A lesson in learning
When you stop and think about it, it's quite astonishing the mountain of information that exists on the mechanics of the golf swing. So much has been written over the years about what constitutes a sound technique and what you have to do to build one. There are umpteen schools of thought: you may favour a certain teacher, be that a David Leadbetter, Pete Cowen or Butch Harmon. You may believe in a certain ‘method', be that the ‘One Plane' or ‘Two Plane' swing or the ‘Golf Machine'. And all of that is just fine because I am not here to tell you what to do in your golf swing. I am going to leave that to the professionals who are better qualified than I am. But what I am going to do is ask you to think about the way in which you learn – and isn't it remarkable that so little has been written on that subject?
The fact is, unless the information you receive from your chosen coach or method becomes actual physical motion, then it is nothing other than information.
Information is fine, it is the starting point, but we need to know how to change our swings so it becomes our actual bodily motion. It becomes more than a concept, it becomes a physical act we can perform and repeat.
We may not like to even consider this when so much is talked about ‘muscle memory' but to actually change your swing you have to change your brain. You have to alter the neural pathways in your brain which send the commands to your muscles. By understanding a little more of how our brain works, we can then get down to the job of taking good technical information and making it an efficient golf swing in as quick a time as is possible. We need brain compatible learning. In many ways, it is absolutely stunning there is so much information out there on what to do in your swing yet so little on how you go about it. Switch on the Golf Channel, buy golf magazines, look on YouTube and you will be inundated with concepts about the golf swing. Coaches talk endlessly about how they see a swing, how it should look, how biomechanically sound it is. We are in a way crazy with this in so much we are drowning in information but thirsting for knowledge.
How can we look at the latest swing idea if we haven't got the faintest idea on HOW we put that information into our body as actual motion?
For those of you who have spent time with me before you will recognise the fact I firmly believe in good sound technique. I get very tired of people saying golf is ‘all in the head'. No, it isn't! A good swing will hit better shots than a bad swing and no amount of mental training can make up for a dreadful technique. As I have said over and over again, a good mental approach will get the best out of your swing but it won't make a bad swing a good one.
What is so exciting here is starting to look at the latest research on how your brain works to help speed up the process of making the swing changes you and your coach deem necessary to take your game to the next level.
In many ways, this article started to take shape in my mind through a passing comment that I read a few years ago made by the greatest ever British golfer, the six-time major champion Sir Nick Faldo.
We all know the story of how Nick completely remodelled his swing with the help of David Leadbetter. This process took Faldo a good couple of years of arduous work and a dramatic decline in scores and performance. For a period of time, Faldo was written off and got told time and time again he should have left his swing alone. Should have kept it as it was. Faldo ignored the advice, kept working hard and the rest, as they say, is history. However, Nick Faldo did say recently if he had his time again, he would have still made the swing change BUT he would have enlisted the help of a sports psychologist or a mind coach to speed up the process!
How many times have you been frustrated when you have been for a lesson, gone away and worked on your game thinking you have changed your swing, only to look on video and see it is exactly the same! It can feel like all of that effort is getting you absolutely nowhere.
Well, it is time to do something differently because the definition of insanity according to Albert Einstein was to keep doing something the same way and expect a different result! What I am about to share with you will involve you suspending your judgement for a while, taking in some new ideas and approaches and then being able to go out and take ACTION. Again, for those of you who have spent time with me before, you will recall how much I believe in the power of action. You achieve nothing in life by thinking about it. You need to get up and do.
I also really like the idea of stacking the deck as heavily in your favour as possible. Everything I am sharing with you has the intent to give you the best possible chance to make the changes you really desire. And, be able to take the changes out on the course and perhaps, more importantly, for the changes to actually work out on the golf course under the pressure of a competition or tournament. It has been so interesting for me to be able to study the world of neuro science and hear how the concept of ‘brain plasticity' has taken hold on the scientific world in the past 10 years.
