A Practical Evaluation of Golf Coaches’ Knowledge of Block and Random Practice

Authors: Dr. David Grecic and Mr. Brendan Ryan, MS / MA

Corresponding Author:
Brendan Ryan
1304 Denman Ct
Wesley Chapel, FL

David Grecic is a princial lecture and head of sport at the University of Central Lancashire. David joined the School of Sport, Tourism and the Outdoors in August 2008 having previously worked in a variety of sport and education settings for 15 years. He is an active coach in a variety of sports including rugby union, swimming and golf. It is here that his specialist interest lies and that drives his academic research.

Brendan Ryan is a former college coach who now works closely developing junior golfers in their pursuit of college. He is also a well-established academic, with a pair of Master’s degrees and the author of several books, published papers and popular articles.

A Practical Evaluation of Golf Coaches’ Knowledge of Block and Random Practice

The practical knowledge of golf coaches is of great interest to golfers, researchers, and the media alike. One popular element is their application of practice design and, in particular, their use of Contextual Interference (CI) through their use of random and block practice design. The study investigated the level of understanding of 69 golf coaches in the theory, use, and transference of both these methods. The main findings were that coaches had a surface level understanding of the issues, but had worrying gaps in knowledge on how to relate their practice design to long-term athlete development. Suggestions are provided on how coach learning could be provided to support this identified development need.

Keywords: Skill learning, Coaching Practice, Coach Education.

Golf coaches’ knowledge has long been of interest to players, researchers and the media alike (Sampson, 1993a; 1993b; Schempp et al., 1998; 2004; Schempp & McCullick, 2010; Golf Digest Top 100 Golf Instructors). In particular, a major focus has been on how these coaches go about their professional practice of instruction, teaching and coaching to develop skilled performance in their athletes (Hogan and Wind 1957).

Within the sports coaching industry per se, research has been directed at coaches’ knowledge sources, frameworks, values, development etc. A specific gap has been identified however, that is, the coaches’ knowledge of skill learning and its design in practice (Farrow et al 2008; Williams and Hodges, 2005; Williams and Ford, 2008; Merbah and Meuleman, 2011; Renshaw et al, 2010).

Although much of today’s widely available golf literature is devoted to how top coaches operate (see the plethora of articles within the range of golf instructional magazines, items on the Golf Channel, coaches’ personal websites and blogs, and YouTube postings). Researchers seem more interested in how these coaches make decisions about what, how, and why they structure practice the way they do (Collins et al., 2012; Gilbert & Trudel, 2005; 2013; Grecic, MacNamara and Collins, 2013; Guadagnoli and Bertram, 2014; Lyle 2010).

Literature Review
There have been many studies conducted into the use and effectiveness of practice schedules to develop skill and motor learning. Early studies identified that if the typical constant practice was modified by introducing different skills then a deeper form of learning was achieved. Battig (1972) named this the Contextual Interference (CI) effect. i. e. any change in the practicing of the intended skill would make the brain work harder and so embed the learning deeper in the memory. Subsequently key findings from Shea and Morgan (1979) evidenced this CI effect in sport especially when practice scheduling was arranged in block and random conditions. Their findings stated that student which followed random practice schedules, that is practicing a range of different skills in a randomized order, outperformed the blocked practice group in post-tests demonstrating greater retention of the skill. Criticisms initially surrounded these finding and their application in sport due to the samples selected, the simple tasks performed to judge skill learning, the limited timescales used, and the laboratory-based conditions of the studies. (see Brady, 2004; Magill and Hall, 1990, Wulf and Shea, 2002; Handford, 2006; for comprehensive reviews of the studies used). Based on the body of evidence, coaches should be familiar with both the terminology and application of CI, as well as block and random practice.

