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Big Ideas from Sports Psychology about Motor Skills Development

A Fresh Look at the Meaning of "Skill" in Putting

A "skill" is either an explicit or implicit knowledge in the golfer about what really works effectively in different putting contexts. A "skill" is not a movement "competency" by itself, but more of an awareness of how the movement is made in context. A straight stroke movement on a flat surface is not the same as the movement when the surface tilts down away from the golfer and this is not the same when the surface tilts up away from the golfer and this is not the same when the putt runs uphill or downhill. Reading putts on Bermuda grass and reading putts on bent grass often seem to rely upon entirely distinct skills, and many golfers who grow up on bent grass simply have lifelong trouble reading putts on Bermuda (e.g., Phil Mickelson). But in actuality, the same skills are involved -- the trouble is that the golfer who trains on bent grass with implicit learning does not have an explicit awareness of the underlying perceptual skills in reading any putt, or at least a clear understanding of these skills. In general, skills in putting are either perceptual or movement skills, and these skills are built upon certain realities of physics, equipment, the playing surface, and human anatomy and phsyiology. Implicit learning is piece-meal engagement with the important perceptual or movement processes or with the underlying realities, and is very hit-or-miss. The end result of implicit learning is very context specific (e.g., bent greens only) and does not lead to true skills that transfer to different situations and conditions. Consequently, the golfer who desires to master the art and science of putting needs to have an explicit understanding of the important processes of perception and movement and their underlying foundational realities. Yes, it is a good idea to make certain movements "automatic" in the putting stroke, but this overlooks the conscious processes of perception building during a targeting routine and during the setup routine that are key to success. The absence of these conscious processes explains how casual putting leads to indifferent results. Some aspects of the total action in putting may become more or less automatic, but other aspects never do, and these aspects are of greater importance to the outcome than the degree to which a movement competency is or is not "automatic."

The Danger of Drills

The danger with drills is that they are designed to produce movements rather than to train specific skills. The mere repetition of movements does not train skills. For example, putting balls to a far fringe over and over from one spot does not train the golfer about touch or distance control. All it accomplishes is to familiarize the golfer with this one distance on this green in its then-existing playing condition. That by itself is not utterly insignificant, but it is not at all substantial in terms of training a general skill that transfers effectively to successful performance in many different situations or conditions. The trick to drills is that the golfer needs to understand what about the drill is effective to accomplish the training. Short putting, for example, is mostly about the routine -- viewing the surface for break, visualizing the path of the rolling ball with appropriate speed, committing to a starting line, focusing back on the speed or touch, and then excuting a straight putt. Drills that have the golfer sink dozens of short putts over and over -- without the full routine -- encourage a false sense of skills competence.

While it is true that these mindless repetitions bolster "confidence" when facing similar putts on the course, this sort of "confidence" is really the absence of worry or doubt (the absence of a negative), and not the true sort of confidence that comes from knowing what really works best (the presence of positive skills). Regardless of how you view the relative advantages of implicit versus explicit learning, implicit learning does not really take place with isolated repetitions of a single aspect of the larger problem of making a putt or even making a specific sort of putt. Isolated movements repeated without the context of the total action do not train skills. Knowing what about the drill helps the golfer to learn the skill for execution in different contexts trains skills. DRILLS are for SKILLS.

The "Science" of Putting Aids for Practice

  • British Psychological Society - Get in the Hole! Study of effectiveness of putting audio and viodeo tapes as training aids

    Putting training aids present a consort of visual and physical cues that "pollute" the performing of the task with hidden helpers. The basic idea that repetition alone matters, so that these implicit helpers don't really hurt, is illogical and wrong. A putting mat with rectilinear borders is simply "bad" for learning how to aim the putter face on a real green surface without visually avaliable rectilinear borders. The fact that the putting mat always presents a putt of the same length over the same condition surface is "bad" for training touch that can handle different length putts on different speed greens over different contours and slopes. On the other hand, the standard putting mat works well to train a square setup and a straight stroke out of a square setup. But even here, the presence of the visual cues from the borders of the mat give too much "help" to the golfer visually in getting the body square to the putt, when this sort of help is not available on the course. Similarly, a "stroke track" has rails that show the golfer whether the putter motion looks correct or not, and this detracts from the golfer paying attention to the feelings of the motion and also to how the putter "looks" in relation to the line of the toes or some other actually-present cues. Some training aids actually encourage paying attention to incorrect visual or physical cues or produce movement patterns artificially while hiding the mechanism and preventing the golfer experiencing the correct motion feelings (e.g., the Putting Arc, which trains golfers to look at an arc on the ground and move the putter along this arc, when the correct motion is generated by a motion of the shoulders, arms, and hands in a single plane and the putterhead arcing motion is merely apparent and no more than a result of the straight motion; also, the support of the heel of the putter against the surface of the Putting Arc aid artificially keeps the putter moving on the curve but not by virtue of the correct movement of the golfer, hence providing an illusion of motor memory or at best a superficial and fragile motor memory.)

    The golfer needs to use only those visual and physical cues that are actually available during play (legally) when he trains his skills. otherwise, the presence of "helper" cues in the training aid will detract from using the available cues and depress skills development. Feedback generated by the hidden assistance of helper cues that are not available during play is similar to "candy," in that it tastes sweet but is not good for you. Manufacturers of training aids invariably want the golfer to see performance improvement, and the repetitive use of almost ANY training aid will produce some temporary benefit. The real question remains whether the use of the training aid promotes or deters the golfer from harkening to the relevant performance cues actually present during play (whether visual or physical) and responding appropriately to these cues, whether implicitly or explicitly.

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Updated Monday, July 7, 2008 6:12 AM


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