Desirable Difficulties – Why Your Golf Game Is Not Improving

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Desirable Difficulties concept was introduced in 1994 by Dr. Robert Bjork who was a Research Professor of Psychology at UCLA.  The basic premise or bare-bones of Desirable Difficulties is that short-term pain can lead to long-term gain.  So how does this concept relate to coaches and golfers?

When a golfer is taking a lesson, in a desire to have an immediate impact upon the student, a coach can introduce manipulations so that the student may improve that which is being worked on.  No coach desires for their student to walk away feeling as if they have not made any headway towards improvement.  Unfortunately, the manipulation for a quick and short-term gain does not usually translate into a long-term gain or performance. 

In comparison, when difficulties are introduced to the golfer that slows down the process, both learning and retention are enhanced and also the golfer can have better recall.  Thus, these manipulation difficulties are called Desired Difficulties.

The Desired Difficulties that are labeled by Dr. Bjork are spacing, interleaving, intermittent feedback, tests, and varying practice.  I will look at a couple of these and how they pertain to your golf improvement.

Spacing – We’ve all been there and done that with the following scenario.  You have an exam tomorrow and instead of spacing the time out that you study for the exam you cram for many hours. Yes you nail the test but for long-term retention and learning….not so much.   Many scientist calls this mass practice.  This same scenario applies to your golf game.  Instead of pounding ball after ball until your hands bleed for 3 hours, spread the time out over 3-4 days in 45-60 minute increments.  The end result is that retention is enhanced.

This is why I ask my students to give me 20-60 minutes in the comfort of their own home and if they do so their game can improve immensely.  Likewise, even with out of town golf schools, I ask that our sessions last no longer than 90 minutes and the sessions are spread-out over several days.  We have some of the prettiest beaches in the world so surely you won’t get bored.

Interleaving – Most golfers practice in blocks or what I termed in the Purestrike book as invariable practice.  This is where you hit x amount of each club in your bag striving to hit the same shot over and over again.  So as a player you may create some form of improvement but retention is not as great and when this is the case then performance on the golf course suffers.

This is how I encourage my students to practice.  One, they should not hit the same club back-to-back.  Two, they should not try to hit the same shot back-to-back.  Think about it, is this not the way we play golf on the course?  If they do hit the same club back-to-back, if they want to get coaches ire to a new level, hit the same shot back-to-back unless asked to do so for a particular learning experience.  Different type of shots would be high, low, fade, draw, cut, slice, heel, toe, high clubface and on and on.  These are big time learning opportunities.

Varying practice – This manipulation and difficulty introduction had to do in regards to conditions. As a coach I want to distort the game.  In other words, when one is practicing on the lesson tee most shots are hit on a flat and good lie.  This seldom happens in golf.  So distort the game by hitting different type shots, in different conditions and it will bode well for you and your game.  When faced with odd shots during performance you will have recall and confidence due to what and how you have practiced.

Intermittent feedback – As a coach, and as a parent, this can be a challenge.  We hate to see people struggle.  We want to interject and assist them to overcome but in many cases we are doing more harm than good as we begin to serve as a crutch.  What happens when a golfer is on the course by themselves and the crutch is gone?  I have seen and observed many a train wreck on the course.  It is of the highest order that self-discovery by the golfer is provided. 

As a coach I strive to pick my spots.  When I do provide a correction I strive, though many times I fail, to first ask the golfer in the form of a question.  This engages them to think and learn.  I do so after the student is quite comfortable that my question is not to stump them, make them look bad or stupid but rather as a tool for me to know what they are thinking and feeling.  Engagement!  Together, we then can provide solutions for the golfer to correct themselves which in turn, enhances learning retention.  Their toolbox becomes quite full and they can recall under pressure during tournament or on the course performance. 

By what I have spoken about in this post, and by definition, Desirable Difficulties can lead to mistakes.  Or what my friend Trevor speaks of, and I teach by, is Train Ugly.  Thus the paradigm shift that mistakes are learning opportunities is a must.  No, this does not mean we desire repeatable mistakes and bad decision making.  That would be insanity.  It’s just that we need to view challenges and struggles as opportunities for learning and not barriers to learning.  Isn’t that what golf and life is all about?  A growth mindset.  Great learners use struggle to grow.

Don’t settle for short-term improvement.  Strive for long-term improvement.