If you’ve ever practiced on a driving range, you’ve probably experienced a situation where you were able to hit a consistent drive or pitch, but then weren’t able to replicate that swing on the course a few days later when you needed it.
Hitting 100 golf balls in a row with the same club from the same lie not only doesn’t create “muscle memory,” it actually is more likely to degrade swing skills.
You don’t have to be a great golfer to help your child get the most out of driving range sessions. Understanding the three steps for setting up a driving range practice will enable you to help your child learn, retain and later recall a new golf swing skill.
The myth of muscle memory
Your muscles don’t have a brain and therefore can’t remember anything. Consistent muscle movements, such as a specific baseball pitch, tennis serve or golf drive, require motor patterns that are learned and stored in the brain, not the muscles. If you practice correctly, your brain will figure out what you want it to do, store it and then send the correct motor messages to your muscles later.
Performing a movement over and over in the same way doesn’t allow your brain to learn, store and later recall that movement. In fact, repetition can fatigue your muscles and central nervous system, leading to tired, sloppy, incorrect swings.
Learning, retaining and recalling a golf swing
It’s possible to take a lesson from a golf pro and learn a new skill, doing it correctly on the driving range that session. However, it’s unlikely you will be able to do it correctly from that point on, either at the range or on the course. In addition to learning a skill, you must practice it in a way that helps you retain what you learned and be able to recall it days or weeks later. This means you must create lessons and practices that consist of more than just hitting the same ball from the lie.
Step 1 – Learning a skill
The first step in creating a good golf swing is to get new technical information, such as keeping your head down, using a new grip, setting up closer to or farther away from the ball, or leading with your hips. During this phase of improving your golf swing, you hit the same ball from the same lie, which helps with short-term learning of a skill. During a later practice, you should start hitting balls this way until you get into a groove with the new skill.
How many balls should you hit? About half as many as it took you to get into your groove. If it took you 30 swings to figure out how to hit the ball correctly, hit about 15 more, then stop. This is called “overlearning,” or continuing to practice a new skill after you’ve learned it. You don’t own the skill yet, but you understand it. You won’t get more learning benefit by continuing to hit the exact same way, and you might start to fatigue your muscles and central nervous system, hitting late, off the back foot or using your arms too much.
Step 2 – Retaining a skill
If you want to store a new skill in your brain so your brain can send the correct message to your muscles, you must change how you practice on a driving range. Once you have spent several minutes hitting from the same lie with the same club to get into a groove with the correct swing technique, it’s time to start changing clubs.
For example, if your child is practicing a new leg drive for his tee shot, once he as figured it out, is in a groove and can hit correctly with the new technique, and done his 50 percent overlearning, it’s time to switch clubs. Let your child try the new technique with a 5- or 3-wood for six or eight shots. Have him try the technique with a long iron. Go back to the driver. Once your child is able to use the technique using different clubs, change the lie, hitting balls off a mat or grass instead of a tee. This type of practice, called variable practice, helps promotion retention of a new skill.
Step 3 – Recalling a skill
If your child can’t switch clubs or lies without losing the new skill, let her go back to practicing with the same club from the same lie until she gets into a groove again. Have her go back to the variable practice, changing clubs and lies every six to eight swings. Once she is able to hit the ball with the new technique using different clubs and from different lies, help her recall that skill next week on the course. Do this with random practice.
To promote recall of a golf skill, play simulated holes. Use a scorecard to select the first club as if she were playing a round on the course. Even if your child is working on pitching technique, have her start the “pretend hole” with a driver, if that’s what she’d use on the course. Based on where her drive lands, have her select her next club as if she was on the course. Eventually, she will need to pitch the ball. She is now practicing her new pitching technique in the context of a round of golf. She will only be hitting pitches every few minutes and will only get one chance to make each pitch. Her brain will now experience the same sensations she will feel during a round of golf and will store this information.