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Research Inspires a Fresh Approach to Learning

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November 16, 2011
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February 3, 2012

New Research Inspires a Fresh Approach to Learning

Recently a summit for the Top 100 Teachers by Golf Magazine took place in Orlando to share new ideas on learning, teaching and coaching. I was honored to be in attendance and enjoyed the two days of interactive discussions. One of the keynote speakers was the renowned research psychologist, Dr. Robert Bjork, of the UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab. No, he didn’t teach me how to “forget” those missed shots even though that would be nice! His presentation was entitled, “How we learn and practice vs. how we think we learn and should practice.” Dr. Bjork’s conclusions have inspired me to change my approach toward player development by increasing the interval aspect during a learning and development session. With this newly understood awareness, my mind began to recall some of my favorite learning experiences with Arnold Palmer, how he taught me how to practice like a pro. I also have a few favorite lessons taught to me by friends of mine from the PGA Tour that never fail to be successful with every client I share them with.

This blog will touch on Dr. Bjork’s study conclusions and my thoughts on how you can increase your golf training experience by applying a different approach to your practice.

Varying the Conditions of Practice by Dr. Robert Bjork

When instruction occurs under conditions that are constrained and predictable, learning tends to become contextualized. Material is easily retrieved in that context, but the learning does not support later performance if tested at a delay, in a different context, or both. In contrast, varying conditions of practice—even varying the environmental setting in which study sessions take place—can enhance recall on a later test. For example, studying the same material in two different rooms rather than twice in the same room leads to increased recall of that material (Smith, Glenberg, & Bjork, 1978)—an empirical result that flies in the face of the common howto-study suggestion to find a quiet, convenient place and do all your studying there. Interleaving versus Blocking Instruction

Interleaving the practice of separate topics or tasks is an excellent way to introduce spacing and other learning dynamics. The skills literature includes many replications of the pattern that blocked practice appears optimal for learning, but interleaved practice actually results in superior long-term retention and transfer of skills, and research illustrates that learners—as well as instructors—are at risk of being fooled by that pattern. Other results illustrate that the benefits of interleaved practice extend beyondthe learning of motor skills. More recently and surprisingly, we have found that interleaving even enhances inductive learning (Kornell & Bjork, 2008).

Concluding Comments

For those of you who are students, we hope we have convinced you to take a more active role in your learning by introducing desirable difficulties into your own study activities. Above all, try to rid yourself of the idea that memory works like a tape or video recorder and that re-exposing yourself to the same material over and over again will somehow write it onto your memory. Rather, assume that learning requires an active process of interpretation—that is, mapping new things we are trying to learn onto what we already know. (There’s a lesson here for those of you who are teachers—or parents—as well: Consider how you might introduce desirable difficulties into the teaching of your students or children.) Be aware, too, when rereading a chapter or your notes, that prior exposures create a sense of familiarity that can easily be confused with under-standing. And perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that retrieval—much more than restudying—acts to modify your memory by making the information you practice retrieving more likely to be recallable again in the future and in different contexts. In short, try to spend less time on the input side and more time on the output side, such as summarizing what you have read from memory or getting together with friends and asking each other questions. Any activities that involve testing yourself—that is, activities that require you to retrieve or generate information, rather than just representing information to yourself—will make your learning both more durable and flexible. Finally, we cannot overstate the importance of learning how to manage your own learning activities. In a world that is ever more complex and rapidly changing, and in which learning on one’s own is becoming ever more important, learning how to learn is the ultimate survival tool.

Bob Proctor of The Pro’s Secret, has stated for decades that memorization is not the same as learning just as Bjork mentions above. I have four short, albeit valuable stories to share. They all center on the ability to recall and execute perfect shots under the greatest of pressure. Based on what Dr. Bjork has shared, what may have tipped their performance beyond their peers could be credited to their unique approach to practice.

Scott Hoch (21 PGA Tour Victories, AKA: The ATM Machine)—Pitching Ladder Drill

Back in 1992, Scott was practicing solo at Bay Hill Club. Every pitch shot he hit was going a different distance in progressions of five yard increments. I joined him on the range and he was happy to share with me, what he called the ladder drill. “I begin with a 20 yard pitch and then progress adding five yards as my new target until I reach fifty yards. Then I come back down the ladder with the goal to land the balls on top of the one I hit before,” explained Scott. Before every shot he began behind the ball, walked in and then executed. “Why don’t you hit more than one shot from the same spot”, I asked. He replied, “Because you don’t play golf that way and I want to practice like I play. Plus, the other way is just boring.”

I have used a version of Scott’s Ladder Drill ever since for my own practice and have incorporated it into sessions with students. Every shot has a purpose and changes in feel, target and shape.

