Sunday, January 06, 2008

Motor Skills Learning for Putting and Training Aids

On my Flatstick Forum recently, a visitor asked about the usefulness of a laser putter for learning putting aiming skills that apply during on-course play. This question raises the dual issues of effective motor skills learning and the use of putting training aids for effective motor skills learning that transfers from practice to play. He wrote:

"The laser gizmo will certainly confirm his problem, but how will it actually remedy it?

I suppose it will give him an idea how badly his alignment is biased, but after that what good is the thing?"

The Argon Putter from 3L Golf:

The issue is always what good is a training aid? Or phrased differently, is this specific training aid something that a golfer can use to learn something about how to putt on the course in a good way of learning, and if so, how?

The general principle is: so long as the golfer is "deliberately" focused upon the "skill" or a subcomponent of the skill for the task of putting a ball into the cup, any training aid can be a useful learning tool but only to the extent it helps the golfer understand and experience the nature of performing the skill effectively and consistently.

For example: the baseboard along a wall. What does it teach about the stroke and how does the golfer use it to learn?

Setting up parallel to the wall with the putter toe just off the baseboard, the baseboard teaches how to avoid making a stroke across / beyond the line from ball to target -- that is, what sort of physical motion works for that, and what sort doesn't. The baseboard also teaches how to make a thru-stroke that hews to the target line thru and a little past impact, without the toe separating from the baseboard but retaining its starting gap off the baseboard thru impact -- that is, what sort of physical movement works for that dynamic and what doesn't.

Implied in this is a dynamic or physical pattern that is desirable to learn, and either explicit instruction about the physical movement that accomplishes this pattern or the golfer's trying to discern the explicit "know-how" independently, without the benefit of instruction. In so many words, it is the golfer's job when using a training aid to "suck the know-how for the physical motion out of the use of the aid."

Know-how is not good enough if it is merely implicit and the golfer cannot discuss and explain at least to himself or herself what the movement should be and how to perform it and why a certain physical motion is preferable to other possible choices.

A laser aid in putting used as above works this way for teaching explicit know-how that carries over to play on the course:

The golfer receives instruction that this combination of postures, gaze, and head-face motion generates accurate perceptions from beside the ball about where in objective reality the putter face is aiming at some distance across the green. The golfer tries to perform this and identifies what he or she thinks is the accurate spot across the green where a putter face is aiming. Then the golfer turns on the laser to find out objectively whether the trial assessment of the putter face aim was objectively correct or off to the left or right, and if so, how far off. (This is standard "immediate feedback in the form of knowledge of results or KR" in the lingo of the psychology of learning). The stimulus is the putter face, the response is the assessment of where it aims, and the KR is right or wrong and if wrong how so.

At this point, the golfer's job is to "figure out" why the result (KR) was what it was. If the KR says the golfer's assessment of aim and the laser agree, that may or may not indicate that the recommended procedure is sound and was correctly performed. It may just indicate that the golfer did something other than what was recommended but just got lucky. A KR of "correct assessment, golfer and laser agree" will not, however, occur if the recommended procedure was correctly performed but the procedure was not a good one or a sound manner for generating an objectively accurate assessment. KR of "wrong assessment, objective reality of putter face aim from laser does not agree with golfer's assessment" causes the golfer to question whether he or she correctly performed the recommended procedure.

So the golfer uses KR of "correct" to confirm the soundness of the recommended procedure in the first instance and later to "reinforce" correct application or performance of the recommended procedure; the golfer uses KR of "incorrect" as a prompt to self-diagnose with the trial performance still fresh in memory what flawed application of the procedure might account for the exact KR (why was the assessment off left, a lot .. right, just a bit, etc).

If the golfer understands "what works and why", then the golfer understands "what works" as the recommended procedure, and the "why" this works accurately is know-how at a deeper level about the body in space. So when the golfer tries to ascertain the "cause" or the "why" of the exact KR indicating something wasn't performed correctly, he or she needs to apply the know-how about the cause-and-effect soundness of the procedure.

