Demystifying the Golf Skill Learning Process


Examining the learning process:
   Damn, this the hardest game I’ve ever tried to play. That’s what one of my playing partners said, who’s played numerous sports and some rather well. He continued; but learning to play golf consistently like I have other sports remains a mystery to me. 
     I told him that contrary to what he reads in golf magazines and hears on Golf Channel, there are just no shortcuts for consistent play. High level players know this as do enlightened golf professionals.
       I told him that one important step toward more consistent play is to understand how golf skills are learned. Then, commit to that learning process, and you’ll give yourself a good chance to reach the consistent play you want.
Here’s how it works:
     There are three stages of learning: Cognitive (This feels awkward); Associative (I’m beginning to get it); and Autonomous (automatic, I’ve got it).  No skipping! No shortcuts! Stay in the process!

      All sport skill learning begins with the cognitive stage (the thinking mind), You know this stage quite well.  Your instructor explains the skill, with the aid of a computer screen, a set of instructions, or a live demonstration. Whether you are new to golf or making a mid-life swing change, the thinking, cognitive, part of your brain must first try to get an idea of the new movement patterns. For example: I’ve got to keep my triangle together as I turn behind the ball. Or, I’m moving the ball up in my stance.

     It’s characterized by conscious attention to the details of movement. Because you’re thinking about the new movement, it can appear stiff, tense, and halting. How long you stay in the thinking stage depends upon the complexity of the skill, the enlightenment of your teacher and your willingness to practice. Our thinking mind moves slowly. It’s linear, only able to complete but one task at a time. It doesn’t have rhythm or tempo, and it surely doesn’t play consistent golf.

     Note: Changing the parameters of a swing (stance, posture, ball position, grip, weight distribution, etc.) goes faster than working on the swing itself (take-a-way, swing plane, impact, release, follow through, etc.).

    But, conscious attention to this level of detail can also be a monstrous trap. Those who become mired in the cognitive process get hooked on technique and on the myth that somewhere in this process lays the answer to the riddle of a mechanically perfect swing. There is no end to the golfing gurus in magazines and on television who fan that particular fire. Yet this stage – the conscious, analytical, mechanical phase – is just the beginning. It is important, but it’s nowhere near the finish line. Staying in this stage will rob you of sustained improvement and reaching consistent high-level play.

External Feedback

     During the cognitive phase, all the information you get about your swing comes through the attention, praise, analysis, or criticism from your pro or whoever is looking at your swing at the time.  

This feedback is critical when you are learning new skills, as you’re developing the feel for a particular shot. But, external feedback can become a narcotic. It can become psychologically addicting to rely entirely on coaches, friends, or magazine articles for their comments and input. Relying solely on external feedback is seductive because it erases the development of internal feedback. The external feedback that occurs during the cognitive stage of learning skills takes place at the beginning of the improvement cycle, not the end.

The Final Two Stages of Learning
  Following the cognitive stage of learning come the final two stages – the Associative and the Autonomous. Understanding these two stages often separates professionals and the best players at your club from the rest. You’ve got to assimilate the process of the cognitive stage and develop a feel for the swing to a point where it becomes automatic.


Stage Two: Associative Learning

     During this phase, you’ll practice the skill to the point that it is performed both accurately and consistently. After a skill is learned it will reside in your long term motor memory joining all those automatic skills you’ve accumulated over the years. (Walking, skipping, throwing, shooting free throws, riding a bicycle, dance steps, etc.) The key word here is practice. Only through an organized smart practice regimen will you have any chance to move on through the stages.

     Proprioceptive control and kinesthetic feel gradually replace conscious command of movement. Your beginning to “feel it”,

Stage Three: Autonomous Learning

As the term implies, performance during this phase is automatic, and a player requires very little conscious thought to the details of movement. In fact, asking golfers to think about any part of the swing, while swinging, will seriously disrupt the synchronization of the movement and impair performance. Like all high level performance it’s now a non-thinking game. You’re now playing the game in your mind of imagination, which moves at a rate of speed at least 1,000 times faster than your conscious mind. 

      Your goal as an evolving golfer should be to get to the autonomous stage as soon as you can and as efficiently as possible. To enlighten my friend I said: contrary to what you might hear from the Michael Breeds or read in our golf journals, whatever simple. or complex skill you want to learn, you must commit to the learning cycle; understand the skill, how it’s learned, find an enlightened teacher, and organize your practice. Then you’ll reach the consistency you’ve enjoyed in other sports.

What’s next:

     In our next news letter we’ll talk more about the inner-game drills, which

are designed to develop the  rhythm and tempo, you’ll need to trust your swing on the course.

     Check out the first in our series of Learning Golf Skills.

     Learning with observation, imitation and experimentation.

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