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Junior Training

Child / Adolescent Development and Motor Skills Training

In reply to a request from Tim Sheredy, Assistant Director, David Leadbetter Golf Academy, Bradenton Florida

Dear Tim,

In response to your question, I am replying 1) in general about child development, especially neurological and motor development; 2) psychological and brain-based theories of learning and education, especially as they relate to the nurturing of motor skills expertise; 3) what my neurophysiological studies of putting suggest are the key skills to inculcate in your golfers; and 4) an integrated plan of instruction that is tailored to the child's stage of development and existing skill level. Or, in other words, theory and then application.


Brain research indicates these points as important for trainers of child athletes:

  • Brains develop extremely rapidly in the embryonic stages, when the raw neural structure of the brain and its many components takes shape, but without the rich connections to come.
  • Just after birth, experiential stimuli guide the development of connecting up the basic neural patterns of the brain.
  • Neurological development is an ongoing and simultaneous proliferation of neural connections and a pruning away of unused connections that is mostly but not totally completed before about age 10;
  • There are distinct stages of neural development prenatally, post-natally, during the first year, from ages 1 to 3, from 3 to 5, from 5 to 10, early puberty, late adolescence at the end of puberty, full adulthood, and ageing adulthood.
  • Girls mature at a different pace and in differing ways than boys, in general.
  • At some stages of childhood, the brain has more connections than it does later in adulthood, but not all of these survive the pruning process.
  • The brain is especially suited in childhood for learning a great deal and this is mostly a biochemical and structural property of brain development at this time.
  • Childhood emotional development is not very even, due to the role of growth hormones at this early stage, so that emotional control and socialization skills really don't get settled until late puberty, but there are two platueas -- one around 10 or 11, and another around 18 to 20.
  • Absent abnormal neurological conditions, most children have established good motor control and coordination by about age 10, although the growth spurt at puberty causes some awkwardness of movement control.

General neuroscience resources that might interest you are:

The stages of child development in terms of neurology and developmental psychology are fairly well defined. The central figure in child developmental psychology is Jean Piaget. Most theories of early childhood learning and development view Piaget's ideas as central, and then qualify or expand those ideas.

One of the principal investigators of early childhood neurological development is Dr. Peter Huttenlocher in Chicago. His studies of the growth of brain connections in early childhood have rather convincingly proved that programs like Head Start offer interventions very late in the process, and that better educational planning would focus upon the first three years of life. Early Childhood is typically considered to span the years 1 to 5. These years see the foundational development that largely determines latter functioning. Other stages of childhood development are less critical but still important for various milestones. One scheme of the stages based mainly of developmental psychology is Infancy (0-11 months), Early Childhood (1-4 years), Middle Childhood (5-10 years), and Adolescence (11 to 21 years).

Developmental Milestones:


Infancy (1-3):

Early Childhood / Preschool (4-5):

Middle Childhood (6-8):

Late Childhood / Pre-adolescence (9-12) :

Teenage Years / Adolescence:

Some typical developmental diagnostic and therapy tools that are available to the pyschology profession include:

Most of these are for early development, where felicitous adaptation is more problematic.

Physical development in terms of basic neurology, musculoskeletal tissues, and motor coordination and development proceeds from basic survival-related core behaviors (e.g., reaching, grasping, rolling, sitting up, swallowing, looking) to more stimuli-related elaborations of behaviors (e.g., following the flight of a bird, knowing when an object that moves out of sight will reappear, intuitive notions of gravity) to more fully developed expressions of physical control (e.g., walking, running, throwing, catching).


Most theories of learning come from the Education field of universities, and this is a serious limitation because these theories are usually jargon-bound and light on sound theoretical bases in child neurological development and cognitive theory. In the past two decades or so, however, coincident with the great advances in neuroscience, child educational theories and general learning theories have become meatier and more pragmatic as they have gained a firmer foundation in developmental and congnitive science. Theories of learning today are based largely upon the neuroscience of development, cognition, and memory.

Standard sports psychology approaches to developing motor competence and expertise can be seen in:

There are a half dozen or so current main theories of learning and education or training, out of several dozen distinct theories:

Some of these theories focus upon early childhood development:

Most learning theories are concerned with general educational settings (elementary through secondary school):

Some learning theory focuses upon special aspects of development. Key to golf skills would be motor development, perceptual control and spatial awareness.

