Performance Coaching & Skill Acquisition in Elite Golf

Golf is a peculiar sport for many reasons, but one which is often missed is the coach – player relationship. Golf has to be one of the few sports where sub-elite and elite players spend >90% of their practice time without a coach present. They are often left to manage 30+ hours of weekly practice time.

Why this is the case isn’t the focus of this article, but what this does often result in is unoptimised practice structures for golfers trying to get better and reach the top of their sport.

As I studied sport science and motor control I realised there were many simple reasons why parts of my own game as a golf professional reached near tour-level standard, while others seemed a constant struggle. It became apparent that practice structures were a key part of why some skills flourished but I never reached the levels of professional success I wished for.

I see these same traits in many amateur and professional players who are trying to get better. They correctly assume practice is the answer, but past investing more hours each week, they have few ideas about how shaping practice can accelerate the rate at which we develop skill.

For the past seven years I’ve supported the development of elite and sub-elite players, by helping them structure their practice and sharing ideas to help them manage their own development. In this article I’ll cover what I’ve learned and some questions I’m still figuring out.

A framework for golf performance

My first task is to sit down with the player and find out their outcome goal(s). We then discuss a stroke average target that will help them achieve that goal. Number of strokes taken to complete a round is the currency in which we can measure a golfer’s success. Averaging their stroke for every round over a season isn’t perfect, but it is the best outcome metric I’ve come across to date in elite golf.

Below is a scatterplot of stroke average relative to finish position in the Race to Dubai (The European Tour) from 2018. Stroke average data from all professional tours show this same ‘S’ trend, with many players bunched in the middle and a tail at both ends.

Players who are able to average 70.0 strokes or less end up in the top 1-5 positions for that season. Players who average 71.5, or higher, finish outside the top 130 and lose their playing rights for the following year. This 1.5 difference in stroke average is the clearest measure we have to define success of failure as a golf professional.

By agreeing a stroke average goal we have a clear definition of what success will look like and how much progress we are making each month and year.

Performance goals

Once we have a stroke average (outcome) goal, we build a simple set of performance goals, that if they hit, should allow them to reach their outcome goal.

These are often simple metrics such as percentage of fairways and greens hit, putts per round and so on. Measuring performance in golf is challenging as each subsequent shot is dependent on the one before. This dependence means golf data breaks the T’s & C’s of classical statistical tests and limits the use of more complex analysis, such as regression analysis.

Golfing statistics have made great progress in recent years, and we do track some proximity measures and use strokes gained statistics (based on dynamic programming). But these too carry flaws – comparing to an average value of similar players is not indicative of the best path forward for the athlete in front of you and should be applied with caution.

We end this process with 1) a clear outcome goal and 2) a set of performance goals to track for the coming season. We assess where the player sits currently on these scales, then create a practice plan to close the gap – here is where skill acquisition comes in.

The start point for skill acquisition

“We don’t rise to the levels of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems and processes”

I really enjoy sharing the quote above – many athletes set goals, but few design systems and processes that will genuinely deliver. Skill acquisition can be seen as some mystical science. However, in my humble opinion, great practice structures are 80% common sense / sport specific knowledge and 20% skill acquisition / motor learning theory.

When most practitioners think of skill acquisition they jump to practice variability. Practice variability seems to be the poster child of skill acquisition, but from my personal experience it comes much lower down the list than other variables we can tweak when trying to optimise skill acquisition.

Skill acquisition factors to consider:

  • Practice specificity
  • Practice volume
  • Task difficulty
  • Feedback
  • Practice constraints
  • Practice variability
  • Focus of attention

Practice specificity & volume

The first step is to check that the golfer is spending an appropriate amount of time practicing the right areas. This sounds obvious but has a few layers to it:

The easy wins

I frequently come across elite players who dedicate less than 5% of their time to core skills for scoring or areas they are weak in. This is not deliberate, it is often that they have never sat down and evaluated their practice time. This is a simple win that I’m always delighted to find and one we can swiftly correct.

Targeting scoring areas

At a deeper level we consider which attributes will best reduce their stroke average. Not all shots are equal when it comes to golf performance.

For example, hitting a shot from 160 yards to 15-feet rather than 20-feet doesn’t improve scoring, as both result in 2-putts to complete the hole for a professional ~90-95% of the time1.

However, improving a player’s proximity to the hole from 100 yards from 12-feet to 7-feet, on average, results in the likelihood of 1-putting jumping from 30% to 58%1. If a player has 10 – 15 100-yard shots over the course of the tournament this quickly improves their stroke average.

Practice on the driving range versus the course (specificity – volume tradeoff)

Golf is one of the few sports where performers don’t practice in the place where they are trying to perform. You can spend many hours on a driving range, but how well will this skill development transfer to performing on the golf course? The two environments are quite different.

From a skill acquisition lens we can view the golf range versus golf course problem as a trade-off between practice volume and representative training environments (specificity).

