Finding your Challenge Point

In March 2010, I attended the World Scientific Congress of Golf in Phoenix, Arizona.  Occurring every four years, the Congress is a series of research presentations and invited speakers.  There were two featured speakers; five keynote presentations, symposia, workshops and poster presentations.  Topics ranged from “A New Biomechanical-Medical Based Swing-Model in Order to Reduce Body Load During Swing and Impact – Preliminary Results (Research)” to “Building Self Image to Win.” 

I was keenly interested in the research that has been conducted and how I could use it in my teaching.  One presentation in particular resonated with me: “Utilizing the Challenge Point Framework for Effective Golf Practice.” I instantly thought that sharing its concepts would be valuable my students.

The challenge point framework is a concept created and originally presented by Mark A. Guadagnoli and Timothy D. Lee in 2004.  It provides a theoretical basis to conceptualize the effects of various practice conditions in motor learning. It relates practice variables to the skill level of the individual, task difficulty, and information theory concepts.  In less theoretical terms, the fundamental idea is that there exists a  “sweet spot” or challenge point for learning, and that challenge point depends on the task difficulty.

In short, “hard preparation, easy combat. Easy preparation, hard combat.” (Marshall Suvorov)

The challenge point is beyond your comfort zone but not into your panic zone.  In yoga, some call it finding your edge.  Most people practice in their comfort zone hitting shots they feel comfortable hitting, shots that leave them feeling good.  But would you rather look and feel good practicing or be great in the future on the golf course?  I recognize that it’s discouraging to hit a club that doesn’t produce desired outcome.   However, if you stretch yourself to practice outside your comfort zone  (your “stretch zone” or within the challenge point framework), your stretch zone will widen and your performance will improve.

While working with players, our job is to work them into their challenge point.  But once the lesson is over, the player must find and practice in his or her own challenge point.   Here are a few ways to ensure that you are stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone while practicing:

1) Spacing – The time between one task to the next.  Neuroscience says we need  time to process what we do.  Employ the three-ball rule:  don’t hit more than three shots in a row without stepping away and regrouping.  You can keep the same club if you want, but reset your eyes, walk back to your bag, anything to space your swings out.  Notice how this affects your tempo.

2) Watch the ball down.  Do not look away after you hit your shot.  See where it lands and what it does.

3) Change clubs. For the low handicap (5 or less) change clubs every 3-5 shots if you’re refining a movement.  For everyone else change clubs every 9-15 shots or if you are learning a new movement.

4) Putting – The more expertise you have, the more often you should change your putts.  Do not hit more than three balls from the same place to the same target. 

5) Practice where you are appropriately challenged. Admittedly, this will create some degree of failure.  But embrace this concept, and you will be on your way to better golf.