Thursday, November 21, 2013

Performance vs Learning

Performance and learning are different – you probably didn’t realise that.

Performance –    the ability of a person to produce the desired result

Learning –         The acquisition, retention and recall of new skills which will lead to improved performance and increase potential in the sport specific scenario

What most people seek when they go to the range or go for a lesson is improved performance. They want to come away from a range session or lesson feeling like they hit the ball the best they can or better than before. Whilst this is a nice goal to have, and there are certainly times where this should be done, it should not be the only goal of the golfer.

Performance in training

Performance and learning are not inextricably linked – in fact, they are often at odds with one another. As an example, 2 players are learning how to control the height/lowest point of their golf swing. They go through a simple drill of lining tees up, 1 inch high, and work on clipping the tee out of the ground without making a divot. They both do a small testing session and do a ’10 shot test’. Amazingly (for the sake of the example J ) they both manage to get 3 out of 10 tees out of the ground successfully.

Then they go into training

Player A practices/trains this by standing in the same place with the same club hitting tees. During the session, his ability to hit the tee (performance) greatly improves to the point he can get 5 tees out of 10.

Player B practices this by doing a full routine, changing his club every time and changing the target. This is a lot more difficult as the length of the club is changing each time, and he is having to stand back and re-position himself after each shot. His performance decreases (due to the difficulty of the task) and he is only able to hit 1 out of 10 tees.

So, we can see that player A, through the way he is practicing, has produced an immediate improvement in performance. But, what happens if both players do this after a week? What about after practicing this way for a month?

graph showing amount of tees hit in training, starting with
the test session, and progressing 8 weeks

Player B
So we can see that player A is better than player B after the first session (mainly to do with the fact he has a simpler task), but then player B ends up catching up with and ultimately surpassing player A. It takes a long time for this to happen, and it looks like player A is doing better because he is performing better – but his task is also a lot easier. His learning rate is not the same, as you can see by his retention of performance after each session.

More importantly, what happens on the course, where it counts?

Performance on golf course

Performance in a training situation is also not always indicative of what would happen in the real scenario. It is often a first step, for sure, but how specifically you trained to the game scenario will have a big effect on whether those skills/learning are transferred or not.

Graph of Player A's ability to successfully hit a tee in both
training sessions and on course play over the course of 8 weeks

Graph of player B's ability to produce what he did in the training sessions
onto the golf course (skill transference) over 8 weeks.

Player B – the routine guy – was using a practice methodology which was more representative of an actual on-course scenario (changing clubs and target and shot type every time). For this reason, Player B is able to take their skills learned during practice and apply them directly on the course. 

Player A practiced artificially; standing in the same place with the same club over and over is not representative of an on course scenario. For this reason, when they finally get on the course, their performance drops significantly. They may have been able to hit 7 out of 10 tees on the range with their BLOCK PRACTICE mentality, but now they struggle to hit 4 out of 10 on the course.

Think about the mental ramifications for this. Player A goes from feeling like a god on the range, fully in control and able to do what he desires, only to have it all leave him when it matters the most. This leads to frustration, tinkering with your swing, changes of focus, over conscious behaviour, and sets in a downward spiral due to the increased expectations (you expected to hit 9 out of 10 tees on the course). Player B, on the other hand, may experience more frustration in practice, but they learn to deal with it. This type of practice also BALANCES EXPECTATIONS leading to more consistent play due to more consistent emotions and perception of results (relative to skill level).

So, although the more random practice method employed by player B showed an initial drop in performance, both on course performance and overall learning surpassed player B, the one who initially performed well.


Differential practice

For a primer on what differential practice is, read my articles on the topic linked below

Differential practice is also another way in which we may see short term negative effects on performance, but massive long term effects on learning. For example, someone trying to control the ball flight through improved clubface awareness may be given one of two tasks.

Task A – try to hit the ball as on target as possible by tinkering with a more open (to the right) or more closed (to the left) clubface position at impact. (This is calibration practice, which I will write an article on)

Task B – Try to experiment with hitting offline shots – as far left as possible followed by as far right as possible and then everything in between. (differential practice)

In terms of performance relative to what you are trying to ultimately achieve (an on-line shot), player A is obviously going to outperform player B, as it is not the intention of player B to hit it online. Player B's shot pattern in training is going to be all over the place, whilst Player A is going to have a much tighter pattern (better performance). But this doesn't tell us who is learning the most. Even when the players go on the golf course, player A may initially perform better, as they have been practicing in a way which is more specific to what they want (and on-line shot).

However, the SKILLS ACQUIRED by player B (the ability to control, manipulate, feel the difference between clubface positions) will ultimately allow player B to surpass player A. This is because the player can ultimately self coach, and will have more sensory information to draw upon.

Now, if you were to combine the 2 different types of practice, in the right doses and in the right combination, you may get an EXPLOSION of learning.