Ian Baker Finch (1991 British Open Champion)—Up & In Down Under

While playing on the Australasian Tour in the late 1980s, my neighbor at Sanctuary Cove Resort was Touring Professional Ian Baker-Finch. When we were both in town, Finchie (as his friends refer to him), would give me a shout out inviting me to a sundown dual around the practice green that was my back yard. His game of choice was a single ball, wedge and putter, winner of the hole chooses the next shot from anywhere around the green and letting your imagination run wild was encouraged! There were no gimmies, just like the basketball game HORSE. Ian is a master of the short game, a wizard with a wand in his hands. I learned so much during those Queensland evenings—you must prepare for ALL possible lies around a green.

Harvey Penick—“I wish you would practice putting like Ben.”

This familiar quote was advice given to another of Penick’s famous pupils, Tom Kite. Ben Crenshaw would take one ball to the putting green and only one. He would proceed to practice for hours; creating competitions to beat his personal best score around an eighteen and often a thirty six-hole loop. Meanwhile, what was Tom doing? The opposite. He was standing in one spot, hitting to the same hole with multiple golf balls.
Arnold Palmer—Master’s Preparation.

I share this excerpt from Lesson 28, in my latest book, Mentored by the King. It is my favorite lesson with the King of Golf and opens with a conversation in Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe office:
“I have to say that one of my most memorable occasions with you was the week before Augusta, observing you prepare for the Masters Tournament. I recall us being on the Academy end of the practice range at Bay Hill, and your intensity and enthusiasm were so different than any other practice I had observed.

“The best was when you said to me, ‘What shot would you like to see me play?’ I thought to myself, How cool is this that I’m going to get to play Augusta National through Arnold Palmer’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. I said to you, ‘Okay, let me see your tee shot off the first hole during the final round.’ Immediately I saw you transformed with a youthful and confident enthusiasm. To hear you illustrate the nuances of the shot you were about to execute, it was almost like you were there at Augusta on the first hole on that final day. How real was that visualization practice for you?”

A serious look came across his face. “It was very real,” he replied. “I could imagine myself being there as close as my memory could recall with full color, feels, and even the smells, for that matter. My fond memories of Augusta National and especially the Masters week are so revered and emotionally powerful to me. I can remember the details of things that happened forty years ago as crystal clear, as if it all just occurred.”

I’ve been around hundreds of excellent competitive golfers and played professionally myself for many years. Yet I had never seen such loving intensity and focus with each practice ball struck. Each one struck had its importance tattooed firmly with a spirit of the King’s persistence and determination.

“When did you begin to practice like this during your playing career, and how often would you practice like this before a tournament?” I asked. “Was this unique for Augusta, or did you have this similar intensity for every event?”

“Well, let me think a moment,” he said. “I learned to plan my work from Byron Nelson. He wrote about it in his book, and as a boy I read about it and began to apply the practice of playing the course in my mind before every important round. As I became more seasoned and had played the circuit for a few years, the ability to remember certain nuances of the greens and hole layouts and certain pin placements that the Tournament would seem to select for certain days of the event became very predictable. Especially Augusta. I know where the Thursday through Sunday pins will be, and so do the other guys that have played in the event. So when I see these shots in my mind, I am confident that these are the correct shots to execute for each round of the event.”

I wondered whether it was important to remember or ponder his missed shots. “We know you have a library of great shots and moments. What about the poor shots and failures? Do you keep inventory of these as well?”

“Oh, I suppose,” he admitted, “but certainly I don’t dwell on them. Whenever I didn’t execute on the shot that I wanted, this would usually fire me up to work on that certain shot so that I knew, when I faced a similar shot again, I was ready to execute correctly and with confidence the next time around. I will also add that I never spent much time worrying or being concerned about the shots I missed. Rather I got my head wrapped around doing it right and put it to task again as soon as I could, with nothing but great expectations.”

These are examples of how a few of the greatest players do things in a certain way that made their preparation more purposeful and real so it could be recalled during competition, just as it was rehearsed in practice.

Since the Summit, I put into action what Dr. Bjork brought to my attention. Every student thoroughly enjoyed this interval learning experience. One student, Ray Fontaine, said, “I now feel better able to apply these shots during my round with greater confidence.”

A traditional golf lesson, utilizes the block learning process, as I did. It’s the way we learn in school and is based on conditioning recall through repetition. Thanks greatly to Dr. Bjork’s research and teachings I have learned that the best way to condition a long lasting, deeper recall is through interval learning.

What can you expect? To create shot making skills that transfer to the golf course with greater confidence during competition because you are better prepared for any shot or situation. It doesn’t matter if you are a new player or seasoned tour player, we are always striving to be and do better.

Until next time, happy golfing!

Brad Brewer

A Top 100 Teacher by Golf Magazine and PGA class-A Professional, Brad successfully competed on the Austral-Asian PGA Tour and Hogan/Nike Tours, developed the training curriculum for high-performance juniors at Saddlebrooke Preparatory and applies these experiences to his teaching and coaching at Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando. Brad was awarded the North Florida PGA Teacher of the Year and Junior Golf Leader of the Year, Edwin Watts Golf Top Instructor Award, along with the honor of Top 50 Instructor in Florida by Golf Digest.

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