Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Perception-Action coupling (PA coupling)

Prepare yourself. This is a more in depth look at a topic that you may not have ever thought much about, but as you go through it you will certainly get some ‘AHA’ moments. Get yourself a coffee, put your comfy pants on and switch off all other distractions. This is a complicated yet very worthwhile topic to discuss, and this is my first attempt to do so. I am sure this article will be refined and edited more.

What is PA coupling?

As a simple definition, perception action coupling relates to the fact we cannot escape the information coming to us from the environment. How we perceive the information surrounding us will always have an effect on our movements. For better players, an improved Perception Action coupling will mean that they are able to produce a more appropriate movement for the task. So, if you set up a tour player in a less than desirable position (e.g. aiming 20 degrees to the left), they would be able to provide an appropriate subconscious compensation/solution which would get their ball on the target. 

Their movement would have stemmed from their perception of where the target is. 

Will the kinematic sequence and trackman numbers be the same when going down the stretch of a tournament, with water on the left and pin tucked left, as they are standing on a range with no pressure in a BLOCK PRACTICE session?

What about a putt with a right to left slope versus a left to right slope? What about when that same putt is on a faster green. What about when it is downhill?

What about when you are a little scared of that putt going too far past as you have a chance to win the tournament????

that left to right slider on a Sunday afternoon may produce
a slightly different technique than a straight putt in 
a practice session

We have a brain

What most people forget is that movement stems from the brain. Our brain sends a signal to our muscles which fire in a sequence, with certain amounts of force at differing times to produce what we see as the end product – our golf swing. The signal that the brain sends can be a result of what we have ingrained (myelinated) the most through repetition, or what we are consciously trying to do (swing thoughts). These are the more commonly looked at elements - but there are other factors.

The information we receive from our eyes can largely affect our movement both consciously and subconsciously. As our eyes scan the environment, our brain is building a picture of the task ahead, and is trying to call upon appropriate movement patterns and strategies which could potentially fit that task. Your brain, at this point, is subconsciously visualising a ball flight, firing the neurons in your brain relating to that ball flight, and then responding with the movement pattern relating to that.

Ball flight subconsciously visualised – neurons activated/primed – movement pattern produced

An example from another sport would be baseball. The gross movement pattern is very similar to golf, but it varies more in terms of reacting to the pitcher. The pitcher throws, the batter then perceives where the ball is going (trajectory, speed, spin etc) and responds with an appropriate action (change in bat elevation, plane of motion, forces and muscular contractions etc).

As we practice more, our brain builds more and more pictures of information, until the response becomes reflexive in nature. Often, high level performers will feel like it is their conscious choices which are getting better – this is just an illusion. The reasons why batters get better with practice is that their subconscious minds are able to recall previous situations in which the ball has been sent at that (or similar) flight, and react with a more appropriate movement response based on previous successes and failures. It is basic 0/1 (yes/no) programming in the brain. More practice also improves the ability for the brain to not only have a stored, successful and myelinated motor program, but practice also improves the efficiency and speed to which this program in the brain is accessed. 


In golf, we experience this a lot; less as an immediate, spontaneous reaction like baseball, but a reaction nonetheless.

Take, for example, the player who has just learned to swing the club from inside to out (club moving to the right at the bottom of the swing) and hit a nice draw, after slicing it for 20 years. Great! They can now hit this booming draw down the range. The problem is, the way they trained this move involved a high level of focus on their body movement.

The same player goes out onto the golf course. Now there is a massive amount of information flooding into their brain regarding the target. Their brain subconsciously visualises the slice flight (this will be felt as an insecure feeling as the player tries to consciously visualise the new ‘all sparkling’ draw shot). In other words, although they are trying to see the ball move right to left in the air, their ‘deep brain’ is visualising a different story, sending mixed signals to them. This, very likely, results in poor performance as their nervous system is confused. This is perception-action coupling in action.