Image we have a player who needs to improve their driving performance. A 4-hour round of golf will result in them hitting ~14 drives off the tee in the environment where they aim to perform (on the golf course). Compare this to a 1-hour driving range session where a player could hit 50-60 drives, but the environment is very different to where they will perform.

You can see the challenge – the golf course represents low practice volume, but high specificity, the golf range offers high volume, but low specificity. In the ideal world we want high levels of practice volume in a highly specific practice environment.

The best solution I’ve found is to use both environments where appropriate and to change the constraints of the practice tasks to provide some middle ground. The graphic below shows two new solutions (green boxes) where we play on the course with multiple balls to up practice volume and create skills games on the range that better mirror the playing environment.

This approach has become a useful tool to help plan practices for players, but also to help educate players when to select each environment.

Feedback in learning golf

Feedback is ubiquitous is motor learning and trying to explain it is analogous to explaining what water is to a fish.

There are two broad categories of feedback in motor learning:

  • Knowledge of results – outcome focused, where did the shot finish (distance and direction).
  • Knowledge of performance – movement focused, what did I do to cause the outcome I see.

What we know from many motor learning studies is that when an athlete has limited feedback in either of these areas; learning slows. And if you remove knowledge of results, learning will likely stop.

My hunch for a long time has been that the way golfers practice is good for most amateurs players, but knowledge of results becomes too hazy for elite players to keep developing in some areas.

A weekend golfer needs to know if the ball went up in the air and in the right direction – this is pretty evident when practicing or playing. Whereas an elite player needs to know if their iron shot from 150-yards finished 12 or 15-feet away, and how much of this was distance error and how much was lateral error. Without this information they don’t know what to refine on their next attempt.

Below I’ll share a couple of simple ways I’ve tried to improve the feedback player gain when practicing.

Augmented feedback & practice constraints

The simplest way to solve the problem above is to create clear visual targets and markers in practice. This can include bright circles around the hole and bright posts to signal acceptable levels of lateral error.

A more high-tech solution is to use a launch monitor that tracks the ball through the air and gives precise data on lateral and distance error. These tools were around £15,000, but we are now seeing models available for £1,000-2,000. If feel these will signal a big change in how golfers practice and improve once they become more affordable.

Improving knowledge of performance

Knowledge of performance is another vast area of motor learning. Essentially, can the player (or central nervous system) detect what they did in practice to create the outcome, and plan what they should adapt to improve.

Technical golf coaching plays a central role in this ensuring players have an understanding of what affects their shot outcome. I like a player to have a separate technical coach, I feel my role is then to help create practice tasks and shape practice constraints to facilitate the technical changes required.

Strategically placing objects and visual aids around the player can alter the task constraints and help sharpen knowledge of performance. Also, creating practice games, such as hitting different ball flights can facilitate technical changes in a more implicit manner than deconstructing ones movement.

These are the types of suggestions I make to help players change their swing mechanics and help them find suitable levels of feedback to keep developing their skill. From feedback, players seem to find this approach useful, but I have no sure way of saying how effective this intervention is in reality.

Practice difficulty

Learning is expensive, you have to give the human body good reason to make all of the physiological and neural adaptions required to become more skilful. Golfers who want to get better at golf should take note of practice difficulty.

There are a lot of commonalities between developing strength and skill, these both require changes across the central nervous system and both occur as a result of stressing your body and then allowing it to recover (the latter aspect is known as off-line learning).

In the gym we are focused on developing strength, power and endurance. In golf practice we are focused on developing accuracy, consistency and distance, but we are working with exactly the same hardware – the brain, neural pathways, muscles and sensory organs – so the same principles still broadly apply.

Interestingly, there is little research or discussion, surrounding practice difficulty in golf. In general, practice difficulty is tough to measure and quantify, but I do feel it is important in developing elite-level skills in many sports.

Again, I find a fitness example best to explain hoe this concept applies to elite golf. If we have an unfit individual, almost any type of conditioning will result in progress. As the individual gets fitter, the level of challenge needs to continually rise and we need to be more tailored with out training intervention.

Practice difficulty in theory

Based on challenge-point framework we can assume there is an optimal level of challenge for each golfer, where learning is maximised (see figure below). As they progress the optimal practice difficulty shifts to a slightly higher level.

For some reason we have little sense of this in golf training – players practice in a certain way and rarely have progressions in difficulty – they seem to find comfort in the notion of “this is the what I did to get here, so I will carry on”.

Explaining this concepts to players and building simple progressions into skills games is probably one of the most useful inputs I’ve had, based on their feedback. I’m still learning how this works best, but below I’ll share a little more detail on the approach I’ve used.

Being specific with practice difficulty

The two key attributes elite golfers desire most are accuracy and consistency. They need to hit their shots close to their target and need to be able to do this often.

So, how can we use practice difficulty to stress accuracy and consistency?

Until players make it into the world’s top 100 and have the luxury of playing the toughest courses against the world’s best players each week, practice difficulty is defined by the goals they set themselves in practice. Golfers have to set the constraints of practice to change their driving range, putting green or golf course into the optimal level of challenge.

