When Does Learning Occur?

We all know the only way to get better at golf is to practice and play, but today we’re going to look at something few golfers think about – when exactly does learning occur? This sounds like a weird question, and it is, but it is important for how you practice at different times during the year.

What is learning?

Learning is defined as “a relatively permanent change in performance”. The key phrase is relatively permanent, hitting one pure drive 270 in practice doesn’t mean you’ve ‘learned’ that skill. Instead, learning is being able to repeat that shot 7-8 out of 10 attempts a week or a few months later.

Below is a basic graph we use to explain motor learning. Along the bottom, we have reps or time, up the y-axis, we have your performance level.

The blue phase is our practice time, if we’ve never performed the skill before we’ll see a sharp rise in our ability to perform a skill, followed by diminishing returns as we progress. If you are already a good golfer, you might see a slight rise in performance through your practice session, but this will be minimal. This is where most golfers stop and think – how did my practice go today?

However, the red phase is where things get interesting – this is what golfers should really focus on if they want to improve, but most don’t even know it exists. In the red zone, we have two key measures:

Retention – How well can you perform your practised skill 12, 24 hours, 1 day or 1 week after practice?

Transfer – How well can you perform your practised skill in a slightly different context or environment?

In golf terms, we can think of the graph above in the following scenario. You go to practice your diving at the driving range, as you only hit 3 fairways and lost 2 balls the last time you played golf…

You hit 40 balls at the range on Saturday, aiming between two markers that are 30 yards apart (blue phase in the graph). Next Saturday you head back to the range to hit another 40 balls at the range at your target fairway (red phase in the graph – retention). The following day you head onto the golf course and try to hit driver down the 1st hole of the golf course (red phase in the graph – transfer).

What we need to care about

Most golfers get very angry if they go to practice and perform badly, but this really doesn’t matter. The whole point of practice is to get better in the future, and most importantly, play well on the golf course (the red phase). We should care far less about practice performance and far more about retention and transfer.

What the science says

Although we need to see progress in practice over time, science tells us that great practice performance doesn’t always lead to the best retention and transfer of a skill. In some cases the opposite is true – more errors in practice can result in improved learning.

Here are three points to remember:

Errors in practice are useful

You actually need errors for learning to occur. This doesn’t mean you should aim to hit bad shots. Rather, set tasks that are challenging and result in errors. Succeeding 6-8 times out of 10 attempts is a good sweet spot to aim for.

You can read more about practice difficulty here.

Variability is a good thing for learning

Blasting 30 drivers in a row is far easier than hitting driver, 7-iron, driver, 7-iron… But countless studies have shown that this variability in practice results in better retention and transfer of skills. This is a classic case where more errors in practice result in better learning and is known as the contextual interference effect.

Make practice tasks similar to where you need to perform

Scroll back up to the graphic above. You’ll see that retention and transfer levels are both below the performance level reached in practice. This is consistently the case in all learning studies, and the greater the change between the practice task and the transfer task, the greater the drop-off in performance we see.

As a golfer, this means you need to ask yourself how similar your practice is to where you need to perform (the golf course). The more representative you can make your practice, the better your skill will transfer.

When does learning actually occur?

Great question and one I can’t fully answer. Some cognitive aspects of learning are developed during the practice session. The neural re-wiring that we associate with skill development occurs after practice, with sleep playing an important role.

The key point for you to remember is that the success of any practice session can’t actually be measured until the day after at a minimum.

Summary

This is a bit of a left-field article, but I hope you’ve found it interesting and that it gives you a different way to view practice and learning.

Try to hit the best shots you can every time you practice, but the key takeaways are i) to separate practice performance from the learning that might occur (bad shots often result in learning). ii) Ensure your practice has a good level of variability and challenge if you want to maximise learning, iii) think how you can make your practice sessions mirror where you wish to transfer your skill to, and iv) get some good sleep if you want to maximise learning from your practice.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider

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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.

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