A few theories focus upon brain development and modular functioning to enhance learning:

A deep repository of neurodevelopmental knowledge resides in the area of education for developmentally challenged children. The study of brain deficits as they affect learning teaches volumes about how the normal brain is wired for learning and about effective approaches to brain-based education. Dr Mel Levine at the University of North Carolina is a leader in this field:

And the area known as Sensory Integration among Occupational Therapists offers neurorehabilitative services for developmental deficits in children:

The Sensory Integration studies make a very clear connection between the neurophysiological development of movement capacities and more general cognitive and intellectual development. My sense of the evolutionary hieracrhy in neurodevelopment suggests that this is an important point for educational theory.

Some of the best, most practical information comes from military and industrial training:

Generally, traditional sports science treats the "motor skill" as the basic unit of learning. Golf putting, for example, is considered a "closed skill" whereas hockey puck passing is considered an "open" skill. This approach is outdated, if not to say sophomoric. In the neuroscience of sports, the essential unit of study is "action." Action is the integrated sequence of perceptions and movement in the context of environmental stimuli and behavioral objectives. This approach places motor control planning in its proper functional context, and incidentally eliminates a lot of vague and senseless claptrap about how motor control actually happens. This approach also respects the modularity of mind and how the separate modules for perception, cognition, emotion, intention, attention, and movement are interrelated.

Sports science speaks of "muscle memory" but the phrase is utterly unknown to neuroscience. This gap between sports science and the real processes of the brain and body infects most of golf science from the 1970s onward. The "action" of putting is only partially a matter of engrained patterns of movement. It is also a process that must be regenerated in each instance, that is conditioned and influenced by habitual patterns of movement from other contexts, and that is critically dependent upon cognitive and emotional components on each occasion. Modern learning theories take account of this cooperative mixture of motor, cognitive, and psychological aspects of sports "action."

For similar reasons, the rudimentary notion of "feedback" so prominent in the 1970s in authors like Dave Pelz is equally limited and limiting. Typically, "feedback" in putting is treated as little other than objectification of the physical aspects of a putting stroke -- putterface tape to see whether you are hitting the ball with the "sweetspot" of the putterface; a stroke "track" to "engrain" the "muscle memory" of a supposedly ideal stroke movement; and a "laser" putter to determine whether the golfer can successfully align the putterface to a target. This is a stunted notion of "feedback" that ill-serves the process of learning the "action" of putting. For example, in the action of putting, most of the process of aiming the putterface is simply not taught today by anyone. The laser putter simply shows a result from however the aiming is performed. By the same token, while it is true that "sweetspot" contact is important, it cannot be separated out artificially from the action of putting. Today's "feedback" tape hardly teaches the optimal way to make stroke impact in combination with sound biomechanics or to promote sound biomechanics that also enhance the targeting process. And obviously the "stroke track" is not integrally related to setup and biomechanics and aiming at a target, and hence is mostly useless if not an influence that harms optimal performance.

The time course for mastering an expertise domain usually begins with cognitive instruction (lecture, explanation, study) and then progresses to physical demonstration and emulation (demonstrating, mentoring, exploration, experimentation). Once the action is sufficiently comprehended and the student equipped with appropriate practice behaviors for mastering the skill, skill development shifts from the cognitive arena to the physical. (This is mirrored in brain imaging studies of what areas oif the brain are active during the learning curve, showing that thinking and analysis of the left hemispehere is heavily active in the early stages of learning but subsides as the skill becomes more physical and active in the motor control areas -- so that the brain becomes much more efficient at controlling the action.) At this time there are different instructional patterns to promote speed and efficiency of learning as well as the consolidation and transferability of learning to novel contexts. At each stage of the learning process (cognitive, physical, and practice), the instructor may take advantage of the theories of instruction. For example, the "active learning" theory emphasizes the value of individual students exploring suggestions about the proper way to perform the skill. Another theory emphasizes the consolidative value of one student assuming the role of the teacher or mentor to another student. Learner-ceneterd theories emphasize the characteristic preferred modes of learning of the individual (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Theories based upon brain processes emphasize those brain modules that are key to the specific skill, such as spatial analysis for targeting skills and proprioceptive and kinesthetic modules for movement skills. A well-designed mixtures of approaches within the overall pattern of the learning curve for a specific individual is probably best.

