[Modified version of Rushall, B. S., & Ford, D. (1982). Teaching backwards - An alternate skill instruction progression. CAHPER Journal, 48(5), 16-20.]

One of the major characteristics common to the majority of sport instructors, irrespective of their individual approach and style of teaching, is the sequence in which beginners are taught skills. In the traditional order of instruction a logical progression is followed from the initiation of the skill unto its completion. For example, in the sport of golf the "swing" is taught in varying degrees of minute emphases starting with the grip, then the stance, backswing, downswing, and finally, the follow-through. However, the assumption that this logical progression is the best for instruction can be debated. It is the purpose of this article to question this traditional assumption and to suggest an alternative progression that is demonstrated with the skill of swinging a golf club.

Weaknesses With the Traditional Sequencing of Instruction

Before discussing an alternative method, it is necessary to examine some of the weaknesses and problems that are inherent with the forward progression of instruction.

In most cases, the early lessons in golf instruction taken by a beginner will emphasize the grip, stance, and then probably a part swing or full swing. The grip and stance usually do not present major problems, although they will feel strange and uncomfortable, and will require many trials before they "feel right." Major problems usually occur when the beginner attempts to hit the ball, that is, any deficiencies in the segments prior to contacting the ball are manifested when contact is attempted. From there on many errors are committed and the rate of performance improvement varies greatly. The characteristic performance variation frustrates the beginner which in turn interferes with learning. Consequently, performance improvement and learning are hindered by the concomitant emotional response of the learner.

Unfortunately, the task of learning is made more difficult as the forward progression of instruction develops. The problem resides in the inability of the learner to focus all his/her attention on the new to-be-learned feature of the swing when it is introduced. The requirement of the beginner to rehearse, concentrate on, or remember previously introduced aspects of the swing before the new additional item can be attempted "interferes" with the learning of that item. As the swing development progresses more interference occurs. As a result, learning the latter features of the action becomes more difficult. This increased difficulty produces associated emotional problems as described above. This situation can account for many of the problems which are exhibited by beginning golfers, particularly those who are adults., The fact that one has to perform what has been learned before a new aspect can be attempted is the crux of the problem. It is contended that the interference that is caused by the activity prior to the attempted control of a new skill element is the weakness with forward progressions of instruction.

A further weakness with the traditional order of teaching golf is that the beginner may find it difficult to remember all the different skill aspects. Usually, a mental "check-list" is formed and followed by the student. This often leads to the golfer standing over the ball trying to think of all the things that should be emitted before the new item of instruction is attempted. This "checking" often becomes a habit. Such thought intrusions during the execution of acts like a golf swing interfere with the learning and progression of the skill development. The reasons for this interference are several, but a commonly observed one is tension which contravenes the development of a rhythmical, fluent swing.

Further, as the progression is attempted the time for attempting the new segment is delayed more and more. This leads to the possibility of forgetting what needs to be done after all the previously "learned" segments have been attended to. Also for two-phase ballistic actions such as a golf swing or a throw, there is not sufficient time to cognitively control all the segments. They are completed before that is possible. The skill of forming appropriate motor plans (Gentile, 1972) prior to the execution of each trial is not developed in a beginner. Consequently, as the instruction progresses forward, improvement is made more difficult.

The following figure illustrates difficulties with traditional forward progressions.

Forward progression diagram

It is proposed that the forward progression of teaching skills is inefficient because:

  1. learning becomes more difficult as the progression advances,
  2. a great deal of mental work is required of the learner,
  3. interference and thinking reduces the learning rate, and
  4. emotional contaminants further retard performance improvements.

Although this traditional logical progression of instruction is the most commonly observed sequence it does not necessarily mean that it is the best method of instruction.

An Alternative Method

The alternative method of instruction eliminates the problems found in the forward teaching progression. It involves the process termed "backward shaping." Backward chaining has been known as a viable instruction procedure for some time (Whaley & Malott, 1971). In that procedure elements of a behavior chain are learned by doing the last first, the next-to-last second, etc. For example, to learn a poem the line that is learned first is the last line, then the second last line is learned, and so on. This effective instructional strategy has rarely, if ever, been applied to learning a single-skill activity. This paper uses the golf swing as an example.