Need for Periodisation

Periodisation is setting out your individual training sessions, daily sessions, weekly sessions, monthly sessions and even yearly program so that you can take advantage of the difference between performance and learning. For example, if I have a mini tour player needing to peak during the season, we would set up their practice schedule that allows periods of maximum learning (which may even disrupt performance) followed by periods of maximising performance (which may slow down learning).

As an example of a yearly split, where the golf season runs from May to September

October/November –  Technical changes
Feb/March calibration practice (scroll down the link to where it says 'calibration' to see an overview)
April/Mayroutine work
May – Septperformance practice (scroll down to 'performance practice' to see a brief overview)

So the levels get from (tending to be) more disruptive to performance, but more conducive to learning/change/improvement in the early stages. It then gets gradually more performance focused and less focused on change/improvement as we get closer to the ‘in season’.

This is obviously a basic framework based on a theoretical player. A proper practice regime would be fit around the individuals needs. If a Tour player came to me needing to Peak four times a year (for majors) I would set a different program. And for a complete beginner, there may be a different structure more focused around learning.

A tour pro may spend 6-8 hours a day practicing and will need to 
peak for certain events. Therefore, practice should be structured
in a way which maximises the ability for them to increase their potential
and bring their potential to the table when it's 'game day'

Even within this yearly framework, there may be weekly and daily periods where all stages are included. So, if we took (in the above example) the month of April (routine work), a typical week may be set up like this

Monday – ½ technical practice                   ½ differential and variable practice
Tuesday – calibration day
Wednesday – Routine day
Thursday – Routine day
Friday – Routine day
Saturday – Routine day
Sunday – performance practice / day off

Obviously this is massive schedule, but keep in mind this is for a mini tour player who has the goals of both improvement whilst maximising performance for competitions and the ‘in-season’. A beginner schedule would look completely different. But from the above, we can see that the player has a definite focus on improving and practicing the routine, yet at the same time keeping all elements of the schedule involved.

Performance up learning down

It is not simply an on or off switch however – it is more like a sliding scale, and each individual may experience different levels of learning and performance with different types of practice.  But understanding that, sometimes, things which make you performance worse are actually beneficial for your game and skill-sets in the future (such as applying pressure during practice or applying Random practice principles).

This is not to say that both learning and performance cannot improve synergistically – they very much can. But there are more efficient ways to maximise each. And structuring your practice to do so is imperative if you wish to become the best you can be. For a tour pro, simply structuring the practice effectively can make the difference between getting on tour or never making it. If you work on the wrong things at the wrong time you are going to be severely hampering your chances of playing your best.  Unfortunately, I have seen players do this.

I have also seen a lot of well intentioned players basically wasting their
time. For some, this is ok as they may be enjoying the act of beating balls.
But if you are trying to be the best you can, you have to practice like a genius

Performance, Learning and consistency

The number one goal I get from people is that they want to be more consistent. They don’t understand that even tour pro’s are inconsistent. One day Furyk might shoot a 72 then follow it up with a 59. That is 13 shots difference from one day to the next, with a player who is practicing every single day, 8 hours a day and he is also one of the most consistent players on tour.

Even Furyk, one of the most consistent players on tour is inconsistent

Understand that we have a RANGE of scores that we can shoot. Our actual LEARNED level is somewhere in between that. It is like the stock market, if you look at it from day to day you will drive yourself nuts. The stock market is constantly oscillating around a moving average. Just like the stock market, our scores and performance on the course will oscillate around our actual learned level. Pro’s are no more consistent than you, they are just better overall and more learned.

Our performance may be a little all over the place from day to day (black line).
But over time, if we have put our efforts in the right areas in the right way,
we will see out overall level (the red line) gradually rise. We will still get day to day fluctuations,
but they will be around a 'higher' skill level

It would make much more sense to look at a yearly average to see how your learning is going. If a player has a yearly score average of level par, this may include a round of 10 over par and 10 under par during the year. But this range is not as important as the yearly score average (as long as we take into account the difficulty of the course played on).


Learning and performance are not the same. You could be performing well, yet learning nothing. Likewise, you could be performing awfully and learning a hell of a lot.

What is more important to you at this time? If performance is all that matters, be prepared to stagnate. You may reach your potential more often, but you will never push that potential higher. This is like the guy in the bar who always has a new swing tip or swing thought which is working for him, only to see his handicap stay the same year after year.

 If Change and ‘potential pushing’ is important to you, be prepared to sacrifice some level of performance (in a good majority of cases) in the short term until those changes are realised. This is not always the case. Also, don’t get stuck in this mode. Understand that the golf swing is an unfinishable  project – there will never be a day where you master the swing mechanics. There has to be a time where we switch this mode of learning off and GO PLAY GOLF and actually realise the potential we have created.

Periodise your year, or week or training session as to get a nice blend of both learning and performance. Focus more on the one you wish to achieve the most, or find ways which blend the two together nicely.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing such a good article, I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing...
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