Experimental and differential practice for golf

Experimental and differential practice for golf

We are often told that there is a perfect swing, or that every individual has an optimal model. But with individual variations of height, weight, limb length, point specific strength, power production profile, flexibility profile, previous sporting experiences, previous life experiences, ligament/tendon attachments, injuries/limitations, genetic motor patterns and a million other elements, it is ludicrous to think we can work out what the optimal will be for each player. There will always be individual differences between players, because of the stated elements above, and our human body has much greater chance of working out what is optimum for us than we ever consciously can.


Luckily, our human bodies were blessed with the ability to self-organize. What does this mean? Take a person with a physical limitation, such as a weakness in the right leg. Now make them squat with a weight on their back – as they go into the concentric phase of the contraction (the lifting part) their body will make subtle moves to accommodate the weakness (leaning to the left side, activating other supporting muscles to assist etc). All of this is done, often without any intention at all, or any conscious awareness that they have done this. How on earth can our bodies be this intelligent? Try a few million years of evolution (and even more if you take into account the fact more primitive animals do this also).

cats can flip themselves over, land with their front feet first and use deceleration patterns 
to minimize the negative forces – all without conscious thought. This is
genetically ingrained through years of evolution 
But often we lose this ability to self organize, it tends to get worse as we get older. As we progress in golf, age, injuries, closing of flexibility windows, increasing movement specific strength/power, myelination of neural network in the brain, subconscious concepts, increasing efficiency of signaling in neuromuscular patterns etc occur. Some of this sounds good (and used correctly, it can be), but it also tends to confine us to limited patterns. In simple words, the more we practice a movement, the more we are stuck in that movement pattern. This was an advantage when we were evolving, and still serves us advantages today. However, it is a great hindrance when it comes to improving our swings and finding something more optimal for us.

Movement patterns get ingrained more and more over time. If the movement patterns
havent caused us harm, our brain and body lock in on them and slowly remove variations in 
order to ‘seal in’ the positive pattern. For a monkey climbing a tree who wishes to lock in
movements which are positive, this is good. For a golfer trying to change their swing, it is bad
(unless they are just trying to do what they already do, but more consistently)

Enter Variation

In the wild, natural selection operates by introducing
variants to gene pool through non-random mutations (I use the words non-random,
as the lay person indicates random to be mystical. The mutations are actually
caused by very defined physical laws which we could predict if we had enough
data available to us. But as the amount of variables involved are humongous, making
the whole system very chaotic, but not random). These mutations often cause
variability in the species (such as higher strength, different colour coat
etc), and then natural selection takes over and the organisms which are best adapted/suited
for their environment are left to prosper. What the hell does this have to do with

( A flock of starlings) Just because something is looks 
random, doesnt mean it isnt created by very definite physical laws. 
Also, just becuase something looks so perfect, 
doesnt mean it wasnt created by chaos. 

And Golf?

The same principles which apply on the macro level of
natural selection (and even on the more macro level of cosmology) also apply to
in the micro level of our bodies. As I stated, the body is very adept at self
organizing. However, it is also very adept at ‘closing off’ variables – it is
why we get more stubborn as we get older. The body figures “well, if it hasn’t
got this old fool killed already, it must be working – let’s ingrain it so it
is automatic”. This is not a good thing when we are looking to develop better
motor patterns – which every golfer is.

The way around this, then, is through introducing variations
of movements during your practice sessions. The body can then take this new
information, and use it to self-organize into a more effective pattern – one which
suits better the environmental and internal constraint of the player currently.
Who is going to find out the more optimal technique in something – the person
who only tries one way, or the person who uses a multitude of different methods
and can pick the best option from those methods?

An overused quote from Einstein. 
Most golfers are afraid of experiementing with variables
out of fear of ‘ruining their swing’. I’m here to change that false idea

For example, if a slicer struggles to hit it straight – why not
learn to intentionally hit the ball differing directions (the variation) in
different ways (through change in grip/clubface release/set up position/top of
swing position etc).  Through introducing
these variations of movement and ways to hit the ball left and right, the user
can then consciously or unconsciously start selecting appropriate fixes for
their slice. In fact, the human body will automatically start to self-organize
into better patterns without the player’s knowledge at all.