For teaching golf the grip is the first element that is taught irrespective of the progression used. The student should be able to form a satisfactory grip and wield the club in a variety of actions. From then on, the alternative and traditional methods differ. After the grip, the backward shaping procedure dictates that the final follow-through position is taught. The learner is made aware that this position must be attained for every swing trial. In learning terminology, the attainment of the final follow-through position should serve as a terminal reinforcer. Every subsequent trial should end at the-terminal follow-through position. The next step is to move the club out slightly and then swing it to the follow-through position. The beginner gradually progresses backward through the swing always completing each trial at the terminal reinforcer position. Each trial should be completed successfully if the progression is adhered to with each step being sufficiently easy to not cause any erroneous action. This contrasts with the forward progression which does produce errors, primarily due to the interference phenomenon.

To illustrate the concept, an example will be given of the instructional steps followed for a 35 years-old adult who had never played the game. The next figure depicts the steps with line drawings that were copied from photographs of the subject. Each step is lettered and is represented by an individual figure.

Backward shaping progression for golf

Step A. Teach the grip and place the club on the ground so that a correct grip and club length can be attained.

Step B. Place the student in the full follow-through position and repeat until the instructor is satisfied that the position can be repeated accurately.

Step C. Place the beginner in the part follow-through position as shown. From there have the student swing the club with accompanying body movements to the full follow-through position. Repeat until the instructor is satisfied that the action can be repeated. The sequence of movement is now AB.

Step D. Place the student in a position that starts the follow-through action. From there have the golfer swing the club with accompanying body movements to the initial follow-through position. Repeat until the instructor is satisfied that the action can be repeated. The sequence of movement is now D-C-B.

Step E. Have the beginner placed in a position that is halfway between follow-through initiation and ball contact. Then swing the club through the previous steps to the final terminal position. Repeat until the action flows and is done to the satisfaction of the instructor. The sequence of movement is now E-D-C-B.

Step F. Place the student in a position that would be that of just after impact with the ball. Then swing through the previous steps concentrating on flow of action. By this time, the learner should be able to indicate whether the follow-through action and final position are .satisfactory. Repeat until the instructor is satisfied. The movement sequence is now F-E-D-C-B.

Step G. Introduce the ball into the appropriate position. Place the club head about 12 inches behind the ball and instruct the student to "push" the ball off the ground and swing through to the follow-through position. This is a critical step for the push introduces linearity into the flat part of the swing. It also produces initial satisfying success in the learner as he/she is able to hit the ball straight from the very first contact. This phase should be repeated until the instructor is satisfied with the action and the learner is comfortable with contacting the ball. The sequence of movement is now G-F-E-D-C-B.

Step H. Place the beginner in a position so that the club head is off the ground and near the end of the downswing. From there, complete all the previous steps concentrating on fluent movements and attaining the follow-through position. The movement sequence is now H-G-F-E-D-C-B.

Step I. Place the beginner in the half downswing position and complete the established sequence of movements to the instructor's satisfaction. The movement sequence is now I-H-G-F-E-D-C-B.

Step J. Place the beginner in a partial backswing position introducing a small, controlled hitch as the initiation to the backswing. Swing the club through the previous steps and repeat until the instructor is satisfied. The sequence of movement is now J-I-H-G-F-E-D-C-B.

Step K. Place the student in the quarter backswing position, wind-up to the half backswing position, and swing through the movement sequence. The learner usually has a tendency to do too much backswing in this step. It may be necessary to physically restrain the amount of backswing to that practised in Step I. Repeat until the instructor is satisfied with the fluency of action and the nature of the contact with the ball. The movement sequence is now K-J-I-H-G-F-E-D-C-B.

Step L. The final step is to develop the ball address stance. Then initiate the previous movement sequence. The final sequence of the movement is L-K-J-I-H-G-F-E-D-C-B. The swing is complete once this final step has been satisfactorily executed.

There are several features of the backward shaping process which need to be followed to ensure good teaching.

