Motor Learning & Golf

Motor learning is the study of how we learn movements. Understanding some simple motor learning concepts can accelerate the rate at which you improve you golf game. It can also help you understand how to make swing changes more effectively. In this article we will whizz through some basic concepts of motor learning and look at how they can be applied to your golf game.

Muscle memory and the history of motor learning

Historically, motor learning theories popularised the idea of the brain learning and storing ‘motor programs’ for future use (see Schema Theory). One such motor program might be used for hitting a driver, another for putting and so on. This helped to develop the confusing term ‘muscle memory’ – the idea that via practicing the same movement over and over that movement became engrained in our muscles.

I must point out, the theory always stated that this ‘muscle memory’ was stored in your brain, within long-term memory, but the confusion surrounding ‘muscle memory’ led many players and coaches to think your muscles themselves learned the movement.

As motor learning research progressed more and more evidence stacked up against the idea of general motor programs and Schema Theory. For example, why does varied practice lead to better learning than blocked practice? Why do movements vary from day to day and swing to swing? How do elite golfers vary a one ‘motor program’ to hit putts of different lengths or iron shots with different trajectories?

It is fair to say that this approach has fallen out of favour with modern science.

Modern motor learning

More modern approaches in motor control are still a little abstract, but they are more accurate in explaining how we control movements and learn golf.

The following sections introduce you to some key motor learning concepts and (hopefully) show you how they can be applied to your practice.

Constraints theory

constraints theory model showing task, individual and environmental factors and their effect on the movement produced.

Constraints theory does a great job of explaining the movement we see. It also forms a foundation of great coaching. On the left of the picture we have three key factors that dictate the movement we will produce: the individual, the task and the environment.

Imagine you (the individual), hitting a driver (task), on the golf range (environment) we will see an awesome driver swing produced (I’m sure of that). The theory states that if one, or more, of these factors changes just a tiny bit, the golf swing produced will also change. You could become more fatigued during practice, or have a new swing thought, you could move the skill onto the golf course with water lining the fairway – every change will result in a slightly different set of constraints and slightly different golf swing being produced.

Applying constraints theory to your golf

In coaching we often use this knowledge to our advantage. If we want to encourage an in-to-out swing path we put an obstacle just outside the golf ball, or we may introduce a golf training aid. These are two simple examples of changing the task constraints during practice to help change a player’s movement.

constraints theory golf showing the addition of an obstacle

The key message is that you can frequently tweak practice constraints to help change your technique and speed up learning.

If you need to shorten your putting backswing, then practice on a quick, downhill putt – it is far easier to engrain this new movement in this setting, than on a slow, uphill putt. If you want to lower your driving ball flight, practice into a head wind. If you want to stop slicing your driver, create skills games that punish you for missing right. All of the above are simple ways to encourage a different movement pattern.

A great coach should combine the technical changes you need to make, with a simple set of constraints to help you make that swing change effectively. As you repeatedly practice under a set of constraints, that movement pattern becomes more engrained and more dominant next time you perform the task.

Key take away tips

  1. Adapt your practice constraints to help make technical changes quickly and effectively.
  2. Your golf swing is going to change from the driving range to the golf course. Use the golf range to get some good repetitions, but the only way to learn to play great golf is to play on a golf course, and where possible under some pressure.

Degrees of freedom

motor learning and golf degrees of freedom.

A very clever man called Nikolai Bernstein first considered this approach in the 1930s and 1940s. He realised one big challenge with producing refined movement is how we control all of the possible degrees of freedom. When swinging a golf club we have to control ~600 muscles working across ~200 joints.

That should make you feel better if you are currently struggling with your golf game. A key challenge is understanding how we control all of these degrees of freedom at once. Bernstein proposed that to begin with we freeze unwanted degrees of freedom – picture how rigid most beginner golfers look. This simplifies the process of controlling movement.

As we improve, we free up more joints and muscles to help us perform, making the action appear more fluid. As we become advanced, we actually find multiple ways of performing the same action. We see advance players can vary their stance, backswing, grip and can still find coordinated ways to hit the ball out the centre of the club and straight.

Applying degrees of freedom theory to your golf

So how does this help you? Well a key findings from the research in golf and other sports is this – Elite players have many different solutions for hitting great golf shots.

