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Motor Skills Training & Learning

"Do you hear that, Grasshopper?"


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.


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


See my webpage on the physical development of junior golfers and their training. In addition, these resources should be helpful:


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