InstructionNovember 28, 2015

You've been practicing golf all wrong, and there's science to prove it

Have you been to the range recently? If so, you probably adhered to the typical range pattern, starting with some wedges, working your way through your irons, before moving on to hybrids, fairway woods, and then driver.

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If you're like me, you probably hit a bunch of shots with a selected club and only agree to move on once you feel like you have that swing grooved. That's how a lot of golfers practice, and it's no different than musicians trying to master a difficult piece of music. Much like a golfer who will toil away at his 7-iron until he starts hitting it clean, a violinist, for instance, will repeat a certain passage of music until he or she feels they have it down pat. 

That's called a "blocked practice schedule," and it's the way a lot of us have gone about learning a variety of tasks. It's also woefully ineffective.

Dr. Christine Carter is a clarinetist who wrote her dissertation on "contextual interference effect." It's a method that she champions for musicians, and which she expounds upon in a recent post on bulletproofmusicians.com. Golf is never mentioned, and yet the thinking directly applies to the way we work on our games.

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As Carter writes, the problem with repetition is after a while our brains aren't as receptive, because what we really respond to more is change. We might feel like that 13th consecutive 7-iron felt pretty good, but we're still not learning it as effectively as we could. And unless you're playing a version of golf that requires you to hit 13 consecutive 7-irons, it's not applicable to a real golf situation.

"The fact is, repeated information does not receive the same amount of processing as new information," Carter said. "And on some level, we all know this. Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged."

Instead, what Carter advocates is called a "random practice schedule" where your brain has to constantly re-adapt. In music, it would mean bouncing around to different passages so you're constantly engaged. And in golf, it would mean different clubs: a driver, followed by a wedge, followed by a 7-iron. The goal is to still hit a bunch of one particular club, just not in a row -- which, of course, is how golf is played anyway.

"This challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective," Carter writes. "When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning."

Although Carter doesn't address golf, she does cite another sports example in which two sets of elite baseball players are thrown pitches in either a blocked pattern -- i.e. a bunch of fastballs, folllowed by a bunch of curves, followed by a bunch of sliders -- or a random pattern. The results were dramatic.

"After twelve practice sessions, the baseball players in the random practice schedule hit 57% more of the pitches than when they started. The blocked group only hit 25% more of the pitches, meaning that the random practice schedule was almost twice as effective, even though the two groups hit the same number of practice pitches."

So consider this an argument for scrapping your usual range routine. The next time, bring a bunch of clubs with you. And make sure you switch them out often.