Interestingly, previous studies into golf coaches’ professional practice have highlighted a knowledge gap in skill learning theory, as well as and how they have applied this in practice (Carson & Collins, 2011). As Carson and Collins suggest, this may simply reflect the cultural norms of the sport because, “Golf like other sports has a traditional way of doing things.” Within CI alone, recent studies have now identified how the competency of the athlete may mediate the impact of CI (Ollis et al., 2005), how CI needs to be manipulated to extend athletes as their skill level develops (Porter et al., 2010), how CI can enhance golfers’ imagery and other performance metrics (Fazeli et al., 2017), whilst Cheong et al., (2016) are the first to demonstrate the positive transference impact of CI effects in sporting competition. Such study results have led many to call for more research in this field to support coaches in applying CI to their sessions (Buszard et al., 2017; Gray, 2017)

The data were collected via online survey using Qualtrics as part of a larger study into Golf Coaching Praxis. Participation in the data collection was optional. The survey link was provided via email to approximately 100 golf professionals. To be selected, the golf professional had to have had an established teaching business with at least 10 years’ experience. The survey collected 69 data sets of responses to questions about practice design and scheduling to gain an insight into the coaches’ knowledge and their use of CI in their coaching practice. Examples of questions were: What are the goals of Random and Block Practice? Describe the science behind Block and Random Practice? Between Block and Random Practice, is one better for developing skills? The survey was distributed to instructors via link email. The questions were designed to help understand how golf professionals operationalize block and random practice and to uncover coaches’ views of how the CI concept interacts to facilitate learning.

Initial deductive analysis of results, demonstrates while coaches are familiar with the terms random and block practice, they do not fully understand the application of the terms within a broader context, like the addition of CI. Instead coaches see the terms more simply; block is repetition and random is game like.

Interestingly in response to the first question, what are the goals of random and block practice? One hundred percent of respondents defined the role of block and random practice in a process of improvement. Indeed Respondent #69 suggested that, “The goal of random practice is to put a player in more “game like” situation. A different “task” for each rep or shot should engage the player more with what they are doing and the movements they are making. The goal should be to become more aware of what movements create outcomes” (Respondent #69). Respondent #66 suggested that the CI could be used to develop self-efficacy of the player, “The goal of any practice should be to improve some element of the game and to gain confidence.” While respondent #47 suggested that CI can be used to support learning if “The goal of random practice is to simulate game-like (competition), so each experience is a learning one.”

When coaches were asked to describe the science behind block and random practice there were a wide range of answers provided. For example, respondent #69 believed that using “Random practice is engaging an athlete in more cognitive learning.” Respondent #63 explained this process in the following way, “Random practice challenges the brain to adjust and react to a new scenario each time.” Interestingly most coaches understood how block practice could use repetition to build skills, however a worrying result was that a number of coaches were not able to recognize and articulate any thoughtful comments about the differences.

The third question addressed coach’s views and preferences in using Block and Random Practice, specifically seeking to determine if they thought that one in particular was better for developing skills? The results to this question were the most worrying in terms of coaching knowledge yet insightful when considering why CI may still be an underused tool of the coaches’ repertoire. The results showed that 75% of respondents did not really address the question but instead listed the pros and cons of each random and block practice. Of course, this may have been due to a lack of comprehension due to the wording or terminology used in the question. Other results demonstrated a level of understanding that ranged along a spectrum from no understanding (Respondents, #49, #55, #58) through a general appreciation of the concepts, to finally some fixed views about skill development, E.g. “Block practice is scheduling certain time periods for certain practice drills” (Respondent #58). Likewise, respondent #56 explained the view that “Block practice is the only way to get good at golf”.

It must be noted that these results, as a single part of a larger study, represent initial results pertaining to golf coaches’ knowledge. Further analysis is needed to relate the findings to other elements of golf coaches’ professional practice E.g. Concepts of skill learning, decision making, pedagogy, and talent development, psychosocial and emotional intelligence. When examining the results for the data collection it is disappointing that only 69/100 golf coaches chose to participate. This may have been because of the questions we selected. The coaches may not have fully understand the questions and/or felt confident in providing their answers. In future the specific wording will be refined on a small sample pilot. Additional prompts will also be included to contextualise and clarify the subject area. Alternative explanations may also be considered however could it be that respondents did not want to take the time necessary to complete the questions or did not feel that the data collected would benefit them or their industry in any way? One possibility to consider is whether, when they saw detailed questions related to the topic, participants who did not know anything about the subject of block and random practice decided not to continue with the data collection to protect their own ego.

