The Secrets to Effective Learning of New Skills and Difficult Shots

Your body learns and remembers motor skills (such as the golf swing) by building detailed motor performance "maps", known as schema, in the nervous system and brain. Researchers have shown that new schema are best developed during the early portion of your practice session while the body and mind are fresh. Increasing fatigue, anxiety, or rushing to finish your workout on time means slow--maybe even no--learning of new skills. Thus, if it's been your routine to work on your "problem clubs" at the end of your practice session, you now know why your improvement with them has been so frustratingly slow!

As explained in my book, the most effective golf training strategy for learning new skills or difficult shots involves getting to work on them early in your practice session. After completing a warm-up of gentle stretching and 15 or 20 practice shots with a couple of your "good clubs", proceed straight to work on your top-of-the-list weaknesses. One day it may be chipping and putting, the next workout it might be long irons; but whatever it is, spend this most valuable early to middle part of your session on developing solid schema--these are the motor programs that will take your game to the next level.

Ironically, many golfers tend to hit through all their good clubs first, and only then move on to the problem areas when there's only a few balls or minutes left to practice. At my golf center which includes a practice bunker and putting area, the vast majority of golfers head straight to the practice tee only to finish up with a few minutes in the bunker or on the green. They do this despite the fact that sand play and putting are major areas of weakness for most amateur players. As explained above, such end-of-workout practice of problem area is of little benefit. Conversely, the latter part of your workout is the ideal time to fortify skills you already possess, so conclude each practice session with a variety of shots with the best clubs in your bag.

What if you arrive at the range already tired and tense from a rough day at work (or from playing another sport or from a gym workout)? Forget about training new or weak skills, since a stressed nervous system will learn nothing. Instead, use this situation to work on awareness and management of the tension at hand, while practicing the clubs and skills at which you are competent.

Summary: New skills practice is most effective when you are well rested, in a good mood, and after a complete warm-up. Spend 15 to 30 minutes warming up with gentle stretching and a variety of practice shots with your "good" clubs, then dedicate the next 30 minutes to training your high-priority weaknesses. As fatigue increases (and on high-tension days) shift your training back to practice of known skills to broaden their use into stressful situations.

Lisa Ann Hörst is Lancaster, PA-based teaching pro. Her new book, Golf Training: The Secrets to Effective Practice and a Lower Score (Finally!), is being heralded as "the most comprehensive guide to better golf" available that will "positively transform your game."

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