How Sports Science Works for Your Game

Four disciplines make up the body of human performance science… that related to how golf should be taught.

Bio-mechanics… a simple way to understand this field is to compare how the bones and the muscles act to create a lever system that works in much the same way as a construction crane. Muscles shorten or lengthen. When this happens, bones move. Bones don’t go just anywhere. They are forced to move in the direction of the muscle acting on the bone. If we put our bodies in certain positions we can move with more speed, power and accuracy. If we get into a less favorable position we slow down, are weaker and less accurate.

To a golfer, this means there are “correct” things you can do to create speed, accuracy and power and there are “wrong” things you can do to make things much harder. Putting your body in a bio-mechanically efficient posture at address creates the possibility for a “natural”, “free-flowing” swing motion. The word natural can be closely related to the idea of not having to “try”. Believe it or not, it’s much easier to make a good swing than it is to make a bad swing.

Kinesiology … add the physiology the human nervous system to the physical work of the bones and muscles in order to understand the general idea of kinesiology. Generally, kinesiology is the more complete understanding of biomechanical problems about “how it works”. Questions such as “What can I do to get stronger, faster or more skilled?” can be answered.

Motor Learning … this is the science of practice and establishing the necessary conditions for both learning and performance. There are laws that dictate how we should practice. Sometimes practice can be more destructive than constructive. Yes, sometimes it’s better to go home and pop a cold one rather than beating more balls on the driving range. Motor learning teaches coaches and instructors how to maximize the learning for “individual athletes”. Because all golfers are ultimately their own coach, it only makes sense to “know the rules”. A lot of time, effort and frustration can be saved. It has been said that all learning is trial and error. This is obviously true for golf. In fact, mistakes are absolutely necessary for learning. You can’t know “right” without also knowing “wrong”. Nothing, except ignorance, forces you stay at the same skill level or to constantly make big mistakes. The general benefit of following a few laws of motor learning is that you can systematically reduce both the number and size of your mistakes.

A golf pro doesn’t have to be a motor learning scientist, but s/he should have a decent background in how humans learn sports skills. Line up a hundred pros and you count the ones who have basic teaching/coaching skill. There’s a big difference between being able to play and being able to teach. The mechanics of a good golf swing are pretty easy to understand. The PGA doesn’t put much emphasis on good teaching in it’s apprentice program. Most of the emphasis is placed on marketing and operations. The saying “see your local PGA pro is generally good advice, but it isn’t the final answer. Here’s a list of things that would help a typical pro be a better teacher…

Motor Control Theories

  1. How proprioception affects motor control
  2. How vision affects motor control

Classification and Measurement of motor skills

  1. Measuring coordination
  2. Characteristics of complex skill
  3. Speed v Accuracy… obvious implications for length of the backswing, balance and timing

Stages of Learning Fitts and Posner

  1. Cognitive
  2. Associative
  3. Autonomous

Whole/Part Practice

  1. How to practice parts of the skill
  2. Attention and part practice

Attention and Memory

  1. Focus… relates to pre-swing routine and ability to switch attention from one demand to another
  2. Movement and memory… the “muscle memory” thing

Instruction and Augmented Feedback

  1. Learning styles… verbal/cognitive, kinesthetic and visual
  2. Demonstration vs. verbal instruction
  3. Difference between Feedback (FB and Knowledge of the Results (KR)
  4. Role of AF in skill acquisition
  5. Timing issues related to AF…KR delay and post KR interval
  6. Frequency schedules for AF information…

Practice Conditions

  1. Blocked v variable practice… when and with whom
  2. Interference effect
  3. Amount and distribution of practice
  4. Learning, overlearning and mastery
  5. Massed v distributed practice; length of practice

Mental Practice

  1. MP as it aids skill acquisition
  2. MP as it aids performance
  3. Basis for MP effectiveness
  4. Imagery… visualization and kinesthetic rehearsal

Learning Motor Skills

  1. Performance vs. learning
  2. Observational assessment… looking at performance as related to specific points of performance and statistical analysis
  3. Practice performance assessment… mechanical assessment related to variability from standard model

Transfer Design for Learning

  1. Why does positive transfer occur
  2. Bilateral transfer

Sports Psychology… Platform diving is about the only sport with more destructive consequences for “stinking thinking” than golf. Have your head in the wrong place and just jump off a ten meter platform. The resulting belly buster will alert you to the need for having your head in the game. The same goes for golf. Golf is a difficult sport because the first opponent you face is you own self. Every time you draw back the club, you are competing against yourself before you ever compete against a golf course or opponent. Golf brings out some of the best and worst behavior in sports. All experienced golfers have known the frustration of working like a mule on the driving range only to fall apart like a cheap suit during competition.

Each discipline has contributed to what we know about golf and how it can and should be played. Video and computer technology have become standard equipment for many teaching professionals.