Other important principles of instruction are:

  • Signpost frequently
  • Control group questions during lecture / demonstrations
  • Repeat main ideas and points
  • Time sessions for daily cycles of sleeping and eating to maximize energy and attention
  • Encourage imaginative experimentation
  • Encourage peer mentoring in organized contexts
  • Use peer evaluations and suggestions for improvement
  • Consolidate lessons with main-point handouts
  • Use mnemonic aids for key rules (NOT "never up, never in" but something like "high and slow, not short and low")
  • Encourage reading of historical materials for golf traditions and anecdotes
  • Consider assigning students to report on different aspects of putting (heel-toe weighting, greens preparations, etc.)
  • Use frequent evaluations and one-on-one discussions to insure that material is being digested
  • Follow-up main lessons on day one with brief reminders on day two to consolidate sleep-based learning processes


The fundamental neurophysiological "skills" for putting action are:

  • Motor movement and anticipation timing
  • Motor coordination and rhythm
  • Balance and Equilibrium
  • Gaze Control
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Proprioceptive and Kinesthetic Awareness
  • Spatial Perception and Analysis

The more important cognitive skills are:

  • Experiential knowledge of ball-grass interactions
  • Intuitive sense of physics for putter-ball impact
  • Intuitive sense of ball-gravity interactions in breaking putts and uphill-downhill putts
  • Function and value of the routine
  • Rudimentary biomechanics principles
  • Visualization, mental practice, mental simulation, imagination
  • Mental state monitoring
  • Importance of Lag Putting
  • A handfull of "Rules" about putting

The more important psychological skills are:

  • Attention control
  • Focus / Distractability
  • Concentration
  • Arousal / Relaxation Control
  • Perspective / Frustration Management
  • Emotional control

Beyond these, some additional skills have more to do with mind-body integration. Currently, these mind-body integration techniques seem to be comprised of a heterogeneous collection of skills from different approaches. Some of the more prominent approaches include:

  • Self-talk
  • Positivity / Confidence
  • Purposeful self-delusion
  • Self-hypnosis
  • Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)
  • Meditation
  • Abdomenal Breathing
  • Benson's Relaxation Technique
  • Mindfulness
  • Movement / Posture Control Techniques
  • Yoga
  • Tai-chi
  • Akido
  • Music
  • Neurofeedback / Biofeedback

Each of these skills in the above categories requires separate attention in an instructional program. Especially problematic for kids are all of the cognitive and psychological skills. In my experience, however, the soundest approach to improving these skills lies through teaching the neurophysiological skills. In effect, the cognitive and psychological skills are subservient to the neurophysiological skills, and mastering the latter brings about the subordinate mastery of the lesser skills. For example, teaching control of the gaze is really what makes for good attention control. With attention comes concentration and focus. These skills allow superior neruophysiological performance with perception and movement, so gaze control engenders good targeting and stroke behavior. Tempo and sense of timing work essentially the same way. Once this pattern of mastering the neurophysiological skills is established with the young golfer, the necessity of arousal and emotional control become apparent and desirable. It's all downhill from there. The cognitive, psychological, and mind-body techniques fall naturally into the learning pattern.


Assuming that most DLGA students are in the 13-18 age range, then these kids have already displayed superior motor coordination skills in the process that "selects" them out from the general population for attendance at the DLGA. The main task at this stage is to lay the foundation for a permanent process of excellent putting action. That is, the kids should be taught the principles of accurate perceptions and movement control in an overall "routine" for the total action, with the other subordinate skills being incorporated into the basic "action" model. The end result is a procedure that the golfer believes is the best they are capable of performing to give every putt its best chance of sinking or stopping close, and one that becomes steadily sharper over time. Also, the golfer should so understand the basic physical principles of rolling a ball straight across the green to a target that he or she is able to diagnose developing flaws and to critically appraise the suggestions of others.

