Radical concepts for practice and learning
If you go to a typical practice range, even on the professional tours, what do you see? Generally, each player will be hitting the same club over and over with very little break in between shots. After several shots, they then select another club and repeat the process. Is this really the best way to practice?
The answer, surprisingly, is a resounding “no.” Motor learning research is quite clear on this; yet, it seems the message has not been delivered to even the best players in the world. Exactly what is the best way to practice and learn? This article will shed light on the issue, and undoubtedly challenge some long-held beliefs.
CONTINUOUS AND DISCRETE TASKS
We must first differentiate between two types of tasks, continuous and discrete. A continuous task is one where the action is, well, continuous, such as swimming, running, and wrestling. Discrete tasks involve a repetition of some sort, for a very short duration, and have a definite starting and stopping point. This would include pitching a baseball, bowling, and, of course, golf. Since golf is a discrete task, we will focus on the motor learning research that deals with discrete tasks.
MASSED VS. DISTRIBUTED PRACTICE
Massed practice can be defined as doing a task with few or no breaks involved while practicing.
Distributed practice’s most accepted definition is “practice interspersed with rest or other learning skill” (Burdick, 1977). Other definitions of distributed practice include resting periods that are greater in time than the activity period.
Most studies confirm that a distributed practice schedule is superior to a massed practice schedule for continuous activities, in terms of learning and later performance. Performance during a practice session is actually better for continuous activities under a massed schedule as compared to a distributed one, but that only applies during the practice session itself. In subsequent trials, those who practiced under a distributed schedule performed statistically better than those who practiced under a massed schedule.
Research on massed vs. distributed practice schedules for discrete activities is somewhat mixed, but we can draw some conclusions. One famous putting study by Dr. Teresa Dail involved one group hitting 240 putts in one day (massed schedule), and another hitting 60 putts per day for 4 days (distributed schedule). In subsequent putting trials 1, 7, and 28 days later, the distributed group had superior results as compared to the massed group.
better than massed practice?” For continuous activities, the answer is “yes,” but for discrete activities, the answer is…unclear. In fact, there are studies that suggest massed practice is better if a certain time frame is involved, such as 30 minutes at the driving range. However, since most people buy a certain number of range balls and may not be overly concerned with how much time it takes, a distributed schedule will probably work better than a massed one.
RANDOM VS. BLOCKED PRACTICE
Random practice in a discrete activity features a change from repetition to repetition, while blocked practice features doing the same thing repetitively. Research for both continuous and discrete tasks shows clearly that random practice is superior to blocked practice in terms of learning and later performance. However, blocked practice gives the best performance during the practice session itself.
These criteria apply to non-beginners, but what about beginners themselves? Research suggests that true beginners benefit more from blocked practice, and once they achieve a certain level of proficiency, should switch to a random practice schedule.
Other studies have been done with “randomized blocks,” where participants performed the same task 2-3 times and then switched. These studies indicate that practicing in this manner is not only just as effective, but perhaps even better, than in a true random fashion.
APPLICATION TO GOLF
Most golfers and teachers are of the mindset that over-and-over repetition (blocked practice) is best, along with continually hitting balls without much rest in between shots (massed practice). Yet, the research is quite clear, at least in terms of non-beginners: This is just about the worst way to practice!
It is common to see many golfers take their shag bag, dump out 30 balls, and chip them from the same spot to the same hole. Also common is to see someone on the range hit a bunch of wedges, followed by a bunch of short irons, then mid-irons, hybrids, etc.,
This seems to suggest that, given a set number of repetitions, a distributed schedule is better for discrete activities such as golf. The question then becomes, “Given a set time frame, is distributed practice still while not taking much time between shots. It doesn’t help matters that, when you go to a tour event, you see the best players in the world practicing in this manner…and they’re all practicing less than optimally!
Intuitively, most people think practicing in a massed/blocked manner is best, because it leads to the best practice performance. And, since most people believe practice performance is indicative of how effective a practice session is for future on-course performance, they naturally practice in this manner. Practicing in a distributed/random manner won’t lead to the best practice performance, but it does lead to the best learning, retention, and on-course performance.
What does this mean for practice sessions? Since randomized blocks work as well as or better than true random practice, we can start with this premise. On the range, we can use a club for 1-3 shots and then switch, taking a break in the meantime to introduce distributed practice. On the putting green, this means using 1, 2, or 3 balls. We can either hit all the balls to the same hole, or hit each of them to different targets (true random putting practice). By walking to retrieve them, we are using distributed practice. For short game practice, a maximum of three balls should be used, as in putting, but we can go a step further here. Assuming we use multiple clubs for short shots, we should switch clubs after hitting our maximum of three shots.
During a lesson scenario with true beginners, blocked practice is probably the best way to start. Have them get comfortable with one club, and when they seem to have developed a certain level of proficiency with it, switch to another. During a one-hour lesson, they may use only 2-3 clubs, but this is okay. For non- beginners, they need to switch clubs every three shots at most. We realize most lessons aren’t given this way, but hopefully by now we’ve made the case to do things differently.