Players may have a dominant swing, but they also have many subtle variations they also use to hit great golf shots. Once you have the basic movement of a golf swing, you may benefit from exploring ways you can adapt that swing to achieve great results. This gives you a more adaptable and robust golf swing to play with.

Key take away tips

  1. Controlling ~ 600 muscles across ~ 200 joints is tough, never feel bad when you hit an errant golf shot.
  2. Enjoy playing around with different golf swings, chipping actions and ways to hit great golf shots. Most players have a dominant movement, but practicing variations can be really helpful in your development.
  3. If you like point two you can steal the following phrase – ‘practice is repetition without repetition’. I’ll let you think about that one.

Internal model

motor learning and golf image explaining how motor and sensory commands are sent up to and down from the brain.

Our last theory of learning is quite modern, and strongly supported by our understanding of how the central nervous system works. An internal model approach views us as one big, walking, problem-solving machine. Lots of parts of the brain and spinal cord are involved, but we’re not going to dive into that neuroscience today. Below is the important part for your golf game.

As we get ready to play a golf shot, we take in lots of information via our senses – locating our target, the distance, the wind, the lie of the golf ball. Our brain delves into its memory to work out how best to solve this problem – what do we commonly do in this situation and does it work. It then does two things:

Firstly, it sends a motor command to our body to begin the golf swing (blue arrow in main pic) At the same time it creates a copy of what it thinks the golf swing should feel like if we perform it correctly and stores this in our brain (efferent copy – blue arrow in caption box).

As we begin our golf swing, sensory information starts to pour back in from our muscles, finger tips and vision (red arrow in main pic). This sensory information is then compared to our prediction of what we thought a great golf swing should feel like (see bottom of caption box). If the two signals match up, they are cancelled out and the golf swing feels effortless.

If the two signals are different, the brain sends a command to update and adapt the golf swing (right side of caption box) and the cycle continues. This process happens tens, possibly hundreds of times a second and we are oblivious to it.

The brain is constantly controlling movement, predicting what it should feel like and using sensory information to refine our golf swing. That may help explain that moment of panic, half-way in your downswing, when you know this is going to be a bad shot…

Applying internal model theory to your golf

I personally find this approach very interesting. It tells any player that they not only need to be able to produce a great golf swing, but they also need to know what it will feel like. As I coach I know this pain. Trying to teach a beginner what it feels like to strike down through their iron shots, or helping a slicers feel the correct grip and left wrist position through impact to square up their club face is so tough.

Understanding what the movement should feel like is half the battle in changing your golf swing.

Key take away tips

  1. Find drills and ways of practicing that give you the feelings of the golf swing change you want to make.
  2. Use practice swings during practice and before shots to fine tune how you think a great swing, putt or chip shot should feel. This will help you execution.

Motor learning and golf – Summary

Knowing these motor learning theories doesn’t instantly make you a better golfer. But I have found that through 10 years of learning and teaching these theories, I am far more efficient with my own practice and when coaching others.

I agree with the notion that there is no perfect golf swing. Instead, elite golfers are fine-tuned, problem solving machines. Elite players really understand the information they take in and can plan the ideal shot for nearly any situation. They have many different variations of their golf swing that can be deployed in that situation. Once they begin swinging, they are really in-tune with how that golf swing will feel.

This isn’t your standard list of characterises used to describe what makes an elite player, but I hope it makes you think about your own golfing journey – thanks for reading.

If you would like an article like this one emailed to you every Monday, come join the golf insider weekly post.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

2 thoughts on “Motor Learning & Golf”

  1. Thanks for helping bury muscle memory theories.

    So much of my early golf training was end of process training — “get a flat wrist and hold on for dear life!” I wasn’t told how to get a flat wrist; how it should feel, or why it was necessary; but if I could manage a flat wrist over 1,000 times, I would have obtained the required muscle memory to easily reach my next level. As you well know I didn’t reach any new levels. My muscles didn’t remember anything.

    My example of repetition without repetition involves Gary Player. The story goes: Once during a practice round with a new caddy, the caddy suggested a 7 iron based upon his club distance card, Player chastised him and proceeded to hit every club in his bag 150 yards. Player said the choice of club depends on many variables. This was an example of skill defeating mechanics.

    • Fine comment Alex,

      I very much doubt this will be the last of ‘muscle memory’ but hopefully this article is helpful for anyone who wishes to learn more.

      I hope the golf is going well.



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