In the case of aim assessment beside the ball, the "what works and why" takes the form: "what works" is the recommended procedure to set up to the putter face as aimed and match the throat line and eye line and skull line to the aim line of the putter face; face the ball and look where the face aims; swivel the head-face like an apple on a stick to run the line of sight straight down the same line the putter aims; and use the straight gaze that points where the face aims to identify the exact spot at the end of this line of sight as the spot where the putter face objectively, actually aims. It also includes the "why" this procedure works as golfer know-how: unless the golfer's face aims straight at the target line and ball, a simple head swivel cannot as a matter of geometry run the line of sight down the line of putter face aim and some sort of idiosyncratic combination of face aim, eye direction change and head turn other than a simple swivel is required and this combination is elusive to describe and repeat and self-monitor for consistency.

Armed with this "what works and why", the golfer receiving KR of "incorrect" performance of the recommended procedure examines the fresh memory as to whether the setup matched the putter face aim, whether the face aimed at the target line, whether the head turn was a simple axial swivel, and whether the end-of-line assessment utilized the correct aspect of the visual field to "see" where the face and gaze aimed at the end of the head turn. While it is possible that more than one of these subcomponents went awry, it is more common for only one subcomponent per incorrect KR trial (in the main at least) to go awry and the reexamination of the fresh memory for diagnosis that explains the KR can identify this "why".

The golfer comes by this recommended procedure either by independent exploration of the issue or from a teacher. The golfer comes by the "why" this works either by independent investigation and analysis or by a combination of the teacher explaining the "why" explicitly accompanied by the golfer exploring the explanation and confirming the soundness of the procedure and the explanation ("what works and why").

Ideally, this "know-how" all ought to be in place before trying to use the laser to solidify performance. Then the effective use of the training aid is: apply the know-how in a trial assessment of putter face aim and then turn on the laser for immediate KR and then in the case of KR of "incorrect" performance assess what went awry, make the correction in the performance in another trial, and again use the laser to confirm or deny that the second corrective worked.

What the golfer "sucks out of" the training aid's use is "knowledge of performance" or KP, but that is only possible assuming the golfer knows in advance "what works and why". "A final distinction that can be made is between knowledge of results and knowledge of performance: the former refers to how well one did at executing a task in terms of the outcome of the action; the latter refers to the action or movement pattern involved in the skill (e.g., "your elbow was bent when you tried to hit the ball")." (page 50).

So what about the situation in which the golfer does NOT have "know-how", but tries to use the training aid to gain the know-how?

First of all, poor golf instructors encourage the use of training aids WITHOUT having the golfer "suck the know-how" out of the experience! This is typical of golf instruction that derives from the 1970s and 1980s notion of using "correct feedback" in a rote and mindless repetition to "groove the move" and make it mindlessly automatic and by-pass any need for conscious awareness of "what works and why." These 70s-style instructors often say things like "perfect practice makes perfect performance" and rote repetitive use of a training aid that provides feedback about perfect practice will "groove the move" at an unconscious automatic level. Uh, this is not a sound and correct understanding of motor learning, folks.

The motor learning research and literature distinguishes between KR and KP AND says that rote reliance upon KR is NOT a sound way to learn. I guess you'd have to actually read a motor learning book to know this as a golf instructor.

Here's one such book golf instructors might want to read: Daniel Druckman and Robert A. Bjork, eds., Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Human Performance (Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council) (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994). This book surveys the research and literature of motor learning for human performance and describes what the research says works effectively to enhance human performance and what does not. Try this conclusion: "A surprising general finding from research on the importance of feedback [KR] to ultimate performance is THAT IT RARELY HELPS AND SOMETIMES ACTUALLY HURTS LONG-TERM LEARNING." (page 50) (emphasis added).

They summarize research on this point as follows:

"Most research on feedback has looked at the effectiveness of knowledge of results [KR]. Schmidt (1988) provides a thorough review of much of the literature pertaining to motor learning. An interesting finding from his laboratory is that if the feedback on results is provided after each trial, IMMEDIATE [practice] PERFORMANCE is better than when only summary performance is given every 15 trials [delayed, intermittent, summary KR]; however, long-term or ultimate learning is facilitated by giving ONLY SUMMARY FEEDBACK intermittently such as after 15 trials."

