October 9, 2014

Trillium Sellers, PGA: Answering Big Questions – A Motor Learning Perspective


The following is the thesis written by Trillium Sellers to earn her Masters in Motion Learning and Control from Columbia University. These concepts are further explored in her PGA Magazine instruction story in the June 2014 issue.

By Trillium Sellers, MA, PGA, LPGA
Director of Instruction, Woodmont Country Club, Maryland

As instructors, we are often faced with questions that are tricky to answer:  why can I do it on the range and not on the golf course or why do I break down when I play in a competitive situation? You probably came up with pretty good answers to these types of questions before, but now scientific research in the areas of skill acquisition can be used to bolster those answers.  In this article, I’ll address these questions through a perspective of motor learning in order to widen our understanding of how our bodies learn, retain and change motor patterns.

Our bodies and brains work from multi-dimensional processes that are highly complex.   Within the last twenty years, scientific discoveries about how our brain processes information has made giant leaps forward.  Functional magnetic imaging resonance (fMRI) technology has helped clarify many unanswered questions about what goes on in our brains during learning and over time.  Although much is left to be answered, the groundwork that learning researchers all agree upon is valuable for us to know and use in our everyday teaching.

“I can do it on the range but not on the course.”

Imagine your 10-handicap student, Bill, is in his mid 50’s and doesn’t like to practice.  You’ve given him a lesson that required making a physical change to part of his golf swing.  The new movement pattern is different for him but he was able to execute it well when you were together.   You see him later in the month and he exclaims that the lesson didn’t work.  He can do it on the range but not on the course.   So what is happening?

Explicit/Implicit Learning. There are a lot of things at work and nearly endless number of combinations of possibilities, but there are a few concepts that are highly probable. When learning new movements there are two processes that operate simultaneously: One process is called explicit and the other is implicit (Magill, 2014).  The explicit process is conscious and includes everything that a student is actively aware of such as verbal instructions, self-talk, and anything that a learner is actively thinking about. When teaching a new shot to a student you communicate verbally what you want the player to do, which involves explicit learning.  You might even do a few demonstrations and put the student into a position for him or her to feel the movement or key area.  This part of the learning process is generally where you would identify a biomechanical problem that you want to change, and you convey that to the student through video, a ball-flight tracking device or whatever form of feedback you choose.   An important part of the explicit learning process is for the student to figure out how the task fits in with the environment and the key movement organization. The explicit processes include what people are thinking about in order to solve the movement task problem (e.g. that might mean they are thinking about swinging the club more from the inside).

The second process, the implicit process, is working simultaneously but involves less conscious activity.  The implicit process involves the force dynamics of the skill to be learned and is called implicit because we don’t work on consciously.  This part has the unscientific nickname, “muscle memory.”   We all have worked with students who are new to a particular skill and their movements seem jerky and inconsistent.  They are most likely new to the movement and haven’t spent time practicing therefore they have not yet finely tuned their force generation processes.  With time spent practicing the skill, the force dynamics will be organized and the movement will smooth out.   The catch is that this implicit process cannot be taught through words or numbers or images.  This is the part of learning that only the student can do through practice. This is what people have described as “letting it gel,” or “stamping it in our memory.”   Our job is to create an environment (both physical and motivational) for them to do it over and over so that the implicit process occurs.

It’s important to note that the explicit learning happens much faster than implicit.  It’s no surprise that new golfers make big movement changes quickly, but the implicit processes are not as fast to kick in.   It is important to communicate to students that implicit learning takes much more time and practice.

So, what does all this have to do with our student Bill who can perform well on the practice range but not on the course? Let’s first consider the practice range. This environment places few demands on the player because the lie is always the same and aiming at a target is not as critical.  The range is an easier place to perform a new movement.  However on the golf course, the player experiences a laundry list of new demands that didn’t exist on the range and they require some attention.  So when the attention is taken up by these new demands such as the water hazard on the left, the uncomfortable sloped lie, or the distracting playing partner, there isn’t much else left for what is required for the new movement.   Simply put, the player isn’t ready to take the new movement on the course because he still needs time to work it into his brain so that it becomes “encoded” or implicit.  He may understand, and be able to tell you what he is to do (which describes what he has explicitly learned) but his body hasn’t yet solved the specific movement problem so that he can make the shot happen without thinking.  What he needs is more practice for his movement to become implicit.

