Friday, May 25, 2012

Stages of Learning

Whilst this is a massive topic, to which I will probably devote further articles to, I am referring here to stages of learning. What baffles me most is when people come for a lesson expecting immediate results. Whilst it is often the case that the result is instantly better, even in those cases it requires practice and constant repetition until it becomes ingrained – this is called practice. Whilst this idea is second nature to me and most good golfers, it seems to be the major thing holding back most poor golfers from getting better. In fact, I could say, the single most important difference between a good golfer and a poor golfer, is their ability to practice and learn effectively.

Learning takes time. We may change one thing, but it will
have a knock on effect to lots of other areas. We need to get all
the cogs turning together before the machine fully functions. This means that you
need to understand the art of  HOW to learn, equally as much as the WHAT

Tiger Woods once said (regarding his swing changes) “First I understand what I need to do, then it looks better, then it feels better, then it performs better in practice, then on the course, then finally in a tournament”. This is a good representation of the stages of learning. Sports psychologists call them cognitive, associative, autonomous etc and I have also seen terms such as conscious competence, subconscious competence etc. But these terms are less important than what they mean. Below is a summary of the stages of learning.

1.       You understand what you need to do

2.       You try it, but it feels strange, performance is poor

3.       It starts to feel better, but performance is erratic

4.       It feels much more natural, performance is better

5.       You begin to think less about it

6.       You can do it without thinking about it.

So in a lesson, we learn what it is we must do. I will make the example of a grip change. We learn that we should see 2 and a half knuckles on the left hand, and 2 knuckles on the right hand. Now we go onto the second stage; we try the grip but it feels very new and strange. We probably top a lot of shots whilst we our body is getting accustomed to it. Stage 3 usually occurs within an hour at most. Repeating it makes it feel a little better, but our performance can still be erratic. Stage 4 usually takes at least a day, if not a week (depending on how much the person practices it). Stage 5 can take a week to a month, and doing it without thinking can take over 3 months in some cases. I have also heard quotes such as it taking 3,000 repetitions for it to become natural, although I find it varies wildly depending upon what you are working on.

It is important to take time to get comfortable with something
in a safe environment. But make sure to take steps in improving
transference of that skill to the course.

Whilst a better technique usually brings about better results immediately, it really depends. If the technique is very new, or highly uncomfortable, then it can take a little longer and we must be patient. If the old technique was very poor, a new position may offer instant gratification and become more comfortable faster. 

However, if we look at the above model and have that as our expectation, we can become more competent learners. Learning falls apart when people try to jump from stage one to stage 6 too quickly. I often see this in a lesson where someone comes back the next day doing the old mistakes, even though they could do the new move perfectly yesterday. Obviously they think that working on something for one hour should be enough to ingrain it – clearly not. 

The worst mistake I see is when someone gets to stage 2 and then quits because performance is poor. Patience is a virtue here, no one has ever learned anything the first time they tried it. The prescription here is more practice, more repetitions and less result orientation. Take away the ball and make more practice swings until it feels comfortable and you are thinking about it less. Top pro’s sometimes only hit 20 balls in an hour, using mirrors, video and other feedback devices to get it in the practice swing first. Closing your eyes can give you heightened body awareness, making slow motion swings can also help you learn the move in more detail before you gradually increase the speed.

Be patient - it took a lot of repetitions to learn to walk effectively.
Muscles had to strengthen; ligaments and tendons too. You wobbled at first,
fell down a lot. But look at you now. You can even do it without thinking.

As a side note, sometimes skills are transferable and so you can skip learning stages. For example, a tennis player can quickly learn how to draw the ball by taking the same feelings and ideas from a topspin shot. I have even used an old football boot on the end of a clubshaft to teach a footballer how to draw the ball with a ‘Beckham free kick’ style swing. Also, sometimes, with enough practice you can completely jump a few stages. Children who practice alone can sometimes skip the first stage and hit great shots without understanding fully how to do it. I like to use a lot of task led lessons to change techniques. Through task led changes, the player does not necessarily have to understand consciously how to do it, leading to a more natural and less analytical approach to learning. However, some people need a conscious ‘nudge’, to which I will give it to them if deemed appropriate.

So stay patient, accept that learning take time in most cases, and practice with an end goal in mind. Eventually, anything that feels strange will become natural if repeated enough. Just make sure to see your professional golf teacher so that you are working on learning the CORRECT things. All professional golfers understand this process,and it is why they are where they are. 

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1 comment:

  1. Great advice for golfers of all levels. I printed it for Connor and he enjoyed the reading. Thanks for taking the time to pass on your knowledge.

    Alec Munro


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