In golf practice there are two main dials we can tweak:

  1. Target size / distance to the target (relative target size)
  2. Reps of successful shots required

As you decrease the relative size of your target or increase the number of successful reps needed practice difficulty increases. If you do both at the same time practice very quickly becomes difficult.

By making 1) target sizes smaller / moving further away or 2) by increasing the number of successful shots required you can easily tweak practice difficulty. This is at the heart of the skills games I build for golfers. Here is an example:

Will’s range challenge

Stage 1: Hit 3 drives in a row through a 20-yard gap (easy), 15-yard gap (med), 10-yard gap (hard).

Another way to increase the practice difficulty above would be to keep the target size the same but to up the number of successful shots in a row from 3 to 5. These both increase practice difficulty but will shape a player’s development in different ways.

  • Relative target size – challenges accuracy
  • Number of reps – challenges consistency

In the same way a gym routine will develop muscular strength or endurance, based on the number of reps and weight moved, practice can be shaped to make a player more accurate and/or more consistent based on the size of their target and the number of successful reps needed to complete a task.

If they need to become more accurate, we can shrink their target size. If they want to become more consistent, we challenge them to perform a higher percentage of successful shots inside your current target size.

We can change both at once, but as the graphic above shows, difficulty rapidly increases.

This is a very basic concept, but has proved to be a great framework for building practice structures.

Practice variability

Much has been written around blocked vs random and constant vs varied practice. We have sound evidence of its effect for novices learning a motor skill, but I’m unsure that it is the magic bullet many see it as for accelerating learning in the real world with skilled performers.

The argument of significance, effect size and smallest meaningful effect are for science to ponder. My applied experience of practice variability is that understanding and scaling practice variability can be useful for development, with the following in mind:

Random / varied practice – better for developing decision making and adaptability in technique.

Blocked / constant practice – better for engraining technique and reducing movement variability, provides less complex practice environments.

I keep in mind that more varied practice may transfer better to competition, albeit practice performance will be worse and could affect self-efficacy. I also try to weigh up that if a player needs to develop a very specific skill, varied practice results in less specific practice, as more variations are performed around a desired skill.

The graphic below shows a summary of what each type of practice may look like in golf. The level of practice variability runs left to right, the level of contextual interference runs bottom to top. It is useful to view both constructs as continuums, rather than binary practice structures.

That summarises the sections on skill acquisition theory, and the behind the scenes process that goes on when building practice plans. Next, we’ll move onto what this looks like for a player.

Communicating practice plans to athletes

The way I tend to work with golfers is as follows:

  • Player profiling / bench marking
  • Coaching call / meeting
  • Build practice plan
  • Refine / re-build plan after 8-12 weeks

I find 2-3 months is a good timeframe to plan practice over. We do often make tweaks and have catch ups in between, but it often takes this timeframe to see a development in skill level for a given player.

The practice plans I build are around 8 – 10 slides, but contain two key slides I’d like to share here.

Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s)

These are based on the 2-3 performance goals we set out initially (improving driving, iron play…). Each area has a practice indicator and a performance indicator. The aim is to keep them focused on the right areas and provide some simple goal setting.

If they can hit their given target in practice, they should be capable of hitting the performance indicator when playing. If they can hit their performance indicator when playing, they should reach the stroke average target we’ve agreed upon.

I hope this approach keeps them focused on great practice and processes each week.

Next, we have a list of core practice tasks. These are the games and practice structures we build based on skill acquisition principles. Each comes with instructions and a target score.

They are mostly games for the player to play. Each game has progressions in difficulty and I have a selection of games that and increasing and decreasing levels of: variables, specificity and volume.

I also try to divide time between skills games and technical practice. With the former asking the player to find a way score as best they can with any movement that works. And the latter providing less focus on outcome and more emphasis on technical refinement.

This separation of skill development and technique is another concept that has proved a useful framework for players to keep focused on the task at hand.

How do you measure successful?

The aim of these plans is to provide the player with a clear path to reach their goals. I want a player to feel that reaching their goal is simpler and more attainable once we have a plan in place. If golf performance seems more complicated after I would feel I’ve failed.

If a player’s performance is better in practice and play we assume they are on track and are getting closer to their goal.

The feedback from players has been great, but there is no way to knowing if this is the best approach, or how much progress they would have made without this approach. The effect could be the real effects of applying skill acquisition theory, or is just the placebo effect of having a ‘skill acquisition plan’ in place.

From writing this section it has become clear that I don’t have a clear indicator of how I am measuring success for this process, outside of player feedback. More homework for me.

Summary

Golf is a strange sport in that coaches are not there to oversee the majority of training. The approach I’ve shared is my best attempt at applying simple skill acquisition principles of specificity, volume, difficulty, variability and feedback to building practice structures for elite golfers.

It has been fun to write and I hope it has help you think about how skill acquisition could be applied to your our training or coaching domain. There are a few more topics I’ve left out, but do feel free to get in touch if you would like to chat further about any skill acquisition ideas.

  1. Broadie, M. (20xx) Every Shot Counts,

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Golf Insider UK | Website | + posts

Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.