If you had a meeting a decade ago with a bunch of neuro scientists and you had asked them if they thought the brain could be changed past a certain age, say 16 or 17, you would have got an unequivocal NO. It was deemed in the scientific community that once our basic development had taken place, then we were pretty much limited to what we had. Also, it was a firmly held belief that at a certain age, we started to LOSE our brain capability and function.
Ask the very same community a decade later and you will get a completely different set of answers. The term ‘brain plasticity' refers to the capability of our brain to change, to grow and to alter its function. To such an extent that now there is a real buzz about the fact it seems when there has been damage due to accident or disease which results in loss of function of certain parts of the brain, then it seems other brain areas can be recruited with the correct training to ‘take over' the function of the area which has been damaged. It is very early days in the research but there has been anecdotal evidence of people with limbs which had ceased to function and that conventional medicine had given them no hope. They have literally learned how to move again by recruiting new areas of the brain that have not been damaged.
How exciting a concept is that? And, more importantly, if the ‘correct training' can get the brain to recover function after damage, then surely with the ‘correct training' we can change our golf swings?
The way you swing the golf club is a result of neural patterns in the brain and this research is confirming it can be changed but we need to know how to change the brain. We need a system to best take advantage of this amazing piece of machinery – our brain.
Part of the process of having ‘brain compatible' learning is to understand what doesn't work. In his marvellous book the User's Guide to the Brain, Harvard psychologist John Ratey talks about learning movement skills and how we are able to transfer initial learning into long term memory.
Consider this phenomenal research he refers to in his book from the Johns Hopkins University: a team of neuro-scientists found within the first 5-6 hours of practicing a new skill, the brain shifts the new instruction from the short-term memory to the areas responsible for permanent motor skills. As subjects initially learned a task, the prefrontal cortex (involved in short-term memory and many kinds of learning) was relatively active. When the subjects returned 5 1/2 hours later, they had no trouble retracing the movements but, at this point, the pre-motor cortex and the cerebellum regions which control movement had taken over.
During the intermission, it seems the neural links which form the brain's internal model of the task had shifted from the pre-frontal region to the motor control region. Even without practice after 5-6 hours the formula for the task was virtually hard-wired into the brain. This suggests a newly learnt skill could be impaired, confused or even lost if a person tried to learn a different motor task during that critical 5-6 hour period when the brain is trying to stabilize the neural representation of the original task.
The research is clear in terms of the brain. If we want to make a new move permanent and automatic, we must respect how such information is going to be taken in and a new road created by the neural pathways which needs to be established.
So, to apply this finding to learning golf, if you are working on move A, starting to see some progress, but then go on to work on move B, you will be creating an INTERFERENCE pattern in the brain. The message is very strong to both the player and the coach that lots of information in the practice arena is totally counter-productive.
Your brain will handle one move beautifully and if you allow such information to ‘set' rather like a jelly, the new move will then become established and strong. However, any more than one move and you are heading for trouble.
You will also be heading for trouble if you have too much verbal input in terms of the particular move you are trying to make.
WHAT DOES WORK? Internal v. External Focus
It seems it is not necessarily the number of shots you hit on the range that is key to changing your swing but rather the quality of your attention and, more importantly, where you place that attention.
As we delve a little deeper and begin to understand just how important the focus of our attention is, then it becomes appropriate to look at the incredible work done by Dr Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Dr Wulf has spent a great deal of her life studying how people learn motor skills and she has come up with some startling research which will have a direct bearing on how quickly and efficiently you change your swing.
Most of her work has been focused around the difference between what she calls an ‘Internal Focus of Attention' and an ‘External Focus of Attention'. In simple terms, when you have an internal focus of attention you are placing your mind's attention classically in the place that most coaches have placed attention throughout the history of coaching. You are placing your attention on you and your body. So, typically, you would be thinking about what your elbow is doing or your arm or your leg. Your mind is on your body. An External Focus of Attention would be when you have placed your attention on something that is external to your personally. In golf terms, an external focus of attention would be the golf club or the flight of the ball.