This is because the golfer needs to extract the "general principle" or "what works and why" about the KP at an abstract, explicit level from engagement with the KR in order for the learning / practice to be useful and effective ("to transfer" in the lingo) during real performance situations. This in turn is because real situations are variable and not identical to the practice situation. Learning the practice situation in a rote repetition manner creates a "crutch" effect and changing the situation materially removes the training crutch and leaves the golfer without the supposed benefit of "perfect practice" during varying situations on the course. The consensus of motor learning research for "transfer" from practice to performance is simply stated: "A general principle seems to be that identical elements are necessary" for rote KR-based practice to transfer into effective performance during play. (page 36). What this really means is that the practice must teach recognition in play of the relevant cues for performance response. "Mastery of a task requires learning the pool of relevant stimulus cues, learning to perform the response repertoire, and learning THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CUE CONTEXT AND THE RESPONSES." (page 48) (emphasis added). To be optimally effective, the "relationship" knowledge takes the form of explicit know-how in the sense of abstract generalization of the reason the cue is relevant to the response.

Practice with a training device most likely includes "irrelevant" cues or stimuli, such as the look and metal rails of a stroke track. Grooving a move by rote use of a stroke track as always insisted upon by Pelz and almost every one else in the training aids business trains the golfer to irrelevant stimuli / cues and makes the performance dependent upon the presence of these cues in the manner of an addiction. "An important conclusion from this research is that once automatic responses are attained to a stimulus set [eg, training aid device with specific cues, some if not most of which are irrelevant in comparison to available on-course performance cues], changes in even part of that set will substantially disrupt performance. If lengthy training leads to automatic responses to task irrelevant stimuli, which are not similarly linked to those responses in the transfer context [ie, on the course], transfer performance will be impaired [ie, on-course putting will sort of suck]." (page 49).

To help avoid this addictive crutch effect, the training device should be designed or its actual manner of practice use taught so as to provide "cueing potential" for real-world cues. "In order to execute the appropriate actions [in play], a person needs to be able to recognize the cue in the target task [play situation] as the same cue that was used for training." (page 55). Abstract principles as to the "relationship between the cue context and the responses" allows for this recognition of relevant cues in play even when the practice situation includes irrelevant cues.

"An explanation for the lack of long-term benefit from error feedback [immediate KR of the "incorrect" sort] was suggested by Miller (1953), who realized that offering feedback concurrent with doing a task might serve as a crutch. When the feedback is removed during performance, those trained with the feedback are at a disadvantage. Goldstein and Rittenhouse (1954) provided some of the first evidence that concurrent feedback (as opposed to summary information at a delay) produces short-term gains but no long-term benefits. One should not conclude that it is optimal to deprive the learner of any knowledge of results [KR]; rather, feedback should not provide too much information too soon." (pages 50-51).

Since the elements (situational cues) in the practice are not identical to the relevant cues in play situations, transfer critically depends upon "abstract" know-how about "what works and why". Surveying the research on "The Role of Abstract Concepts and Rules", Druckman and Bjork conclude: "The studies provide strong support for the benefits of abstract instruction, but it is important to emphasize that abstract instruction in the absence of concrete examples rarely results in transfer." (page 39). "Although concrete experience is critically important, the teaching of abstract principles has been shown to play a role in acquiring skills over a broad domain of tasks [ie, useful in a wide array of situations during play]. Somewhat surprisingly, giving immediate and constant feedback may fail to optimize performance; delayed and intermittent feedback [of the KR sort] may produce superior results because it allows learners to detect and self-correct errors and it diminishes reliance on extrinsic sources [ie, training device with irrelevant cues]." (page 56).

These "abstract principles" relating the cues and the target or movement response are gained either by a good instructor / coach who can explain and teach them effectively or by the learner "digging them out of the earth" as Ben Hogan worked to solve his duck-hook ballstriking plague. After Hogan had spent years on the range "digging it out of the dirt", he was asked "what's the secret" and he responded: "You have to know how to do it." He did NOT say: just go to the range and practice perfect movement; he said he had to derive the "know-how" in an abstract way so he understood "what works and why". This is an example of a golfer gaining the abstract knowledge of "what works and why" the hard way. The easy way is IF a good instructor can just explain it to the golfer, now, without the agony of wasted years trying to figure it out on your own.

With all due respect, almost all golf instructors are stuck on this "rote repetition" notion of effective motor skills learning. This is not a good thing. The mere fact that it is now the 21st century ought to prompt golf instructors to at least revisit the issue of effective motor learning to see what the real experts are now saying, but apparently golf instructors in general have been content simply to echo what was current in the 1970s without critical analysis and even though this 1970s stuff wasn't even an accurate understanding of effective motor skills learning at the time, but was a watered down ("dumbed down") and ineffective garbling of sound teaching even then.