I used to see this all the time when I would work on a swing with a whiffle ball. We could get it until the movement was as desired. Then when a real ball was introduced and real target introduced, the movement would go back to the old way. The moment the attention shifted from ‘body movements’ to ‘where do I need to hit the ball’, the movement changed. You have probably experienced this as the more frustrating “Why can’t I do the same swing on the course as on the range”?


We all hear that physical alignment (feet, knees, hips, shoulders) is one of the most important fundamentals of all. Whilst I believe this statement is completely false, over-used and its importance overstated, it does have an element of truth. I, personally, am more concerned with mental alignment than physical. The idea that “You wouldn’t aim a gun offline and expect it to hit a target” is ludicrous when applied to a biomechanical movement with perception-action coupling abilities.

I can guarantee I could play better golf with my feet aiming 45 degrees left for one shot and 45 degrees right for the next, than a 25 handicapper could with pinpoint perfect alignment. Why is this? My PA coupling is much better. I am able to perceive where the target is and react with the appropriate changes in path and face angle to get the ball on the target. This skill has largely been developed by my differential practice methodologies. Now, you could say “Yes, but you would play better if you didn’t have to aim so far left and right each shot”, and you may be right (untested), and this does lend a modicum of truth to physical alignment theory. But the thought experiment provides at least a small insight into what I mean by PA coupling in reference to golf.

This ability to ‘compensate’ (I hate that word in golf) for poor physical alignment via improved PA coupling is a massive advantage in golf, and a skill which all top players will have. How often is it that we are going to be set up to a golf ball and be in absolute perfect physical alignment? I would rather have a gun which can adjust for faulty physical alignment (target seeking missile) than one which relies on perfect alignment to function correctly.

Besides, alignments change during the swing. So where you are at address is only an influence on where you will be at impact. Barring the law of diminishing returns, physical alignment is just a theory. There are plenty of players throughout history who aligned to the left or right of target yet played pretty great golf. What they all had was great mental alignment. They were in touch with their target mentally, which is why I value mental alignment over the physical. Although I probably wouldn’t like to see someone aim 45 degrees offline, I am fine with it if they get the ball online and can produce the impact necessary to play good, consistent golf from that position, in a safe manner for their body.

look how far left Mcilroy and Furyk have their shoulders and hips at impact. 


PA coupling is never more apparent than in putting. Putting is such a hugely mental task, and how we perceive the slopes and speed will have a massive impact on what technique we employ. An attempt has been made (and still is being made) to break putting down into its individual components of technique (starting the ball online consistently), reading (aimpoint and other philosophies) and speed control (not as much has been done about this one, ironically, as it is the most important of the three). However, improvements in each individual area alone rarely provide much benefit beyond hawthorne effect and placebo effect

Hawthorne effect - The act of practicing something will tend to make you better. This must be separated from the actual effects of the intervention. Did the improved technique make the difference? Or was it the fact you actually practiced putting for 10 hours this week?

Placebo effect – if you believe the intervention will make you a better putter, it usually will. Why do so many people change their putter all the time? They are after the placebo effect of added confidence. Unfortunately, this effect is more likely to change the perception of performance than performance itself. Ever hear of the guy with the new driver each year who hits is ’30 YARDS FURTHER’? Well, after 10 years he should be hitting it 550 yards now?

Both of the above are fine – after all, if you get better you get better, right? The problem is, placebo and hawthorn effect will eventually wear off, and after that you would do well to actually pursue something which will REALLY make you better. I could give you a new sugar pill which would make you a better putter, but what are you going to do when that effect wears off?

Anyway... a good way at explaining PA coupling in putting is from the studies that Dave Pelz conducted. He found that, on average, amateur golfers only consciously read 1/3 of the true break on a putt. So if a putt really broke 1 foot, the player only read a 4 inch break.

If this were the final say, every single putt should therefore be missed on the low side of the hole (not enough break). However, with PA coupling, what Pelz found was that almost every player lined their physical body up to play more break, used a stroke which pulled or pushed the putt onto a higher line and combined this with an increase in ball speed to keep the ball on this line for longer. In other words, the brain of the person compensated (positively) for poor conscious decisions by providing more appropriate actions

look how far right you actually have to start the ball (green arrow) for such a small 

What about pro’s

What about pro’s? They did pretty much the same things, just on a smaller scale. Pro’s also aimed too low in general, but their mistake was only by around 33% (rather than 66% amateur error). This meant they had to make less of a compensation to get the ball to start and stay on a more optimal line.

