedback, but I do know it is critical to learning. In this article I want to give you an understanding of feedback in a golfing sense, and show you ways to develop your feedback mechanisms in practice to accelerate your learning.

It’s complicated,  its taken me a few hours to put this together and I will be the first to admit it’s not perfect. However, I hope you take way some useful thoughts and points to improve your golf over the coming weeks, months and years.

What is feedback?

Most golfers and coaches think feedback is a coach saying “You’re a little out-to-in on that swing, try to keep you right elbow tucked in”. However, this form of feedback makes up less than 0.1% of feedback you process when learning golf.

In reality you are swimming in an ocean of feedback every time you attempt to hit a golf ball. We can break feedback down into two broad categories.

  1. Knowledge of performance
  2. Knowledge of results

Knowledge of performance

Knowledge of performance includes any feedback on how you performed your golf swing – it is feedback about how you moved. A large proportion of this comes in via proprioception – an awareness of where your limbs and body are in space. 

You also get pressure and touch sensation (cutaneous feedback) from your hands and feet. Your feet give you information about your contact with the ground – the ground reaction forces you generate and centre of pressure during your golf swing. This feedback is surprisingly important for controlling what happens during your downswing. 

An even more critical chunk of cutaneous feedback comes from your hands and their contact with the golf club. This provides you with an understanding of how the golf club is orientated and moving during your golf swing. It becomes critical in assessing your strike as you move past impact. That feeling of a flushed iron shot versus a horrible, thin, heel strike.

If you want to know how important cutaneous feedback is to golfing performance just try making a minor grip change. The grip change causes a change in cutaneous feedback, which is the key reason golfers dislike making grip changes. Their whole swing feels completely different, however in reality, very little has changed – just their feedback.

We then need to add on your visual system to of this growing mountain of feedback. You may very well argue vision isn’t much use for a static golf swing. However, have you ever tried hitting a golf ball with your eyes closed??

Lastly, we have your hearing  that provides feedback on club speed, ball speed and strike, and the vestibular system that provides information on balance. I don’t think the importance of balance needs much explaining for performing a successful golf swing. 

Hopefully by now you can understand why I described learning golf as swimming in an ocean of feedback. One last critical chunk to add on.

Knowledge of result

Knowledge results is feedback you received about your shot outcome.  How successful was the shot? Historically this would come entirely from your vision – where did my little white golf ball end up. However, we will see that technology has really changed the game. 

At a deeper level we can break down knowledge of result into two sections 1) The ball flight phase (length, height, curvature) 2) The end result – where did the ball finish in relation to your target. 

Despite me summing up knowledge of results in two paragraphs, I can’t over-state its importance in getting better at golf.

Understanding all this feedback

What you will hopefully now realise is that you were not aware of all this feedback that you consume during and after every golf shot. It is a highly subconscious process.

Do you consume your feedback, or does your feedback consume you? We will see how important managing your feedback is in the following sections

Every time you hit a golf shot all of this is going on and your body is trying to make sense of it to update what your next golf swing should look and feel like – this is the hidden process of learning.

Refining how you use feedback is a critical factor in speeding up your learning, no matter what your current ability.

Why is feedback so important when learning golf?

As soon as your body can’t make sense of this feedback or the feedback isn’t precise enough learning will stop – end of discussion.

Let’s take some extreme examples to make sense of this.

Imagine you hit a golf ball towards a flag positioned 150 yards away, but the millisecond that impact occurs the golf ball vanishes. What would you do on your next swing?

Or imagine you see an elite golfer hit a perfectly straight shot on the range, but you didn’t see her swing, feel what she felt, or hear the sound of her strike. How would you replicate the result?

Both of these are extreme examples of cutting out all knowledge of result and knowledge of performance. Although we are never entirely blinded to feedback. Most golfers practice in a way that they only get fuzzy, half clear pictures.

By changing how you practice you can make the right pieces of feedback clearer and speed up your learning. It also tends to make practice more fun!

Golf Insider comment: Sorry for writing such a long, boring section above. I just feel that now I understand what is going on with feedback I’m far better at managing my own practice and development. If you can improve your understanding of feedback (both in your golf swing and the results) you will speed up your rate and be far smarter with how you practice. Below we move onto some more actionable points. 

Golf learning – The elephant in the room

A fundamental reason golfers stop getting better is because they can’t make sense of their feedback. Many beginners will have no idea what a proper strike with a golf iron should feel like. As such, how should they know the difference between a good and a bad swing.

Golf Insider impact drill: One of my all time favourite drills is to take a 7-iron at home and find a door way or protruding wall corner. With no back swing, press into the side of the door frame and try to apply force into the door frame. You’ll magically move into a great impact position, but also gain the feeling of a descending (pros) strike.

Many slicers of the golf ball can see that their golf ball is slicing, but they have no understanding of how their swing should feel to square up their club face hit a straight shot. 

Golf Insider draw drill: On the range, take your normal set up, then step your back foot back 6-inches. Next twist the club face 5-degrees closed and re-apply your grip. Making some swings from this position is not a perfect golf swing, but will allow you to see and feel a draw shot.

Optimal feedback structures for you to learn golf 

If I could succinctly answer this question I would be a very wealthy man. Instead, here are my thoughts and ideas that I have come to so far.

It is worth remembering most of your feedback is processed unconsciously. The practice ideas below are aimed to make key pieces of feedback more visible to you and to block out other redundant pieces of feedback.

Changing your swing mechanics

Changing your golf swing is hard for many reasons. However, structuring your feedback effectively will really speed up this process.

You need to find a way to get clear feedback on your golf swing (knowledge of performance). You also need to understand how your golf swing affects your ball flight (knowledge of results).

