Monday, April 29, 2013

Golf and the Elastic Band Theory of Learning

In THIS ARTICLE HERE we looked at how learning can sometimes be a little wavy rather than purely linear. Through practicing patience during the start of the session, you can continue to push the boundaries further. One thing I have noticed however, especially amongst more experienced players, is the ‘elastic band theory’ (EBT) of learning. I don’t know if anyone coined this term before me, so I apologize if I am stealing it.

The EBT sees that even though we may have pushed our boundaries further with learning what we desired to learn last time (whether that be a specific movement pattern or skill), we often find ourselves in the same place as the last session, for several sessions in a row. It’s not that we are not pushing the boundaries further each time we train, it just seems that we are not retaining it.

As a practical example, say a person is practicing to control where their divot is – They play a game where they hit 10 balls, and get a point for each time the divot is in the correct position. Here is a table with their points over the course of 5 sessions.

Session number
Start of session
End of session
1 point
3 points
3 points
5 points
3 points
6 points
3 points
3 points
8 points

As a Graph, it would look like this

we see, with each subsequent practice session, we are able to push our performance further.
This is 'stretching' the line/elastic band

Now the player is clearly learning something as they are pushing their upper limits further each time, but it seems to not be sticking. One side of the spectrum is going up, but the other end is staying static, just like an elastic band being stretched. I have stated that more experienced players seem to see this very often. There seems to be neural pathways open for the old movement still, and although the player is still creating a new neural network for the desired movement, it is not yet running at full speed – even though the player’s ability to access it is getting better with every session.

The good news is, don’t worry. This happens to everyone at some point. Again, practicing the art of patience is key here. With each ‘stretching’ of the elastic band, it weakens that little bit more. Eventually you will stretch it so much that the other end of the elastic band has no choice but to come with – looking like this over a longer time;

the black lines represent the tipping point - the elastic band has been stretched so far 
that the lower end now comes up

Or, the elastic band snaps completely and the old movement pattern separates from the new (I love it when this happens).

you can see the clear break between the red and black lines - this is where the 'Snap'
occurred. From here, it can continue in similar fashion

Why did I mention this topic if we can’t do much about it? Well, understanding that it happens in itself is important, as it can bring your awareness to it when you are in the midst of it happening to you. This  can lead you to say “Oh, yeah, I remember that article Adam wrote about this. Damn, that guy knows his stuff”, (thank you). You would then continue your practice with the patience of the Dalai Lama.

Also, if you identify this happening to you, it is probably a sign that you should switch to practicing the new move/skill with a more Random practice method to improve your brain’s ability to access the new motor pattern, which I will describe in a later article.


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