Friday, May 25, 2012

Searching for the Secret

Humans are funny creatures. We love to feel like we are in control, yet more and more science is showing us that consciousness is pure illusion. Through the power of language, we are able to represent ideas, thoughts and feelings to ourselves in verbal terms, giving us the sense of ‘I’ – the person within my body. But in many ways, we are no different to certain animals that have no conscious (or not recognisable by what we deem conscious) thoughts.

Take an ant, for example. What is it like to be an ant? Whilst the question cannot be answered for sure, it is very probable than an ant has no free will. Its brain tells it what to do and moves its body based on chemical signals received from other ants in its colony. If we are devious and use a fake chemical signal, we can control an ant and its actions. There is a parasite wasp (I forget the name) that uses this to its advantage; by creeping into the nest, killing the queen and rubbing itself in her scent, she can control the other ants to serve her. Several other parasites use similar things to control brain function and hence the host, adding to the idea that ‘we’ are simple the mechanical nature of our brain.

What does all this have to do with golf? I’m getting there. The way that we learn has many similarities with most animals. One of the major functions of our brain is to make links, or associations. A famous scientist, B.F. Skinner, once did an experiment with pigeons. He placed them in a box and rewarded them with food whenever they pecked at a lever. Then he decided to reward them with food more randomly. When he returned, he found the pigeons doing all sorts of strange behaviours; ticks, circles, head bobs etc in a definite pattern. It seems as though the pigeons had maybe looked over its shoulder, and then a random food reward came. Subconsciously the pigeon had associated this look over its shoulder with reward and so repeated it. But after a while of no rewards coming, the pigeon added more and more complex behaviours, believing that it was influencing the random rewards.

But surely we humans are not stupid enough for this. Think again. Derren Brown, a famous British mentalist, conducted an experiment where he locked a few people in a room full of bean bags, tables, coloured circles on the floor and other miscellaneous items. There was also a counter on the wall above the door, and a sign saying

“When you reach 100 points, the doors will be unlocked and you will be free to go”.

They all looked confused as there were no rules for how to create points. One guy picked up a bean bag to look at it and put it down, before noticing that the points counter now read 1. So he tried it again, but to no avail. Then someone across the room sat down, and the points counter went up again. So now they tried to pick up a bean bag, and sit down at the other side of the room... bingo, the points went up again. After about half an hour, you see a bunch of people picking up, putting down, sitting on, moving around bean bags, chairs, tables and other items. Finally the counter reaches 100 and they are set free. Being interviewed afterwards, it seemed like every person had ‘figured it out’. They all had some sort of idea for how the points were created. But then the real answer was revealed. An aquarium in another room had a black line drawn down the middle. Whenever the fish randomly crossed the line, the counter would go up one. The people and their actions had absolutely nothing to do with the points, but every one of them thought that their ‘rules’ for the game were correct.

This associative learning served us very well in the past. Associating hot stoves with pain, smells with experiences, roars with danger etc was advantageous to our survival. But sometimes these associations go wrong and we make false links, like the pigeons and the people in the experiment. These links and associations become more frequent when a high stress situation occurs, and/or high task difficulty. Baseball players are renowned for being superstitions, with lots of weird movements and routines taken before they perform. And what is more ‘task difficult’ than golf – probably the hardest game in the world.

You could be doing yourself more of a disservice by making these constant links unchecked. I have seen so many weird swings and quirky movements from amateurs. When questioned about them, they usually reply that they had a good round or hit a good shot ‘trying this/that’ and then tried to do more of it. More often than not, it is the thing we then work on eliminating from their technique, as it was never the reason for their success in the first place and is now causing problems. Like some people I see who tell me they hit some great shots whilst their weight was moving away from the target.

Teachers are generally no better. For the history of golf instruction we have made links and correlations between what a good player does with their body and how they hit the ball. A real scientist knows that correlation does not equal causation, in other words, just because someone does something and gets a certain result, doesn’t mean that doing that same ‘something’ will give you the same result. For example, long hitters tend to have a very big X factor (difference between hip and shoulder turn), but getting a big X factor does not mean you hit the ball longer. In lots of cases it can actually do the reverse.

So the lesson here is, don’t immediately associate a good result with a good move. Also, don’t associate a bad result with a bad swing. You can make a bad swing and get a good result, or make a good swing and get a bad result. We experience this all the time in teaching, where someone makes a better swing but they get a bad shot (whilst it is new and strange). Try to make use of a good teaching pro, which can send you on the correct path and give you correct associations to link up. Try not to be quick to jump to conclusions on your successful shots. If you hit one, two or even three great shots in a row, try not to consciously search for the answer to why you did them, as you will often make a link with something that is not conducive of good technique. Also, when you are working on changing your swing, try to be patient and not link bad results with the idea that the swing doesn’t work. Sometimes, it just needs a little patience and practice for the benefits to come through. Simple awareness of this fact can prevent some weird movements developing, and strange faults creeping into your technique, and also enable you to make your swing better.

Remember, there is no secret to golf. Some have claimed it (Hogan and Moe Norman), but usually those guys have had a good 20,000 hours of practice. If you are constantly searching for the secret, you will end up like most people – spinning your wheels year after year with constant quick fixes and placebos swing thoughts. If there is any secret at all, its basic fundamentals, a good concept of how to hit the ball, an understanding of ball flight laws and then around 10-20 thousand hours of practice. I’m sure you will find the secret then, just try not to be a pigeon along the way. 

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