 Now, the argument could obviously be made that the less compensations we have, clearly, the better a putter we will be (as pro’s are demonstrating this trait). However, as I keep banging on to people


As a thought experiment, who do you think would hole the most putts from 10 feet? The beginner golfer who is placed in a perfect set up position which requires zero compensation, or Tiger Woods setting up with the clubface 5 degrees offline? The answer would be Tiger – his exceptional PA coupling allows him to get the clubface online better than the beginner who needs no compensatory moves, yet has poor PA coupling.

The fact that pro’s make less compensations than amateurs does not mean that less compensation will make you better (necessarily). It is more likely that the quality of these compensations has more of an effect on success than the sheer limiting of them. This is NOT to say that closing the gap on needed compensations is not a worthwhile goal – it is. But there will become a time where PA coupling will be the limiting factor, as opposed to further refinements in technique or green reading or speed control. PA coupling combines all of the above (the whole machine) rather than isolating and working on individual cogs in the system.

My argument is that, whilst there is likely to be a law of diminishing returns in terms of how much compensation is acceptable (I’m sure that starting with the clubface wildly offline from where you need it at impact is not going to be optimal), we don’t know where that line is to be drawn. I believe that it is these subtle compensatory moves which actually make the DIFFERENCE between elite level players and non elite, as well as between players when they play their best vs their worst. And these compensations are largely improved through training methods which improve PA coupling.

So, what the hell can we do to improve Perception-action coupling?

Task oriented learning

To get away from PA coupling, we could try to maintain the exact same focus on the golf course as we do when we learned the movement on the range. For example, if you were thinking about your left hip in your downswing on the range, keeping this same focus on the course would, in theory, produce similar results to the range.

However, we know that the reality of a real course with real results makes the above almost impossible. On the golf course there is a real target and a real result. Changing your focus to the ball flight/result would likely open the neural pathways in the brain which relate to what was learned with that focus – YOUR OLD BALL FLIGHT AND MOVEMENT PATTERN. Get the idea now?? So a more appropriate action would be to learn the correct movements through Task oriented learning approaches, or approaches which give us a more external focus of attention. At least for the majority of the learning process (it is fine to include internal foci and more command during the initial learning stages).

For example, do you learn to hit a draw shot by focusing on what your right hip is doing through the swing? Or do you learn it through a focus on the ball flight?

An example progressive task-oriented plan for a slicer would be

·         Learn that the clubface has to be closed to the path to curve the ball left in the air

·         Task 1 - Let them practice this with chips, and then pitches and then full shots, focusing purely on the ball flight curving left (even if it is a pull hook) - see below

 Task  2 – ball must curve left in the air but finish to the right of a target (a big push draw) - see below

Task 3 – a second target is introduced. Ball must curve left in the air and finish between the two targets. - see below

Task 4 – the target is narrowed, same expectations from ball flight
Task 5 – feet/body alignments are gradually worked back to a more neutral position - see below

Task 6 – target is narrowed again

During this progression, the player has only been taught about the clubface and path relationship – which happens to be an external swing focus. The vast majority of the learning has come with a focus on the ball flight. There have been no body commands, so the brain is learning the movement instinctively as a result of a ball flight focus. Therefore, the two concepts become inextricably linked in the mind – ball flight visual spawns the movement. 

Also, as the movement was learned without direct commands (such as “move right shoulder this way), you are using different parts of the brain which relate to motor control as opposed to logical reasoning. The movement becomes more natural, is more synchronised, fluid and it is more likely to be recalled when the ball flight is visualised. The movement will also be more unique to your individual body profile (strength, flexibility, injuries, max power points, myofascial slings, tendon and ligament lengths and insertions etc) through the power of self-organising in the body.

