Learning a skill such as golf has two main phases, the first phase in which the components of the skill are identified and stored in memory is the acquisition phase. The second phase is that which actually makes the skill accessible to a performer is the transfer phase, it is this phase which indicates that the skills acquired have a level of permanence and are actually useful, i.e. when you actually attempt to reproduce the skills which you have spent so much time honing at the driving range or with the assistance of a coach, you are actually able to replicate them on the course. There is of course a third phase in learning a skill, that is the ability to produce this skill when it really matters in the thick of competition. Although it seems as though the skill should be exactly the same regardless of where it is being produced, ‘if I groove it well enough I will be able to produce it anywhere I want’ the reality of how much harder that three foot putt can become when it really matters compared to in a friendly or on the practice course hardly needs to be stated. Perhaps a good way of considering the difference in what you have to achieve during competition or a super friendly environment is to think in terms of the amount of mental effort or load that you have to sustain in each condition. The total amount of mental load that you can cope with before you begin to make mistakes is of a finite quantity and the better able you are to direct your mental effort (or focus) to the task in hand the greater the chance you have of successfully completing that task. That task may vary from the completion of a critical putt, making the appropriate decision regarding club and shot choice and then completing that shot or striking your first drive of the day and sending the ball to just the right point on the fairway for your second shot in.
Consider completing each of these tasks under conditions of both comfortable practice and also during the most pressured environment that you may face. Although the actual factors which may contribute towards the levels of mental load which you are forced to contend with are going to vary from individual to individual, some of the following will probably ring true: During practice: actual production of the skill, foot placement, feel of swing, where you are aiming for, how your body feels (stiff back etc.), what time you said you will be home, why you always find this shot difficult (the list may continue). Of course the better you are playing in practice, the more of the things which really make you game flow will be present and less of the factors which may be at best irrelevant or potentially even harmful to your game will be at the forefront of your mind.
During competition there will again be a mixture of things which are beneficial and those which seem contrary to performance will be in evidence. Again what is being attended to will vary from individual to individual will not only vary, but also the meaning attached to these things will vary. For example for one player the very thought that a game has become competitive or that people are watching will be enough to destroy their round before it has even begun, whereas for another the opportunity for competition is exactly what is required to really begin to perform. However during competition there are undoubtedly more things which are not necessarily performance directed which use up mental energy. These factors may include anxiety about performance or the potential to fail to perform, concern about other people present, concern about the consequences of poor performance, such as embarrassment, losing face, losing a bet, loss of self esteem, the importance of the occasion etc. Other factors may be the sudden awareness of physical changes which occur, such as increased and more obvious heart rate, changes in muscle tension, sweating a general feeling of agitation, changes in mood and possibly the requirement to go to the toilet more times in the half and hour before beginning than you usually do in the rest of the day.
Anxiety or worrisome thoughts about performance and other competition related concerns plus the awareness of bodily changes may all be considered to be guzzlers of mental energy, with corresponding decreases in the amount of potential mental effort left to assign to the actual requirements of playing a good game of golf. When we also consider the potentially negative effects of the physical changes that may often accompany a competitive situation, it is perhaps not surprising that many players often find that their best performances are found during practice or matches with no importance attached to them.
So how do we make sure that when a competitive match looms on the horizon that performance during it will match the players potential?
Essentially there are two key area where you can give yourself the best possible chance of performing under pressure
How you approach what you have to do
How you practice to give yourself the most robust or ‘stress resistant’ set of skills possible
1) Reduce the impact of some of the anxiety producing symptoms, this can be done through a) restructuring of the meaning attached to worrisome thoughts.
b)reduce the impact of worrisome thoughts by stopping them, often with a clear command and then replacing these thoughts with something performance orientated, such as the checks which you may put in place to ensure a good shot occurs.
2) Have a plan before you begin to play which you actually stick to. However make sure this plan has an element of flexibility built into it to allow you to cope with the type of circumstances that all too often arise just in time to spoil your game of golf. Practice this plan by going through a series of what ifs and how you will deal with them. (What if you are put in with some-one who talks constantly? What if your long game goes? (what checks do you have in place to rectify this during play?), etc.)
