Quality, Quality, Quality, (and quantity)

The most prominent approach to training students to play golf and gain proficiency is through repetition. It’s no mystery that practicing a skill leads to improvement. 

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the number 10,000 in his book, Outliers, but was criticized for his proclamation that in order to become an expert in anything, one must spend at least 10,000 hours.  The criticism was mostly from people who understand how motor learning occurs. 

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Indeed, motor learning research supports repetitions and time spent practicing, however the research is stacked with studies that conclude that the number of repetitions is not the critical variable, as Gladwell suggested.  His 10,000 hours proclamation was based upon a seminal study by Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness (1994) which found that although an extensive time period is indeed required for expertise, additional factors come into play, such as “deliberate practice,” individual developmental history, and training methods are also part of the picture.  Unfortunately some readers interpreted the Gladwell’s best-selling book to read that if they invest a lot of practice time, they will become experts.   However, just from the points previously outlined it is clear that learning might not be maximized by the amount of time spent if the level of difficulty is not met.  Nor would learning be maximized if the environment does not present challenges that prepare the golfer for the course.

If a golfer decides he wants to become an expert, he should spend hours in practice, but it’s what he does in those hours are the critical missing piece – and this is the same reason behind why a golfer has trouble taking his or her “range game” to the course.   The way they were practicing was more than likely insufficient because they haven’t really learned it very well to begin with. 

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Ericsson, A.K. & Charness, N. (1994) Expert performance: It’s structure and acquisition.  American Psychologist, August, Vol.49, No.8, pp. 725-747.