Using routines in practice

Standing in the same spot and beating balls does very little for PA coupling. Try using RANDOM PRACTICE principles – hit shots towards your target, but making sure you do your normal full routine before each shot. To take it another level, change the shot each time. Hit one with an iron, one with a pitching wedge, one with a driver. To take it another step, try hitting a different type of shot (fade or draw) with each swing. This is bringing in the principles of variability practice into the picture.

The reason why this works so well is because you are not only learning how to produce the correct movement, but you are learning how to access that movement in relation to the target. The brain fires with the target in mind, and so movement and target become linked up in the brain (actual physical links in the neurons of the brain occur) – as opposed to linking up a verbal command (keep right hip turning through) with the visual of the target.

target awareness uses different areas of the brain than 
verbal and conscious commands

It also makes your practice more difficult (than standing in the same place doing block practice), which helps you to lower expectations to reasonable levels, helping you to deal with adversity better on the course and ultimately improving consistency.

Finally, walking out of the hitting area (off the mat) and picking up a different club before going through the whole routine and set up procedure again is training you to do exactly this. It also trains you to improve your perception of where the target is in relation to your body – in other words, mental alignment.


Try hitting putts from different scenarios. Try to not hit too many putts from the same spot, as the learning goes down exponentially for each putt hit in succession (even if performance goes up – performance is NOT the same as learning).

Before each putt, go through your full routine, trying to visualise the line into the cup before lining your ball up (if that is part of your routine).

Here is the important part. After each putt, write down if your putt was an acceptable speed or not. If it was, write down if it missed on the high or low side of the cup (high being too much break played, low side being too little break played).
try to give it you all during each practice putt. Visualise like it is to win a 

Just look at your writings as you go along – nothing more is needed. The beauty of this is, you can do this on the course too. This drill helps you to consciously and (more importantly) subconsciously improve green reading, speed control and start line simultaneously, through more effective perception-action coupling.

Try performance practice

This is simple. Practice with a goal in mind.

Rather than hit shots to a flag, pick out two different targets. Try to get the ball to finish between these two targets. Note down if you are finishing left or right of the target on a sheet of paper or small notepad. Stop and look at the notepad every 10 shots – are there any patterns you can see emerging?

See how many balls out of 10 you can get in the target. See how many in a row without failure you can do also. This works again by increasing the links in the brain between target and movement pattern access, and also builds in an element of pressure (self imposed).

Whilst not as ideal as a real green - try to get the ball between the two signs

Why not do what Hogan did and play a virtual round of golf in your head on the range? Imagine the first hole at your course, and hit shots on the range visualising that exact scenario.

Instead of dropping 10 balls down on the green and hitting them to the same hole, play a little putting tournament on the green. Play 10 holes with one ball, going through your full routine for each shot. Keep a scorecard, try and beat the score next time.

Differential/variable practice with an external focus

Practice, again, involves changing things around from shot to shot and mixing things up. As a result, learning can increase dramatically, even if performance can decrease whilst conducting it.

See my article HERE for more info on this

Why does it work for PA coupling? It greatly improves skill and co-ordination levels, and ties this learning in with the external focus. This could be focusing on ball flight, whilst attempting to hit different shapes to the target, or it could be hitting more random shots (big hooks and slices) whilst the brain associates the movement pattern with the variance in flight – this needs to be done intentionally, as opposed to accidentally hitting slices and hooks.

Situational/constraints led approach

On course is obviously one of the best ways to learn golf. This is because you are in the desired environment already and so the learning is very specific. This could include simply playing more, or it could involve setting yourself in a certain scenario (such as behind a tree) and hitting shots until you figure out what to do. The example of the tree is a great one because, no matter how well you can hook it around a hypothetical tree on the range, when you are faced with the visual of the tree in front of you in reality, your movement will be influenced and will change. So learning in the specific environment and context is huge.

I do a lot of course management exercises with better players. One of the biggest differences between good and bad players is that, better players tend to miss the hole in the right area. If that pin is tucked on the right side of the green, it is usually a bad idea to miss it right of the pin, as you will tend to leave yourself a trickier up and down shot than if you missed the same distance the other side of the green.

