Primacy and Recency – Your Keys to Efficient Practice

There is a theory in learning called “Primacy” and “Recency”. I use this theory often when making schedules or planning lessons for my students. To me, it’s one of the best techniques for getting the most out of your practice. In simple terms, primacy and recency mean first and last. Primacy for first and recency for last. Basically, the concept is… we easily remember the first time and last time we do something. But it’s difficult to remember say the 11th or 23rd time we attempt something — unless it was a memorable result of some kind.

Here is an example…

Most adults, even though it happened years ago, remember their first kiss. And most can even give vivid details about the entire experience. From where it took place… to what they were wearing… to how they felt. It’s really quite remarkable. Now if we take that a step further, most adults remember their last kiss. For some it could have been this morning while kissing their spouse goodbye. For others, it could have been during their last relationship. For others still, it could have been 3am Saturday night at the club. We won’t go there. But you get the drift. The clearest memories are always the first and last time you do something.

For golf, I can clearly remember the first time I ever broke 70. I remember who I played with; where I played; the drive and approach I hit on 18; the sense of relief after, as I had blown numerous chances leading up to that 69. But I also remember the last time just as clearly. Sadly however, it was way too long ago. But it was a special day with a good friend. My guess is, you too, can remember certain scoring barriers and breakthroughs in your own golfing life if using the primacy and recency model.

Now, this may seem like a neat trick, but how does it help you get better at golf?

First, lets start with a practice flaw I see in a lot of golfers — from amateur to professional. I call this flaw ‘busyness’ — and I see it all the time. I’m of the school that… we all know most of the answers… to most of the stuff in life… if we could just somehow quiet our mind. But it’s hard to get quiet in the modern world with all the distractions. And when we practice golf, it’s the same thing — distractions. And with those distractions, our minds get busy. And with busy minds, we cannot focus clearly on something that may or may not help us improve. Instead, our minds scatter all over the place… and by the time we leave the practice area, we are on to a completely different theory then when we started. Sound familiar? If it does, I’ll make this promise, as it relates to golf — you will never reach your potential! But there is a way out of this confusing maze of cluttered practice — and it’s called primacy and recency.

How? Okay, let’s think about it. If we know it’s easy to remember the first and last time we do something, then logic dictates that — we should make the first and last times closer together. Instead of one-hour range sessions, where the 45-50 minutes in the middle of that hour become gray and cluttered, how about 10-15 minute focused range sessions instead? Say for example, you are going to the range to work on your swing. You just watched Andy explain his 4 New Magic Moves. You’ve watched the DVD. You’ve read the book. Your mind is all set on what you’re trying to accomplish. And… you’re really excited to start and planned a 3-hour practice session. How am I doing so far? Sound like you? It certainly used to be me.

Now lets extend that scenario above out through your practice time. Instead of having a really good strategy on how you’ll attack the day — you just start hitting balls. For example, you remember the wrist cock Andy explained — so you try it.

Here’s the sample thought process as you practice…

“It feels good. Better than my old swing. This is easy. What’s next? Let’s try the shoulder move. Okay, feels good, but am I doing it right? Wait, that one wasn’t very good — maybe I forgot to cock my wrists properly. How was I supposed to do that again? Didn’t GOLF Magazine say something last month about cocking my wrists. Yeah, that’s right, I saw David Leadbetter do something on that. It was some kind of drill with an umbrella. Hey John, do you remember that drill Leadbetter had in GOLF Magazine last month with the umbrella?”

So there you are. An hour into practice and lost again. But you were so excited and thought you really, for once, had the answer. Yet, you didn’t really improve. In fact, you’re more confused than ever. And to make matters worse, you can’t even remember how you used to swing, which at this point you would take happily.

Now, let me take you through that same scenario properly, using the theory of primacy and recency.

You should watch the DVD all the way through for an overview. But then, you should should watch the new first magic move again (the wrist cock) to truly understand. Now, instead of having a ton of information about four moves — you have a better understanding of the first move. You should start the DVD with the first magic move and end the DVD back at that first magic move. Then there is a much better chance you’ll know it…and more importantly, retain the information.

Next, make a few notes about the first magic move. You don’t have to write the Magna Carta — just a few key points that will help you remember. Writing it down does two things. First, it reinforces the information deeper into your brain, as this is another way to learn. And second, it gives you a simple cheat sheet, should you become distracted on the driving range. Next, get to the range and warm up. Then, start your drill for the new first magic move. Do the drill with great thought and care. Really try and feel the changes. Do this for only 15 minutes. Once 15 minutes is up, go over to the putting green and hit putts for 15 minutes. Work on whatever it is you’re working on there — but again, just one thing. Get your mind fully off your swing and onto your putting 100%.