Although random and block practice are more popular within the vernacular of golf coaches than CI, this data collection demonstrates while coaches understand the terms random and block practice, they do not understand how the concepts work in the context of long term player development. These finding are important because research in learning, particularly Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (Bloom, 1956) suggests that remembering and understanding are only the first steps related to mastery. The data collected by this survey suggests that while the participants loosely understand the concepts related to block and random practice, they cannot demonstrate the skills of evaluation or creation which are further along the spectrum of understanding. For example, with the first question, 100% of the respondents answered the question in context rather than by definition; no one stated the definition of both and then did an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Likewise, in the responses to the other questions, the respondents lacked detailed answers, instead opting to either not respond or to provide vague details.

Implications for Coaches
The data collected in this survey demonstrates that many golf professionals had a limited understanding and superficial knowledge of CI and how to use it best in practice design and scheduling. Many seem to view the process of player improvement as following the rules of supervenience; a linear process of improvement characterized by introduction of skills through block practice, followed by transference of skills by random practice then application of practice in tournament play. Unfortunately, golf player development is not so linear, and improvement is based on a plethora of diverse skills and factors including but not limited to planning, experience, ball control, emotional skills, practice intensity and duration. In this way, random and block practice are tools that coaches can use to facilitate building skills, however alone they are not necessarily completely effective. Indeed, recent research into the application of CI shows it to be a very complex process where the level of player experience, task selections, transfer to competition tests all need to be carefully considered if CI is to be effective (Farrow & Buszard, 2017). We must therefore recognise here the implications for coaching practice, i.e. the need to develop better understanding of CI and then consider how to use CI with other evidence-based practice methods and tools such as the challenge point framework, and the think out-loud protocol, and how contextual interference can support golf coaches increase transference of skill to the golf course and ultimately lower the players’ scores.

As an example of coach development, the study’s participants need further information about random and block practice in terms of transference of the ideas. Here, transference is the ability to apply skills in a performance context. In golf, transference is about application of skills on the golf course or tournament rounds. The work of countless scientists including Dr. Robert Bjork, suggests that we should challenge ourselves. For example, golf coaches who utilise a games based approach, it is important to make sure the games are done at the right level of difficulty. When prescribing practice, golf professionals should be aware of the “the challenge point framework”, created by Lee and Guadagnoli. The Challenge Point Framework suggests that players need to match their skills with approximate matching tasks (Lee and Guadagnoli, 2004). For example, a ten handicap should not have a goal of playing 18 holes, hitting 14 greens and shooting 74. Instead their goals should be to have a chance to break 80, hit no balls out of play, have no others and have putts for par on most holes. The challenge point framework is especially important in the context of random and block practice since, throughout the year, players will be preforming at various levels. For example, elite junior players may have the ability to shoot 65 on their home golf course when they are playing their best. However, their “best” may only be approximately 30-45 days per year. Great coaching matches current ability with proper goals.

Golf professionals many also want to use an application of Ericcson and Simon’s (1980) “think out loud protocol”. This protocol is a method in which the participant verbalizes thoughts and feelings while they are completing the task. The user is played back their internal dialog and asked to evaluate these thoughts, feelings, and opinions. This method is used frequently in single user performance evaluations. It was originally applied for cognitive psychologists to obtain data about the way in which humans cognitively process information (Ericsson & Simon, 1980). For instructors, the ‘think out-loud protocol’ allows them to understand better what the student is thinking and experiencing during different situations which can help the instructor properly identify, diagnose and prescribe individualised training schedules to maximise the impact of their interventions.