Rather than go through this logically, I play a game. If your ball comes to rest on the green after an approach shot in regulation (1st shot on a par 3, 2nd on a par 4 and 3rd on a par 5), you must drop the ball 10 paces further away from the flag (directly away from the flag). This forces players to start to play to areas of the green which are going to produce drop shots which are in kinder areas. For example, If there is a pin tucked right and water right, the player is no longer going to fire directly at the pin, because any slight miss to the right will result in them having to drop 10 paces – into the water. This game is an example of a very ‘context specific’ drill which will improve PA coupling in terms of subconscious decision making.

Is it better to miss right or left here? You'd better make the right decision

A player who struggles with a slice could play a game by themselves where any time they hit the rough on the right, they are forced to wedge it out/take a penalty drop/re-hit. This will help the player build in a way of managing their slice through increasing awareness and fear of the right side. Whilst this fear may initially be harmful, when the constraint is taken away they will feel more freedom, as well as having built a better management of their slice.

Take away points

Thanks for staying with me until the end. This was long, I know. But important. Here are the summary points.
·         You cannot ignore the effect the environment has on the subconscious mind, so training programs should be created in a way which includes environmental perception. Whether this is simply a heightened awareness of the result, or through more situationally specific training regimes (more on course teaching).

·         How you learn something is just as important as what you learn. Different parts of the brain are involved in different learning methodologies. Where your focus is on the course will then increase or decrease your chances of recalling that learning.

·         Try learning through task oriented approaches, and even better than this, whilst on the course, or hitting to a real green.

·         You will be surprised at what you can mechanically learn without ever directly touching mechanics. I have seen massive changes in kinematic sequences, body movements, swing plane, pressure shift patterns, trackman numbers etc without any direct commands on those. Purely by setting an appropriate task, we can allow the body to self organise into a way which is conducive to effectively completing the task. There may possibly be a limit to what your body can learn in this manner, but I prefer to see the limits of that before I jump in directly.

·         Having a great technique is nice, but the real differences are likely to be hidden in the PA coupling abilities of the player. Don’t neglect these skills in your training.

·         Finding training methods which increase your target awareness are important. Science is building a bigger picture about external foci of attention, and some coaches (such as vision 54) are making waves regarding increasing target awareness. As more science about movement and the brain increases, this picture will build in favour of these approaches to learning.

·         If you are going to do technical changes which require a much bigger focus on the internal (body positions), try to do so during the off season, or away from major competitions. The new movements have to be then learned and linked to the target if you are to be successful in taking them on the course.

·         Don’t hammer and hammer away at making your technique infallible. This will never happen, it is a pipe dream. Also remember, good PA coupling can easily compensate for poor technique, but the best technique (gross motor movements) will never compensate for poor PA coupling.

·         If you do learn movements better by direct commands – fine. Just make sure you have some element of practice which enables PA coupling to be built up, and the movement to be linked to what you would perceive in a course specific scenario.

·         Be realistic in your analysis about your poor shots. Did you hook it left on 17 because you dropped the club under plane and flipped the face over? Or were you scared of the right side of the course because of those out of bounds stakes?

·         When practicing on the range, use specific visualisation. Don’t just hit to a flag, picture some water to the left or right of it. Visualise the green size (use an example from your course if you have to) or even play a mental round of golf, where for every shot you visualise a hole on a course (it could be the only chance you get to play the masters). This is obviously second to getting out on the golf course and doing it for real, but it can allow you to hit more shots in quicker succession and still build in PA coupling skills.

The overall message is try to practice more like you play. Keep your awareness the same, use routines, have outcomes etc.

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Please also understand that this is not the be-all end-all. I have written this article to bring attention to something often neglected, but I feel is very important. It is not that you have to completely disband your current teaching methodologies or your way of learning (if you are a player), but just be aware of this idea and try to implement as much of it as you can in your approach to learning and performance. 

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