Most golfers looking to improve their golf games are looking for one thing, consistency. The natural line of thinking goes, I will take a lesson and from that I will learn the proper way to swing the club with consistency. After the lesson I just need to take enough reps to build muscle memory. Once I have muscle memory I will hit the ball consistently forever. The issue with this thinking is that muscle memory is not a real thing, our muscles cannot remember how to move. Muscle memory might better be described as repetition leading to memory of how to signal your muscles to move, not your muscles knowing how to move. The way we know this is from a famous study conducted that showed the motor patterns are stored in our memories in a similar way to long-term memories. Understanding that motor pattern changes need to be stored like long-term memories can guide us to better practice by using learning strategies like those used in language and music learning.
One of the founding breakthroughs in the study of how we learn was research done on a man who had a piece of his brain removed in order to relieve him of constant seizures. The removal of his hippocampus from his brain provided some relief from seizures but the dramatic effect was his complete loss of short term memory. The patient, who was named H.M. to protect his identity, still had his long-term memory but could not remember anything as soon as he stopped focusing on it. There was no effect on his IQ or personality, it was just his short-term memory that was completely lost. H.M. could do the same puzzle over and over with the same enjoyment, he was able to remember vivid childhood memories but could not remember what he had for lunch that day. He was the unfortunate but perfect test subject to see how long-term memories can be etched into our brains.
Brenda Milner and William Scoville began to meet and run tests on H.M. to better understand the role the hippocampus plays in our brain function. One of the most interesting tests was having H.M. learn to draw a five point star by watching his hand in a mirror. This new motor skill was practiced over a few days and although he could never remember the act of practicing, after a few days he was able to complete the task on his own without any guides. This breakthrough showed that motor skill learning happens in a much deeper part of the brain than short-term memory. This learning is a very different process than simple recall, it takes much more effort but it also sticks around much longer. The research done with Milner and Scoville can have a tremendous impact on how we teach and learn golf. In order to learn new motor skills we can see that it takes time and guided practice to ingrain a motor pattern into our long-term memory. Muscle memory is not built through simple mindless repetition, its more similar to learning a piece of music or a new language than remembering dates or elements on the periodic table. In order to learn a new song or language there are two main focuses, guided practice and repetition with spacing.
The act of practicing with guardrails so you know when you are doing something correctly or incorrectly is how we maximize guided practice, it doesn’t mean another person has to be guiding you. When learning a new golf movement success and failure is not graded on proximity to the target but on how well the change was implemented into the swing. Once the change is implemented the new goal of practice can be proximity based. Most golfers look to make changes to their golf swing while grading their progress on proximity. The focus on something unrelated to the changes means we are not building the storage for this new movement in long-term memory, instead the movement is remembered in the short-term and lost shortly after. When practicing a new swing keep the changes as the priority of the practice, not the proximity of the shot. This means that a player needs to carefully lay out drills to create the correct motion, and also tell them when their motion is incorrect. A great example of this is placing a towel a few inches behind the ball to work on increasing angle of attack. This simple drill tells us when our attack angle is correct because we missed the towel or incorrect because the towel was hit. Once this drill becomes easy to complete then we can begin to measure success in proximity. Guided practice is like working with flashcards while learning Spanish, just because you know that biblioteca means library doesn’t mean you can speak Spanish; however it is a building block in learning the language. The more cards we learn individually can then be put together to build a phrase. The more key parts of the golf swing we can perfect the better we can build an entire swing.
The often overlooked but most important part of building “muscle memory” is the time that is spent doing it. Not all time is equal when trying to build a new motor pattern, three hours straight of hitting golf balls is far less effective than three, one-hour practices, and even less effective than six thirty-minute sessions broken up over two weeks. Time spent performing as well as time spent between performances makes up how well the movement gets ingrained in our memory. Just like in studying for a test, cramming your golf practice into one long session can help your performance for a day or two but it doesn’t translate into long-term retention. Building a new motor pattern into our memory takes repetitions done over longer periods of time, therefore one of the most important things to do when making a swing change is small practice sessions over multiple days. Each time we restart the training sessions that motor pattern has to be recalled and it reinforces the motor pattern and becomes easier and easier to access. Eventually when we have recalled that pattern enough times the brain then knows that when we are swinging a club this is the motor pattern we are swinging with. Forcing the brain to recall the correct movement strengthens the connection between the muscles and the brain, building more and more “muscle memory”. Learning to play the guitar doesn’t happen from one practice a week, it happens by picking up the guitar every day and playing for a few minutes. You don’t change your golf swing after a one hour lesson, it takes multiple sessions to complete a swing change.
Repetition over time and feedback are what makes Legends of the Links a powerful learning tool for all ages but especially for junior golfers. The trading cards are fantastic motivators to keep kids coming back week after week because of the collecting tradition built into the card game. Each week they come back and new cards get revealed and the kids love it. This inspiration to return over time allows coaches to build off of previous lessons and strengthens the players skills by constantly having to recall their golf skills week after week. The feedback in Legends of the Links comes from the skill game designs and the goals associated with these challenges. The games like putter gate challenge or aerial assault are built to give feedback on a very specific skill (center of face contact for the putter gate and loft control for aerial assault). Having a predetermined goal with these games allows players to know if their skill is at the appropriate level, therefore every time they play the game they are getting guided feedback on if they are performing as well as they should. This combination is what makes games such a powerful learning tool, and Legends of the Links attempt to leverage the game advantages to create the optimal learning environment for juniors to improve their golf games through optimal motor skill development.