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Don’t be so critical! Research shows it pays to be positive

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A lot of golfers spend their time focused on what’s wrong.

My club should be over here, my head should have stayed just a little stiller, my back swing is a little too steep. The list goes on and on.

Honestly, it’s really easy to do. In golf, the default status is to focus on what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed.

However, there is a lot of research happening (and plenty already out there) on motivational learning, which looks at the factors of motivation that have an impact on how effective an individual’s learning can be.

Let’s look at the research and to see if there’s a better way to approach learning and practice.

Let’s kick this off with a quick story

We’re going to talk about a study that was released just this year (if you’re interested, you can read the paper here).

The study involved two groups of golfers asked to complete a putting task. Researchers created circles around a golf hole — a large circle (14 centimeters in diameter) for one group and a smaller circle (7 centimeters in diamter) for the other group.

golf putting task

Each group was told that their putt would be considered a success if the ball made it into the circle around the hole.

Interestingly enough, it was the group putting to the large circle that outperformed the small circle group, even though both groups were actually putting to ultimately the same target (a regular sized hole).

studygraphNot only did the group that putted to the large circle perform better in the initial test, but also in retention tests when they were retested the following day.

So what’s the point?

What this study shows is that how success is defined has an impact on how we learn and how we perform.

This concept has major implications, because viewing a performance in a positive light fosters learning, while being overly critical dampens the learning effect.

In other words, it pays to accentuate the positive. Taking this idea and extending it even further, coaches and instructors can help their students by creating and fostering positive motivation.

how success is defined has an impact on how we learn and how we perform.

We used to think that motivation had a temporary influence on performance. It was something we believed energized players to perform better, but now we think that pairing positive motivational factors with early learning actually enhances the learning.

Creating positive motivation

There are a few ways to create a positive motivational opportunity: One is to enhance the sense that a player been successful as they go forward. The other is to provide them with opportunities to choose or have autonomy over their actions.

In a recent interview, Dr. Rebecca Lewthwaite shared her suggestions on how to best go about this.

There are really several ways you can go about creating this positive motivational opportunity.

One is to enhance the sense that one has been successful as you go forward, and the other is to provide people with opportunities to choose or to have autonomy in their actions.

So, one way you could pair these things is tell people early on, it’s quite good if you can hit this target or be close to it in this way, provide them with positive feedback, you know, “For that early trial, it was excellent.”

And then the next thing you said is, “Let me know when you would like to get some more specific feedback.” So it’s an invitation to have to take a little charge of when you get further detail or when you dive into it more deeply.

You can hear more from her on motivational learning here.

Set better expectations

Another problem that a lot of golfers face is being in a constant state of inadequacy.

Most amateurs look to the professional ranks as the goal they should be chasing. So when looking at stats, whether it’s driving distance or scrambling percentages, there is always a negative reaction.

It’s time to compare apples to apples and not look at the PGA Tour as the goal for you game (unless you are a competitive professional).

For more reading on this check out Monte Scheinblum’s GolfWRX story, Golfers have ridiculous expectations

It’s really the long-term that matters

One of the aspects of this study was learning retention, which is important for golfers because one of the biggest problems most of them have is taking their best game to the course.

So let’s assume there are two groups of people and each group is asked to perform a motor task. One group is told their score after the task, while the other group is told their score in addition to some positive feedback such as “you have performed well relative to others.”

The second group — the one that received a second form of positive feedback — will do better, as it appears that this additional sense of success is what potentiates learning. Returning to the scenario a day later, the second group will also retain more of what they learned the first day when asked to perform a similar or somewhat related task. Not only that, but they will once again outperform the group that did not receive the additional sense of success.

In terms of practical applications for improving your game, it looks as though positive thinking is a key player. We all know that a strong mental game is a major component of success in sports, but the glass-half-full mentality really does seem to make a difference in performance and learning retention.

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Cordie has spent the last four years working with golf instructors, helping inform thousands on business and teaching best practices (if you're a coach or instructor check out http://golfinthelifeof.com/). Through that he's realized that it's time for the way golf is taught to be changed. When looking at research and talking with coaches and academics, he's launched the Golf Science Golf Science Lab , a website and audio documentary-style podcast focused on documenting what's really going on in learning and playing better golf.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Matthew Cooke

    Nov 27, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    Great article Cordie, well rounded insights with scientific support. I love that it supports the deliberate practice framework! Working on the things you have less skill at rather than more skill, but intelligently reframing the perception to be more appropriate for the individual (hence positive motivation). Bravo!

  2. gvogel

    Nov 25, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Give me a guy with a lousy swing and a lot of confidence over a guy with a good swing and no confidence.

  3. g

    Nov 25, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    “Be the ball”…..where did it go? “Right in the Lumberyard”

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