Of course what ultimately would help in the transference of skills is if coaches had a better understanding of the contextual interference concept itself. Then they may be better at applying it in either the blocked or randomised schedule they select. Contextual interference, an idea first proposed by Magill and Hall relates to a learning phenomenon where interference during practice enhances the process of recall, improving skill learning (Magill and Hall, 1990). The nuance of contextual interference in coaching, is the ability to make learning more difficult. For example, a coach might put an alignment stick in a certain position and challenge the student not to hit the stick in their down swing. When challenged, the player will have to manipulate the position of the club’s vertical swing plane, and so change their delivery patterns. Poor contextual interference, might be the coach introducing training aids which make practice too easy. Although the ‘the putting arch’ is a very popular training aid, the arch is doing so much of the work, so the brain does not have to engage to facilitate making more putts. This decreases learning and results in players continuing to struggle with their putting.

The data collected in this survey demonstrates that although golf professionals have a basic understanding of Contextual Interference and the concepts associated with block and random practice, they do not understand how these concepts work within a framework of improvement. Instead it appears, that golf professionals have a surface level understanding of CI and limited knowledge of skill learning. i.e. They see the process as very linear; players should engage in building skills on the range, then use random practice (and pressure) to test those skills before playing tournaments. Unfortunately, improvement is not so easy, and application of this model is unlikely to be beneficial to a large and diverse group of students. For students to have long term improvement, coaches must not only understand the concepts CI and practice scheduling but knowledge of practice design and practice delivery including various frameworks of challenge and instructional activities.

Of course, such results highlight the need for further learning and development of our golf coaches. The need for attention in this area has been well recognized (Abraham and Collins, 1998) and the question of how best to educate sports coaches in general has received much debate with researchers promoting the various benefits and limitations of different types of learning episodes ( see Cushion et al, 2003; Gilbert and Trudel, 2010, Mallett et al., 2009, re: formal, informal and non-formal learning episodes) Wernthner and Trudel (2006) offered an alternative description of the options available to coaches. They identified three avenues of learning: mediated learning, unmediated learning, and internal learning. Mediated learning includes activities such as formal education courses delivered by sports organizations, private companies or universities; unmediated learning relates to areas such as feedback from more experienced peers, information collected through social media channels, books and research papers; and internal learning occurs when a coach critically reflects on their current practice in an attempt to improve their professional practice. Olsson et al, (2016) delved further limitations of the current coach education offer. They promoted more forcefully the non-formal and individual sources of coach development and the adoption of one to one mentoring to aid self-reflection, the establishment of Communities of Practice (COPs) to provide peer support networks, and mentorship within formal education courses to support learning in context and reduce some of the existing limitations in the field. Support for this view is also prevalent in specific golfing studies that criticize the traditional preparation and accreditation of Professional Golf Association (PGA) golf coaches and its focus, content and delivery (Davies and Grecic, 2013, Jenkins, 2014). The good news however is that within the golf industry progress is being made. With regards to formal education new golf coaching and performance degrees are now available that focus on the holistic view of player development, as well as on line certification courses that delve more deeply into the contemporary practice research that coaches demand (Golf Coaching Praxis, 2018). Within less formal channels, on line platforms such as Edufii, Moodle, and Microsoft Teams allow coaches to interact, support each other and share skill development ideas. Social media allows skill learning information to flow around the industry instantaneously via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Podcasts, whilst finally golf’s governing body is promoting and facilitating a mentorship scheme to support its members.

So how to conclude this first exploration of golf coaches’ knowledge? The take home message seems quite clear. Despite what appears to be a shocking lack of knowledge in the critical areas of practice scheduling, particularly the use of CI, and the organization of block and random practice, help is available. Of course, practice in its widest discipline category of skill learning is an ever-evolving area. What was accepted wisdom and appropriate professional practice in the era of Hogan, Nicholas, and even Tiger, is no longer supported by empirical evidence. If organizations such as the Private Golf Academies, Golf Schools, Colleges and High Schools need to invest in their teams to upskill them all in skill!

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2018-06-13T11:07:13+00:00July 19th, 2018|Sport Education, Sports Studies and Sports Psychology|Comments Off on A Practical Evaluation of Golf Coaches’ Knowledge of Block and Random Practice