Do We Need to Relearn How We Learn the Golf Swing?

Human beings are learning animals, probably the most efficient learning machine ever to have walked the earth. From birth we are programmed to alter our behavior depending on our desires and the feedback we are receiving from the environment. Our success as a species is largely down to how efficiently we learn and change our behavior, depending on circumstances.

So, if the learning process is so natural and normal, why do we find it so hard sometimes to change our behavior and learn new skills, especially new motor skills and movement patterns?

Something seems to have gone wrong with the way we learn, we seem to have got in the way of the natural process and made it much harder than it needs to be.

Rather than focus on the acquisition of the new skill as a starting point, perhaps it would be better if the first stage of the learning journey was to reconnect with and understand exactly how we go about acquiring and developing that new skill, whether it’s a golf swing, playing a musical instrument or tiling a bathroom.

In his books, ‘The Talent Code’, and ‘The Little Book of Talent’, author Daniel Coyle goes into great detail into the learning process, and offers some great insights into how to get the most from your tuition and practice, and how to work with the natural learning process rather than fighting against it.

Here are a few of the key points he raises.

1. Repetition is the absolute Number 1 key to successful motor skill acquisition.

It takes about 3000 repetitions of a movement for the body to ‘get it’, 5000 reps for it to become a habit. That’s why a couple of hours a week down the driving range might be fun, but it isn’t really helping your golf swing to become a consistent, repeatable movement.

2. We learn most by failing.

You need to fail to learn. Instead of berating yourself and feeling angry and disappointed when you hit a bad shot, pause for a second. Open your mind. What actually happened there? What did it feel like? What was the difference in feeling between that and a good one? Your mistakes are the big opportunities. Make them count.

3. Break it down into small pieces.

When learning a large and complex movement such as the golf swing, it really helps to break it down into ‘chunks’. Work on small pieces of the movement, such as the takeaway, transition or impact, and focus tightly on that specific part of the movement, repeating it over and over until its perfect. Then integrate it into the overall movement.

4. Little and often is better than feast and famine.

Sitting down once a week and saying “Right, I’m going to practice my grip for the next hour” very rarely works, for the simple reason that it’s dull, repetitive and unlikely to hold our attention for that length of time. Within a few minutes we’ll get distracted and any opportunity for learning will be limited. Much better to say “Right, I’m going to grip the club perfectly 20 times” then leave it an go and do something else, coming back after a while, then doing 20 more perfect reps.

5. Play games, make it fun!!

In the same way that a little and often is better than feast and famine, playing games rather than doing drills, is an excellent way to make practice engaging and enjoyable. Whether it’s competing with a buddy to get it up and down, or challenging yourself to hole 20 consecutive 3 footers, or hit 10 drivers in the fairway, making practice into a game keeps it from becoming ‘work’. Most of us play golf for fun, and while we all want to improve, turning it into work is rarely the way forward.

Guest contributor: Sam Jarman