So, setting aside these "rote repetition grooves the move" golf instructors, how does the golfer "suck the know-how out of a training situation" (whether a driving range, a stroke track, a laser, or another situation)? Fundamentally, the golfer has to pay attention to KP or knowledge of performance and constantly look for cause-and-effect relationship between relevant cues, certain performance strategies and the results [KR]. Out of this exploration, the golfer independently extracts "invariants" in an abstract form of cause-and-effect principles so he or she understands and can self-explain and / or teach others "what works and why".

You are correct that mindless "use" of the laser does not effectively teach much that transfers to on-course play, but incorrect to dismiss use of such a training device IF used in conjunction with a good golf instructor or at least with the general idea of "sucking the know-how" for movement of the body out of the training aid's use.

Aside from all this, a laser line projecting straight off a putter face, in and of itself, is form of "intrinsic" cueing (as opposed to feedback about an action or trial), and has some benefit is familiarizing the golfer with the "look and feel" of setting up to a target line and gaining a more physical awareness of what the body relationship to the target line should be during setup, aiming, and stoke. Obviously, this is an "irrelevant cue" in the sense of not being available during play, but the golfer can abstract the know-how of assessing his physical relationship to the target line and apply the knowledge during play using "relevant" (i.e., "situationally present") cues, such as looking at the aim line on the putter head and imagining it extending straight off the face in the same way then laser line did during practice.

In conclusion, all training aids include irrelevant cues the golfer needs to be aware of and filter out while extracting the abstract know-how from using the training aid about the relationship between the relevant cues, KR, and KP or what to do with the body to get the desired result using the on-course situational cues. A good teacher does that and is good at helping that process. Technology per se encourages poor learning and poor instructors don't stack up against good instructors who know some important things about motor skills teaching and learning. As a consequence of the history of golf instruction especially for putting since about 1970, the world is vastly overcrowded with golfers who have yet to engage in sound learning of the important skills for putting, including the Tour exemplars everyone seems to believe have the skills down cold. They don't. In general, the Tour pros and a few hard-core others are casting about trying to figure things out, hoping to hit on something effective even if only short-term, and end up mostly following what others validate, which is a learning style not significantly better than the herding instinct to move to the middle of the herd for safety.

Further research:

Adams JA. A closed-loop theory of motor learning. Journal of Motor Behavior (1971), 3:111-150.

Adams JA. Historical review and appraisal of research on the learning, retention, and transfer of human motor skills. Psychol Bull. (1987), 101:41-74.

Amorose, A.J., & Smith, P. J. K. Feedback as a source of physical competence information: effects of age, experience and type of feedback. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2003), 25(3), 341-359.

Christina RW. Motor learning: future lines of research. In: Safrit MJ, Eckert HM, eds. The Cutting Edge in Physical Education and Exercise Science Research (Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics Publishers Inc. 1987), 26-41.

Joseph, Daniel P., The Effects of Augmented Verbal Information Feedback in the Motor Skill Learning of Totally Blind Subjects Fourteen to Twenty-one Years of Age (microfiche Nov. 1985) (This study examined the effects of Knowledge of Results, Knowledge of Performance and a combination of the two in the learning of a novel motor task by totally blind subjects. Thirty-three totally blind subjects tossed a velcro ball dart at a target while receiving augmented verbal information feedback. Each subject completed three learning sessions and one retention session, each consisting of 30 trials. During learning sessions subjects received one of three forms of verbal information feedback. Across each of the sessions, the combination of Knowledge of Results and Knowledge of Performance generated a higher performance mean. The increase in performance mean across learning sessions supports the position that totally blind subjects are able to use augmented verbal information feedback to improve the performance of their gross motor skills.).

Frank, Monica A. Feedback, Self-Efficacy, and the Development of Motor Skills (Behavioral Consultants),

Kamen, Gary, et al. Foundations of Exercise Science (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2001).

Pew RW. Toward a process-oriented theory of human skilled performance. Journal of Motor Behavior (1970), 2:8-24.

Schmidt RA, Young DE. Transfer of movement control in motor skill learning. In: Cormier SM, Hagman JD, eds. Transfer of Learning (Orlando, Fla: Academic Press Inc. 1987), 47-79.

Schmidt RA. A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychol Rev. (1975), 82:225-260.

