Learning environment

In so many areas of human development, we are a product of our environment. Scottish coastal golfers tend to be quite handy at playing in the wind, for example. If you are trying to make meaningful improvement in your game you need to seek out, or design learning environments. This could be anything from the right practice aid to taking yourself to a link course.

Learning is contextual


"I'm great on the range but when I get on the course..." is a familiar phrase in golf for good reason. There is a multitude of evidence which tells us the human brain is influenced by the environment they learn a skill in. It has an effect on how effectively it's learned, and how easily it holds up in different situations.


External cues

Our caveman ancestors depended upon external cues likes rocks, rivers, spears and hungry-looking sabre-tooth tigers to inform and refine the appropriate response. We still benefit from external cues.


Seve used to practice hitting balls out of the woods, using the narrow gaps in the trees to hone directional control, and overhanging branches for his trajectory. No doubt, his imagination and ability to create shots was forged here.


Challenge level

Certainly the environment we are in has a massive effect on our perception of difficulty. Playing four holes at dusk on your own can seem a breeze, compared to playing card-in-hand in front of strangers. The absence of distraction makes it easier to focus for most golfers. We will discuss challenge level more in Task Progression.


Open and closed environments

Think about the different places you might play/practice your golf. From a windswept links, to an artificial mat at the range, or the putting mat at home. At one end of the scale you have multiple variables outside your control (wind, slope, hazards etc) - your classic "open environment". At the other end on the putting mat you have a very simple, predictable setting (closed).


Both settings have their benefits for learning. Building up up basic skills (like a straight 6 foot putt) is easier to do without too many variables to contend with (like slope or wind). However the transference of that learning may be incomplete, if you don't build up to the real thing by exposing yourself to the other elements at some point.


Grass

Unfortunately the majority of practice facilities exclusively use artificial mats - the cost of maintaining a grass driving range is prohibitively expensive. For 90% of your practice it's not a limiting factor, but any chance you get to hit balls off grass, take it. Particularly wedge play and chipping. There is no substitute for the real thing, and you learn more from real divots.


Practice aids

Practice aids can be a useful part of your learning environment. You have to filter through a lot of junk on Amazon before you find anything worth using, mind you. Here is a simple way of categorising the types you can get:


  1. Feedback - impact spray/tape, mats which show your divot placement or an alignment stick are definitely in the helpful category. They're simply telling you how well you are accomplishing the task. Encouraging an external focus of attention.

  2. Task - a chipping net, or a couple of tour sticks to hit balls through, are also helpful. They make the task clearer, and give feedback on how you did. Also encouraging an external focus of attention.

  3. Prescriptive - with one or two exceptions, beware of training aids that are trying to force a specific technique on your body. The chances that they will work, be relevant to you, or your brain associate them with the task, are questionable.

Summary

I see strong evidence every day that humans are born learners. To facilitate this in a lesson I am trying to make sure the task is clear and:

the learning environment supports what we are trying to learn, or the stage of learning we are at.

If I need peace and quiet, I might take my client to the studio or the top of the range. If we need to simulate competition, we might play at a busy time in front of other golfers. In your own practice, be mindful of how environment can shape your progress and, where possible, adjust it accordingly.

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