To maximize the efficiency of this type of learning, we
should explore extreme variants of motion rather than trying to make subtle changes
(hit a snap hook as well as a baby draw). This will give the brain and body
maximum information from which to draw appropriate conclusions.

Skill boundaries and improvement in co-ordination

Experimental practice (variable practice/differential
learning) can also help massively in the broadening of skill boundaries. You
will essentially be pushing yourself and the movement into areas previously
unknown in most cases. As with lifting weights in the gym, by pushing yourself
beyond a boundary, you grow and get stronger. This applies to the body as much
as it does the brain.

On top of this, you open up new belief patterns in your
cognition. “I’ll never be able to get rid of my slice” – well, if you just
learn to hit a snap hook, you have all the tools you need to get rid of
it/control it. You will also find, through your experimentation, that you are
able to perform things at a level you never could before. Through development
of the systems which deal with co-ordination, spatial awareness, depth
perception and proprioceptive awareness, we can really start making leaps and
bounds in our motor skills.

Ever wonder why kids wobble when they walk, and why they love to play? This wobbling and playing is evolution’s way of developing co-ordination skills through testing certain boundaries, making subconscious links between what is and what isn’t successful. When successful variants have been found, the body ‘locks in’ on these through strength improvements and minimizing of flexibility, as well as neurological changes in the brain which make those movement patterns more ‘attractive’ (through myelination, improved synapse sensitivity, firing of electical impulses etc). 

Useable and transferable skills

Lots of skills we acquire during our experimentation phase
will be of great value to us directly (such as learning the ability to hook it
around a tree, or developing the ability to spin the ball more). But some
skills will not be of direct use, but will be transferrable.

I was training some mini tour players one day around around
the short game area. I told them to get their 7 iron out, and proceeded to take
them behind bunkers and into situations where a 7 iron is the worst club
possible to use. The guys immediately responded with “why are we doing this? We
are never going to use this shot in tournaments”. What they didn’t understand
is that, if they developed the ability to hit a flop shot with a 7 iron, that
skill would transfer over to doing it with a sand wedge. And as the flop shot
with a 7 iron is so much more difficult, it would make the shot with the sand
wedge seem comparatively easy.

Seve was known for his ability to get out of anywhere
Even though this trick is ‘worthless’ – many transferable skills
are learned from this. 

I responded to their whining by asking a simple question. “Do
you think Tiger or Seve would be able to do this shot if I asked them?”. There
is no-coincidence that they would be able to. A couple of days later, I found
one of the more diligent practicers on his own hitting pitches. As I walked closer
to him, I saw that he wasn’t using his wedge, it was way too big a club for
that. I asked him what club he was using – he was standing there hitting
delicate landing pitches over a bunker with a 4 iron (wow). He then told me
that his ability to pitches the ball got so easy after his 7 iron session with
me that he was now seeing how far he could push his boundaries.


Please stay tuned for next week, where I continue this article and explain even more benefits of this method. I will also make suggestions/recommendations for how to implement this into your own practice.Sign up to the email list/go to adamyounggolfcoaching on facebook to stay up to date Click here. If you liked this article, please take a second to share on facebook and twitter by clicking the little buttons below. Thank you


  • Bryan Baz

    Good stuff Adam. I am starting to think that a big part of coaching is making players feel comfortable with these types of experimentations. There is no question that there is a lot to be learned from them. A trusted coach that suggests ideas, guides a student, and takes some responsibility for early (inevitable) failures can do a lot of good in broadening a golfer's ability and confidence.

  • Roger JONES

    Hi Adam,
    Thanks for your time in our lesson yesterday. Now back home in St Andrews, I'll make time to read through your postings………….and get down to the range!
    Kind regards,

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