3) If you find that your heart rate begins to race and you notice bodily symptoms changing prior to competition, you may want to take a three pronged approach. Firstly breathing and relaxation exercises may allow you to get some control over these effects. Secondly you may find that a gentle programme of aerobic fitness provides some resistance against these effects.
Finally however you may consider the alternative approach of actually encouraging these physiological changes during practice conditions through carrying out stepping exercises or short shuttle runs between shots (although the cause of heart rate changes associated with competitive anxiety may differ from increased heart rate in response to exercise the end effect of a higher heart rate is similar). You will be surprised how quickly you are able to acclimatise your game to being able to play shots when the heart rate is raised and the confidence this produces when faced with similar physiological changes during competition can be enormous.
As suggested by the approaches recommended above, there are a number of ways by which you can maximise your chances of success, these generally involve planning for competition and having practised an approach which will provide the maximum opportunities for success during competition. So perhaps not surprisingly, much of how you can prepare to do well in competition is to make sure that how you practice is appropriate. There is after all nothing more frustrating than putting untold hours of practice only to see the whole game fall apart at the first sniff of competition.
So let us take a look at some of the key determinants of good practice in producing an effective transfer from training to competition. (Acknowledgements: The primary source of information for this section of the article comes from Christina, R.W. (1996). Major Determinants of the transfer of training: Implications for enhancing sport performance. In K-W. Kim (Ed.), Human performance determinants in sport (pp. 25-52). Seoul, Korea: Korean Society of Sport Psychology.)
Essentially there are a number of basic principles which should be considered when developing a training programme which will have the maximum effect in allowing the transfer of skills from a practice to a competitive environment. Each of these will be considered in tern and have different implications for the way in which an effective practice-to-competition environment should be created.
1. Level of original learning.
In order to achieve success in competition, try to ensure that the tasks which are completed during practice actually reflect those required in competition. It is also found that a training task which differs from a competitive task will actually have the effect of interfering with the production of the competitive task.
Considerations: How well does a driving range mat reflect the requirements of the variability offered by a golf course? What other considerations over and above a driving range environment may you encounter during a game of golf? How can you begin to close together some of these differences to make a driving range environment more effective?
Ideally: Make the training tasks as structurally similar as possible to those tasks required during competition and make them well learned to maximally benefit a competitive environment.
2. Perceived similarity
In order to make training for competition as effective as possible you should try to make as many components as possible common to both environments. Therefore it makes sense that one of the first tasks which is required to make your practice effective is to identify what the critical components of the task completed during competition are. Make this list individual to you, as although there will be a great degree of commonality within sports, there may also be some things which are both individual and crucial to yourself. Perhaps to create a valid list, you may put the critical factors under the following headings. Physical factors, mental factors, tactical factors, skill factors.
Remember, the fewer components which are shared between the practice and competitive environments, the less effective your practice is likely to be, the converse is true for a better match of practice-competition components.
3. Task structure
It is very easy to create a series of practice tasks which whilst they contain key elements required for competition, also have a number of irrelevant elements. In order for you to make this transfer to competition effective, a mental representation of these key elements will be built up. The more that this mental picture is distorted through irrelevant elements, the more difficult the process where these key skill elements are transferred to competition.
Remember, it is critical that you really identify which of the elements are important to competition and which are red herrings, also does your field of critical items complete the set of things needed, or has your field of vision narrowed to merely bringing into the practice zone those factors which you like or favour? Are you biased to things which you are good at? and have you been led astray by misconceptions about what is important to contain within the task structure?
4. Similarity of Goals and Processing
What you learn in training is not the only thing which is important, the way in which these key skills are practised also mediates the level of effectiveness of transfer to competitive environments. Essentially the more similar you are able to make the way that you practice to what you have to do in competition the better. However it is important to remember that what you are transferring is not simply a physical skill, what goes on in your mind should also come into this process. So how you think about a shot, your set-up, course management, the likely implications of success or failure of a particular shot, how you feel when you perform a shot and the criticality of various shots during competition means that you may need to set your mind (or that of your coaches) to work to create a number of manipulations of the practice environment to best make your practice reflect competition.