Now, conventional wisdom would suggest the best way to change what your body is doing is to put your attention on it. According to Dr Wulf, that is absolutely NOT the case. She has also found in scientific study after study that not only is it more efficient to have an external focus of attention in learning a new move or skill, it is also more beneficial in a pressure situation to be able to replicate what you have learnt. She has set up over the years various experiments where pressure is created by having people watch or a monetary reward being involved and in these situations it seems the external focus of attention is far superior. This again goes right in the face of and against most coaching methodologies.
Another startling fact from her research also suggests the proximity of the focus is important too. So that, if my external focus is not that far away from me personally, then it is less effective than if there is some distance between me and the focus. In a golfing sense, to be able to focus on the head of the club on the end of the shaft, and what the face is doing, could well be more efficient than if I am thinking about something near to the grip-end of things. This research suggests this ‘proximity hypothesis' is more for skilled players than it is for beginners. [For a beginner, it seems that an external focus is still better than an internal but the focus of attention should not be too far away from the person themselves.]
Dr Wulf also talks extensively about focusing on the ‘effects' of the movement on the environment. In non scientific terms, this would mean, in a golfing sense, focusing on what the ball flight was going to be as a result of the movement you make. To actually practice by focusing on the shape of the shot you want is, from a perspective of science, an extremely efficient way of getting the very best out of your brain. Just begin to consider how all of this impacts YOU and how you might need to adjust your focus of attention. Have you been primarily the type of golfer who had an INTERNAL focus of attention when learning and playing the game?
It might now, in light of everything covered thus far, be time to consider a slightly different approach.
TAI CHI SWINGS
The other important suggestion I want to make for you to speed up the process of changing your golf swing will actually take us back thousands of years to the Far East.
I am sure you have heard of Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial arts discipline (see Jayne Storey's series of Tai Chi-based instruction). I can vividly remember being absolutely transfixed recently on a trip to San Francisco as I walked through a park early one morning in the Chinatown district of the city.
It must have been about 7.30am but there in the park were hundreds of people – a real mix of Chinese and non Chinese – who were moving their bodies deliberately and slowly, making flowing circles of movement. There was an hypnotic air about the whole thing and an overriding sense of calmness and wellbeing. The movements were graceful but at the same time looked incredibly strong and powerful, but the main aspect that struck me was the clear and obvious level of intense focus and concentration. This got me thinking of the relevance to golf.
Think of it this way:
• If we are unable to do a movement slowly there is little chance of us doing it quickly.
• As part of your programme to change your swing I want you to do 5 minutes of Tai Chi swings. That is, you make your movement but you do it ridiculously slowly.
• When I say slowly, I mean slowly.
• Take your set up.
• Be in balance.
• Then start to make your move and literally try to sense that your mind is ‘in your muscles' – i.e. sense exactly the feeling that you want to ingrain in your swing simply because you are making the movement so very slowly.
• The key thing is that you do this whilst actually going ahead and hitting the shot.
• Do this for just 5 minutes, which will only be a few balls, but you will find that whilst doing this exercise your quality of attention will be highly focused. You will be shining a torch of awareness into your movement, literally giving your brain/body system the imprint of the moves that you desire.
• You will find that after doing this for a few moments you can then return to ‘normal' speed with a much better chance of transferring the learning.
• This is not just my opinion – you have centuries of wisdom on your side!
• As well as helping you to change your golf swing I do strongly recommend that you look at Tai Chi as an adjunct to your golf.
• Anything that helps promote balance, grace of movement and calmness of mind has to be worth looking at.
• It is a fascinating as well as infinitely beneficial art.
When you start to combine all of the information I have provided in this article you really will be giving yourself an outstanding chance to make your golf swing as you want it to be and as permanent as it is possible to be.