Choking under pressure.   Let’s imagine a different scenario with your student, Bill, the 10-handicap player.   He tells you that he is able to play on the course without difficulty, but when the pressure is on, his game falls apart.  This is different from learning it implicitly because we know what he’s perfectly capable of playing well.  In this case he actually had a meltdown.  So what is going on in this situation?  These meltdowns can occur for a range of skill levels and have less to do with whether the skill was learned and more to do with where he is placing his attention.  

When the movements are new and the explicit learning is taking place, the frontal regions of the brain activate and working memory is used. However, after lots of practice, this type of thinking isn’t as necessary and those same brain regions are not as active. In fact, over extensive practice, images of the brain show activity not in the fronal regions anymore, but instead in the dorsal regions, a different part of the brain that stores that procedural knowledge (Poldrack et. al, 2005). In other words, after we learn something and don’t have to think about it anymore, the frontal region of our brain – the part that is required for working memory – is not needed quite as much.  The result is a movement that is more automatic and does not require as much active thinking.  So, in high stakes situations by thinking about the movements in a step-by-step way just like you would when you are in early learning, you actually disrupt the process of “letting it happen”.  This is overthinking and a good player can sabotage his or her own chances of doing what they already know how to do (Beilock & Gray, 2007). When a player feels pressure or anxiety and begins to overthink the processes that do not need to be thought of, their performance can fall apart.


  • If the new skill hasn’t been practiced enough, it’s not quite ready for the demands of the golf course.
  • If the skill has been practiced but it falls apart under pressure, chances are the player needed to not over-think the shot and instead, “let it happen”            

“I just want a quick tune up before I play.”

This time let’s suppose Bill is looking for a quick lesson to get him ready for an important round with clients.  He doesn’t feel like his swing is ready before having you look at it and “fix it up” for the course.   You don’t love the idea of this last minute tune up because you suspect that it won’t take effect or even worse, encourage too much thinking about his mechanics while he plays.  What is really underpinning why this could be a bad idea?

The best response from a motor learning point of view depends on two things:  What you work on and how far along he or she is in the learning process.  These critical pieces of information will determine how you teach the player and what you choose to work in that lesson time.

We can use the model of implicit and explicit processing once again to explain why a quick tune up lesson before playing may or may not work. Although both explicit and implicit processes occur simultaneously during the learning, remember that they do not change at the same rate.  So during an hour long lesson with a student, depending on the skill level, you may see rapid improvements in the over all movement organization: they are thinking explicitly about what you are saying and responding to the set up that you’ve devised with training aids and other feedback forms, but they may not be ready to bring it onto the course yet if it it hasn’t been honed in implicitly.  This translates to mean, do not give a lot of new information to your student if it might cause him to think too much about it on the golf course.  However, with more advanced players, a few simple one-word reminders of a movement that they have already learned might be very useful.

To summarize, it’s OK to give your student Bill a lesson before he plays if you work on things that he is familiar with.  This way you’re not introducing new concepts that require “thinking” but rather putting the movements into place that he has had before in the past.   The goal is to send Bill onto the golf course with a minimal amount of explicit information so that he isn’t overwhelmed.  Keep it simple and if possible, familiar.


  • If the lesson environment is organized so the player is not required to meet a new challenging demand (such as completely change the way his hands feel at the top of the backswing) a quick tune up could be beneficial.
  • The instructor’s goal should be to give an appropriate amount of information or feedback so that the player can balance a swing thought with “letting it happen”. Too much information will prohibit this balance and interfere with the ability to perform.


Magill, R.A. (2011). Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.  Change to Magill & Anderson (2014)…(10th ed.)

Poldrack et al. (2005). The neural correlates of motor skill automaticity. The Journal of Neuroscience, 25, 5356-5364.

Beilock, S. L., & Gray, R. (2007). Why do athletes “choke” under pressure? In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Ecklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (3rd ed., pp. 425–444). Hoboken, NH: Wiley.