Let us tackle them in turn.

Once you know the swing principle you need to work on then you can try to get feedback directly on that swing principle. This can be done via videoing your golf swing, getting feedback from a coach, or finding a useful golf training aid.

Another approach is to gain feedback about your impact. For example, strategically placing constraints (bottles, balls or alignment sticks) can provide information on swing path.

Drawing a dot on your ball with a marker pen can give you more precise information about strike location than your feel alone. 

I know these are all simple ideas, but these are the critical reasons golfers get stuck when trying to change their golf swing. The feedback isn’t clear enough, therefore the body has no idea how to adapt its next attempt. 

Golf Insider beginner tip: As a beginner golfer you are overwhelmed with feedback. Your aim is to cut out as much noise as possible and dial in on how well you hit the centre of the club face. For iron shots, place a tee under the golf ball if you practice on grass, or just in front of the the golf ball when you are on the range. Aim to hit the tee as you swing through and hit the golf ball.  If the tee doesn’t move you didn’t produce a centred strike at impact. Read this link for more details on the swing mechanics. As you progress your ball striking, put a little black dot on the golf ball and hit five golf shots. This will leave marks on your club face and give you more precise feedback on where you are striking your golf shots.

Golf drills are all about breaking down the golf swing into parts and focusing you towards specific parts of feedback.  There is an endless list that of golf drills for different swing changes, I’m afraid, I can’t cover them all here. Just have feedback in mind when you consider what swing drills you should choose and use.

When to remove ball flight (knowledge of performance)

There are a few stages to effectively changing your golf swing. You can read more about how to practice to change your technique here

If you are making a tough swing change and you know you are going to hit the ball terribly, then temporarily get rid of your ball flight (knowledge of result). Seeing bad shot after bad shot can really slow down your ability to engrain a swing change. Your subconscious doesn’t want to make the change as the result is sees isn’t effective. 

Start with dry swings (no golf ball practice swings) and use a mirror. This focuses your attention entirely towards your knowledge of performance.

Progress to hitting balls in a golf net. Again, this reduces the poor outcome feedback and allows you to focus on your swing change with a golf ball. Then you must finally move to practicing on the range and the golf course, this link will give you some ideas how to master each form of practice. 

When to use ball flight 

In most other swing changes being able to make links between what you did (knowledge of performance) and the result (knowledge of results) is the critical linchpin in your learning. 

As a golf pro and coach, I’ve got an unfair advantage in practice. I’ve got a pretty sound understanding of my golf swing and how it links to producing  my ball flight.

If you wish to keep getting better at golf you need to be able to make sense of feedback. You need to be able to link what you did (knowledge of performance) to the ball flight and outcome (knowledge of results).

How?

Ideally you find a great local golf pro who can help you build your golf swing, but also educate you on the golf swing mechanics and ball flight.

If not, then these articles on how to be your own golf coach and geeky golf tips are my attempts to help golfers better understand your ball flight and swing. 

Either way, you will then have to hit many golf balls exploring the links. I believe this link is something that can only be learned via a lot of practice. 

Becoming elite – the issue with feedback

When you develop a relatively sound golf swing and ability to hit the golf ball, a new issue emerges. Your knowledge of results (shot outcome) stops providing you with enough precision to refine your next swing – learning stops.

I believe this is a big reason why many good players plateau and stop getting better at golf despite much practice volume. 

If your body doesn’t know if your wedge shot travelled 103 or 105 yards how will it adapt and learn to get the next shot closer? It becomes important you know if your iron shot was 3 or 5 yards right of your target. 

There are some really simple ways to make your knowledge or results more vivid. 

Use small targets in practice

I love getting pros to play highly challenging skills games. These skill games can be built for your long game, for chipping and putting practice.

The aim of ridiculously small targets (the last stage of Will’s range challenge for a pro is to hit a post a 200-yards), is not necessarily for them to complete the task, but to get them really focused on their knowledge of results (shot outcome).

The small targets helps them become very aware of shots that miss by a yard or two. They are focused on this feedback and trying to get rid of this error.

One of the reasons I feel I became a very good putter was due to a stupidly difficult putting drill. I stumbled into practicing this way, but it provided such great feedback on my putting stroke and shot outcome. 

Check your shot dispersion 

Most golfers have little idea that their distance control is terrible. The golf range doesn’t give a golf great feedback on distance control. When you can fit in some practice on the golf course or on a grass range. Hit 5 – 10 shots and check the scattering of your shots. You’ll soon gain valuable feedback.

Golf notebook golf practice routine
The Golf Insider Performance Diary allows you to track your shot dispersion and better understand your distance control and lateral error.

Technology and feedback

We have now entered a modern era of Trackman and all sorts of home launch monitors for sale. Are they useful? Yes – they will never provide a magic cure, you still need to know how to practice and swing, but at an elite level they have provided golfers more precise feedback on their swing and shot outcome than ever before.

When used correctly they can prevent a golfer getting lost in a sea of swing thoughts (feedback) and allow them to focus on one or two key numbers. Unfortunately, they are not always used in this way.

Feedback and learning golf – Summary

I hope this article has made you think about feedback and how you practice golf. I hope it has also given you some actionable points to use in your practice. To summarise:

  • Practice in a way that highlights the important pieces of feedback.
  • When changing your golf swing know when to remove ball flight to accelerate the process.
  • Become excellent at understanding feedback – how does your swing link to ball flight.
  • Make practice targets small and look at shot dispersion to improve your knowledge of results and speed up learning.

Feel free to ask me any questions and share this with a golfing friend, it really helps me grow this site.

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Happy Golfing – Will @ Golf Insider