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.
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.