Schmidt RA, Young DE, Swinnen S, et al. Summary knowledge of results for skill acquisition: support for the guidance hypothesis. J Exp Psychol [Learn Mem Cogn]. (1989), 15:352-359.

Schmidt RA and Wulf G. Continuous concurrent feedback degrades skill learning: Implications for training and simulation, Human Factors (1997), 39: 509-525.

Schmidt RA, Lange C & Young DE. Optimizing summary knowledge of results for skill learning, Human Movement Science (1990), 9: 325-348.

Seidel, Robert J., Perencevich, Kathy C. & Kett, Allyson L. From Principles of Learning to Strategies for Instruction: Empirically Based Ingredients to Guide Instructional Development (Springer 2004).

Swinnen SP, Schmidt RA, Nicholson DE, Shapiro DC. Information feedback for skill acquisition: instantaneous knowledge of results degrades learning. J Exp Psychol [Learn Mem Cogn]. (1990), 16:706-716.

Thompson RF, Barchas JD, Clark GA, et al. Neuronal substrates of associative learning in the mammalian brain. In: Alkon DL, Farley J, eds. Primary Neural Substrates of Learning and Behavioral Change (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press 1984), 71-100.

Wallace, Stephen A.; Hagler, Richard W., Knowledge of Performance and the Learning of a Closed Motor Skill, Research Quarterly (May 1979), 50(2):265-71 (Learning is possible in the absence of knowledge of performance when knowledge of results is present, but a higher level of performance is achieved when both types of information are present).

Weeks DL, Kordus RN., Relative frequency of knowledge of performance and motor skill learning, Res Q Exerc Sport. (Sep. 1998), 69(3):224-30 (This study examined the effects of variations in relative frequency of knowledge of performance (KP) on acquisition, retention, and transfer of form for a multilimb closed sport skill. Two groups received either 100% relative frequency of KP or 33% relative frequency of KP while learning the soccer throw-in skill. Participants were boys between the ages of 11 and 14 years who were unfamiliar with the skill. Participants performed a 30-trial acquisition phase in which KP was provided about one of eight aspects of form. Following acquisition, five trial retention and transfer (to a target at a different distance than experienced in acquisition) tests were administered at 5 min, 24 hr, and 72 hr. Although no group differences were found for accuracy scores, the 33% group had higher form scores in acquisition and all retention and transfer tests. It was concluded that reducing the relative frequency of KP eliminated a dependency on KP to guide performance in acquisition, which was beneficial for maintaining form in conditions in which KP was absent.).

Williams, Mark & Hodge, Nicola J., eds. Skill Acquisition in Sport: Research, Theory and Practice (Routledge 2004).

Winstein, CJ. Knowledge of results and motor learning - implications for physical therapy, The Free Library (Am. Phys. Ther. Ass'n 1991), ("The motor learning literature and clinical practice protocols are surprisingly consistent in showing that, during the practice phase in most tasks, nearly any variation that increases the availability (eg, immediacy, precision, frequency, number of channels) of information feedback benefits performance and increases the rate of improvement over trials. Because performance benefits from such conditions, it is easy to assume that these conditions also benefit learning and retention. Recent research, however, has revealed that certain variations of KR that provide information feedback less often during practice prove to be more beneficial for long-term learning and retention than practice conditions with feedback provided more often. These feedback variations that appear to enhance learning pertain to the scheduling of KR during practice and include (1) KR relative frequency, which is the proportion of trials receiving KR; (2) bandwidth KR, which provides KR after trials for which performance is outside a given error tolerance range; and (3) KR delay, which provides KR following some temporal delay after completion of a response." ... "These findings run counter to the conventional viewpoint that less frequent KR should degrade learning. [18,19,50] Instead, a condition with less frequent KR was shown to enhance learning, at least as measured on a no-KR retention test. From a practical standpoint, conditions that provide KR more frequently may be appealing because of the temporary effects on performance. These effects, however, may not be beneficial to learning in the form of retention performance when compared with conditions with less frequent KR.").

Winstein CJ, Schmidt RA. Reduced frequency of knowledge of results enhances motor skill learning. J Exp Psychol [Learn Mem Cogn]. (1990), 16:677-691.


Geoff Mangum
Putting Coach and Theorist

Geoff Mangum's

Golf's most advanced and comprehensive putting instruction -- you're either in the PuttingZone, or not.

Over 2 million visits -- 100,000 monthly from 50+ countries -- and growing strong.