Then, after 15 minutes on the putting green, go back to the range and continue with the new first magic move for another 15 minutes. Again, take great care while you practice. Then, after 15 minutes, go work on one area of your short game for 15 minutes. Again, focus only on the area you’re practicing — not your golf swing. Then, after 15 minutes, go back to the range and work on the new first magic move again. Continue this process for as long as you have to practice. Don’t — I repeat DON’T — move up to the second magic move yet. Just keep repeating this process for a few practice sessions.

In a golf swing, one thing builds upon another. And if you go to step two before truly mastering step one — you’ll struggle. You’re better off hanging out too long at step one then leaving too early for step two. Remember, just because your mind comprehends the information, doesn’t mean your body does. That will always take more time. You want the first step to become part of you before moving on to step two. Once you’ve mastered step one, then use the same philosophy for step two.

So lets think about the differences above. In my example, you had short bursts of practice on one single part of your game. And because the beginning and end of each these sessions were close together (15 minutes) — there is a super chance of you retaining all that you learned and felt. And more importantly, because the sessions were shorter, there’s less chance of distraction with other non-productive thoughts. So, although you may not hit as many balls this way — the quality will go way up. And with that, your improvement will be ten-fold.

Remember, by keeping the first and the last time you do something closer to one another — your chances of retention improve greatly. So short bursts of focused practice is the key.

Good luck!

8 Responses to “Primacy and Recency – Your Keys to Efficient Practice”

  1. Laren says:


    That sounded exactly like me at the range. This is good advice and i will try it this weekend.

    Any advice for chipping yips?

  2. Byron Mullen says:

    Good thoughts. For quite a while now I have been concentrating on my short game, putting and chipping and only spending about 15 minutes at the driving range. I, however, only go to the driving range once but I am working on my game almost every day. Last week I finally broke 80 again for the first time in quite awhile. Shot 76. I think this type of practice is very beneficial.


  3. Adam says:

    Spot on dude. I have been guilty of useless practising, leaving the range a little confused. I have a good memory when it comes to learning new things, but it takes more time for the muscles to remember, especially when they are moving into unfamiliar positions. I haven’t even gone to the range yet, but i thank you in advance for the simple, focused, controlled approach i will use for practice.


  4. Greg says:

    A great idea, and I will attempt to implement it the next time I go to the range, but not necessarily an easy thing to do, not once you get in the heat of battle with a balky swing! LOL Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a caddie who could drag us away, or remind us of all of the things we felt sure we would remember to work on at the range, instead of getting caught up in some nuance that just won’t feel right no matter how hard we try – never realizing that it is probably the result of some other problem, and not the problem itself. Anyway, great advise!

  5. Don says:

    Hi Andy,

    Mate you are right on the money!!

    I have been developing and polishing my golf swing for the last 7 years and have found that what you are saying is one of the greatest principles that any aspiring golfer can apply.

    As the saying goes “if you still have to think about it during your swing you haven’t got it yet” (in your subconscious)

    Another great principle is to practice in slow motion without a ball.

    Slow practice accelerates the learning process.

    Keep the good information flowing. I love it.



  6. Andrew Brink says:

    This article was to the T (excuse the pun)
    It feels like you just spent the last three months being my shadow.


  7. sudhir ketkar says:

    I totally agree with you that a focused short burst of practice in each session would help. I have some of my own comments on the issue of lowering scores and intelligent practicing WITHIN ONE’s LIMITATION.

    Unfortunately in game of golf every golfer OVER ESTIMATES his/her own skill. A GOOD SHOT, that one has made some time walking those numerous golf miles, is remembered and golfer lives in that world of memories where he scores numerous imaginative birdies and pars and some times eagles too.

    To be honest to yourself, if you have never hit a ball 300 yds away, although it feels good, don’t try to believe that you can do it 2 times out of 10. It may happen once in 1000 times. It will happen some time perhaps when all the elements of swing get synchronised. I promise It will happen more as accident so be true to yourself.

    Dont let it dishearten you. If you are not a long hitter, focus more on your short game and to avoid those muffed shots. They will be more helpful in getting ur scores down rather than trying to focus to hit ball 300 yds away ( I have never been able to do).

    Focus practice on areas which will lower scores and areas within ur limitation. Do not shorten the period of practice in eagerness to get back to the course with believe that you will soon do the same what u did in practice range a few times.

    TAKE FRESH STANCE, AIM each time you hit a practice ball.

    good luck

  8. Joe says:

    Sounds good Andy. I will try to remember to implement this tactic in about 4 months when it gets a tad warmer. LOL I haven’t made it to the second magic move yet, anyway. I was working and golfing and cutting the grass and have no time to read or practice much. When I do practice, it’s always a large bucket. My buddy Steve usually hits a jumbo bucket. My back can’t take that.

Leave a Reply