Month One

  • Overview lecturing
  • Dominant eye sighting
  • Gaze control
  • Targeting cues
  • Anchoring target cues
  • Controlling movements (walking, head turns, etc) for targeting
  • Tempo consistency
  • Basic setup and biomechanics for a straight stroke out of a square setup
  • Primacy of distance control
  • Basic routine (targeting, setup, stroke)

Month Two

  • Dead hands
  • Relaxation breathing
  • Tempo and stroke length
  • Core putt for touch
  • Targeting plus tempo with touch for distance control
  • Optimal drop speed

Month Three

  • Short putts targeting routine
  • Short putt games
  • Short putt visualizations
  • Putterface alignment
  • Short putt setup orientations
  • Goal setting
  • Shoulder stroke feelings
  • Straight stroke out of setup no matter what

Month Four

  • Lag putting targeting and tempo
  • Controlling drop speed from different distances
  • Putterface sweetspot - ball sweetspot orientation
  • A straight start away from the ball
  • Straight stroke feelings
  • Ball position
  • Achieving putterface verticality at the bottom of the stroke before impact

Month Five

  • Long putts -- high and slow
  • Square alignment / joints parallel left
  • Startline visual cues
  • Focus and Distractability
  • Competitive putting games (Ryder Cup, etc.)

Month Six

  • Reading greens and putts
  • Breaking putts elements
  • Short breaking putts
  • Long breaking putts
  • Double breaking putts
  • Min-Max and ZBL targeting breaking putts
  • Break point versus breakoff point
  • Breaking putts as "ball above/below feet"

Month Seven

  • Short putt goals
  • Long putt goals
  • Professional level putting standards
  • Putting practice guidelines
  • Pre-round warmup routine for touch and tempo and brain state
  • Relationship of putting to other parts of game and to scoring
  • Putting arousal and emotional composure

Month Eight

  • Integration of routine for targeting and stroke
  • Putting psychology
  • Managing brain states for effective putting
  • Stroke separated from targeting - putterface & straight stroke
  • Mental composure and physical composure
  • Monitoring putting cues in the routine
  • Confidence that the routine is being effectively carried out
  • Personal goals for competitive play

Month Nine

  • Thoughtless putting
  • Dominance of the green
  • Every putt is a one or at worst two, so why not one putt
  • Sink any putt
  • Sink every putt
  • Never hurried, never worried
  • Steadily improve

Some specific problems that one would anticipate for this age group include:

  • Emotional volubility due to hormones and development stages
  • Difficulty calming down to a more optimal brain state for targeting and movement control
  • Keeping the overall notions of how practice is building putting expertise in mind, so that learning feedback is more meaningful
  • Avoiding personality conflicts that detract from instructional content or impair motivation to participate in the programs
  • Growth spurts around puberty
  • Variable sleep patterns that interfere with attention and energy
  • Variable eating habits that interfere with cognitive abilities, attention, energy, and general health
  • Gender-related physical cycles
  • Individual students progressing at different paces compared to others in same peer group
  • Cultural conditioning that does not promote rectilinear perceptions

Specific advantageous opportunities I would anticipate include:

  • Cultural diversity - celebrate the opportunities that eastern mind management traditions offer for putting
  • Youthful enthusiasm for learning and competing
  • Willingness to accept authority and guidance

For general principles of optimizing or enhancing human performance, these additional resources may be of interest:

I realize all the above must seem disjointed and overly complicated, but I know you are a sponge of knowledge and your mission at the DLGA is undoubtedly one you wish to carry out with the highest degree of effectiveness you can muster. In that spirit, I hope to suggest to you that the unique parameters of the Academy presents a valuable opportunity to bring to bear the highest arts in instructional theory with the highest arts in putting knowledge. I believe that an educational psychologist would likely agree with the overview I've outlined here, but you have to go beyond the basics of educational theory to application of theory in the task of teaching golf (and specifically putting). I believe that requires a careful analysis of the elements that promote optimal putting or golf, and then creating the instructional program around that content. I ask that you view the above as something of a rough outline of how to attack the task, and not at all as a detailed battle plan. I know from principles of effective training that real lesson plans and objectives are much more detailed and specific. If you would like to pursue any of this in greater detail, please know that I stand more than willing to lend whatever talents I may have in that endeavor.



Addendum 9-12-04

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