5. Number, Variability, and order of Examples
How many differing situations have you encountered whilst playing golf? Ranging from the common, odd lies, aggressive rough, wind, rain and other weather to hopefully the less common, aggressive partner, jeering youths, too interested dogs. When you set your mind to thinking about it, there are all too many ‘rare’ examples of strange occurrence during a game of golf for it to seem like chance. Each one of these is a different challenge to perform over and it makes sense that the more variations that you are able to introduce to your training environment, the better you will be able to cope with the real thing when it occurs. Remember to consider both physical and mental elements. However one important consideration is that during the very early days of skill development, too much additional variation may mean that the skill development is hindered to such an extent that it never becomes developed at all. Try to gradually introduce variations into your practice and remember to revise your ability to cope with the variations which have previously been introduced. Remember try to actually learn how to produce and reproduce these skills under different conditions, rather than just trying them out a few times.
6. Contextual interference
Contextual interference is one of those funny ones and could almost be considered to be an excuse for poor coaching. However what it is and the rationale behind it can be understood from those occasions when something has been so incredibly hard to learn, perhaps because all the instructions on your new video were in Japanese English and you had to basically match the inconsistencies of the instructions with trial and error. When you finally managed to get the video working, the lesson was so well learned that you would never forget how to do it again. The problem of course is if it is too hard to learn, it is quite likely that you never get beyond the first stages and get someone under ten to work the video for you. Thus the concept that the use of a more complicated instruction may enhance retention does make a degree of sense, but should of course be carefully managed in terms of the degree of learning which already exists and the type of activity. For example hitting from a golf mat is an activity which may become overlearned and specific, then there may be a transfer of a lack of adaptability to actual course demands with the resultant failure to be able to produce slightly different shots when required (for example hitting from an angled lie, off a rough surface, keeping the shot low or getting more trajectory on the shot). It is suggested then that an ideal time to increase the contextual interference during practice or coaching may be at the point when the core skills of the task have been developed, but the task has not necessarily reached the point where it is overlearned (or grooved). This type of approach to learning may assist with the ability for a golfer to benefit from training for a far broader range of conditions than is generally experienced during practice conditions. Again remember that for a skill to really be learned it should also be overlearned to the state where there is a groove to the skill.
It does seem obvious that to get some-one to learn as well as possible maximum feedback is important. However this is again where the distinction between the acquisition and retention phase should be underlined. It is very easy to assume that a large change in skills shown at the end of a practice session will reflect a lot of now skills learnt. However these skills are only learnt at the point where they can be reproduced at a later date, unfortunately the feedback which a coach may provide which makes the swing so easy during a lesson is rarely available during competition conditions and the golfer must rely on being able to retrieve these skills him or herself. The paradox is of course that if feedback has been too good, then the ability of the golfer to create this feedback for himself is unlikely to have been developed and the ability to reproduce the skill at a later date may actually have been harmed. Of course no-one wants to attempt a new skill and spend ages floundering around with absolutely no idea how to produce it, what could be more demotivating? So during the early days of skill development some rapid ‘improvement’ may be critical for sticking at the skill long enough to really learn it. However with the recognition that the real aim of learning is to be able to reproduce the skill it is important to develop the ability to bring back the skill at any time under any conditions which really indicates that the skill has been learned.
To summarise the implications of the contents of this short article, practice routines should reflect the requirements of competition. This means that some consideration should be given to the context in which competition takes place and effort made to reflect these considerations, noise, pressure, increased heart rate, increasing the importance and implications of making a particular shot. The biomechanics of competitive surroundings should also be considered, what is the value of doing your practice off a flat surface when the reality of a course is anything but? Try to make the conditions under which you practice harder rather than easier than competition.
Finally how you think about what you do in practice should also reflect what you think about in competition, groove your thoughts around each shot to make it effective and do the same thing in competition, set yourself and deal with similar challenges in practice to those that arise in competition and plan what you want to achieve over a series of practice sessions to reflect what you actually want to do on the course during a match.