  1. The progression from one step to the next is only followed when the step is performed adequately. A recommended minimal criterion for adequacy is five consecutive executions of a successful enactment. It would be best for the instructor to err on the side of being too strict rather than being too lenient with regard to this feature.
  2. If errors are continually demonstrated, return to the previous satisfactorily executed step for further practice and successful performance. Then proceed once again with the backward sequence.
  3. If a step is too difficult for the learner, that is, mastery or understanding is not shown, break the step down into further "mini-steps" but still adhere to the backward progression procedure.
  4. If several practice sessions are undertaken (which is likely to be the case), each session should begin with a quick revision and practice of all the previous steps.
  5. The instructor should attempt to be very demonstrative, positive, and congratulatory for every trial that is successfully completed.

For the subject depicted in Figure 1, the teaching process was conducted indoors using plastic practice golf balls. The total indoor instruction time was 3 1/2 hours spread over 11 days. The sequence of steps described was satisfactory for this subject. it is likely that the step sequence will have to be modified according to the attributes of the individual learner. It is best to progress with too many steps rather than to attempt too few.

It should be noted that from Steps I and J that only the half backswing and half downswing positions were taught. This was done to prevent "over-swinging". It was assumed that the beginner would naturally take the club back to a fuller swing position as confidence was gained. This assumption proved correct as was evidenced in the "field test". What was interesting was that the individual concerned did not "over-swing." over-swinging is a common problem with the traditional forward progression method where a full backswing is usually taught early in the instructional sequence.

To further evaluate the backward shaping teaching method, the subject was "field-tested." He was required to hit 50 balls with a 7 iron from a particular position toward a target 140 yards away. These were the first solid balls that he had hit and were the first shots made outdoors and at a target. Of the shots, 24 traveled over 100 yards and were within 15 yards either side of the line from position to target. In essence, almost half the balls stroked were successful shots. This is a very notable level of performance and suggests that this method of instruction is very effective. However, further testing of the procedure needs to be conducted before a definitive statement can be made as to the absolute value of the backward shaping progression.

What are the Advantages of Backward Shaping?

The major benefit of the backward shaping technique is that it overcomes all the disadvantages of the forward progression method. Interference does not occur since each new element precedes all previously "learned" elements, that is, the learner thinks of the new technique item content and then does what has been done successfully before. Each progression does not increase in difficulty through interference since undivided attention can be focused on the new step element to be learned. The formation of a mental check-list is not necessary because of the naturally occurring actions and successful completions that occur. Attention is focused only on the new step content and achieving the terminal follow-through position. There is an obvious lack of tension in the learner because of the simplicity of the task and its steps. Emotional problems did not occur in this demonstration subject and are not likely to occur while step sizes are small, guarantee a high rate of success, and are clearly understood by the learner.

The following figure illustrates the structure and characteristics of backward progressions.

Backward progression diagram
A Challenge

Backward shaping is advocated as being a viable alternative to the traditional forward progression of instruction. It may not be appropriate for some activities but does have widespread potential. For example, teaching tackling would be commenced with the opponent and tackler lying on the ground in a firm hold position which would constitute the terminal tackling position. Gradually, the two individuals rise up, practice contact and holding, until the last step when the tackler runs in to make the tackle. A similar backward progression would occur for various wrestling take-downs and counter moves. Perhaps the shot putter would assume the follow-through position and work backward through the action. when teaching children to throw a similar backward progression would be advised. The sequence of steps would have to be devised and experimented with for each sporting action.

This article describes something new. Its value is best determined by those involved with teaching. Theory, laboratory investigations, and limited researches suggest great advantages for backward shaping over traditional forward teaching progressions. It is suggested that it be tried as an alternative instructional procedure. There is evidence that the experience will be rewarding for both the learner and instructor. Experimentation is in order!


  1. Gentile, A. M. (1972), A working model of skill acquisition with application to teaching. Quest, 17, 3-23.
  2. Whaley, D. L., & Malott, R. W. (1971). Elementary principles of behavior. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Return to Table of Contents for this issue.