How to Learn a Great Golf Swing

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The Golf Loopy Swing Like a Champion system is based on the latest scientific understanding of how people learn new movement patterns.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to read the latest research papers on human motor learning in order to learn to build a great golf swing — we’ve integrated it all into the learning programme presented on this site, you’ll find it simple and intuitive.

However, a deeper understanding of how the mind works will help you to learn faster, to understand why we work the way we do, and to trust and commit to the process.

You may be surprised to know that understanding how your mind learns is also key to playing better out on the course.

Best of all, after reading this article you’ll have the knowledge you need to supercharge your ability to learn any new skill in life.

 

A Golfer Has Two Brains

Well, all humans do, figuratively speaking.

In recent years, there have been huge breakthroughs in the understanding of how the human mind learns new skills.

It is now generally understood that there are two distinct systems in the brain, two “selves”.

The first is your unconscious self, we’ll call it The Player, it operates automatically and extremely quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control.  The Player is your inner athlete.

The second is your conscious self, we’ll call it The Learner, it gives attention to effortful mental activities, such as complex calculations.  The Learner is powerful but relatively slow.  The Learner gives us the feeling of agency, choice and concentration.

When you think of yourself, you identify with The Learner — your conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think and what to do.

The Player and The Learner have their individual roles and abilities, as well as some important limitations and interdependencies.

The Player creates the impressions and feelings that constantly feed the reasoning of The Learner.  The Player is capable of surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, which we think of as our instincts or “gut feelings”.

The Player is able to perform pre-learned activities incredibly quickly and automatically.  It learns these activities through prolonged practice, storing them so that they can be accessed with or without intention, and without effort.  Through practice, the Learner gives The Player cues, changing The Player’s focus, adding new activities and reprogramming others.

Being skilled at something means that it is primarily The Player that performs that activity — that’s why you can perform it quickly and easily.

You will naturally gravitate to the path requiring least effort, the activities stored by The Player.  This is how habits, good and bad, are formed.

 

Allocation of Attention

Your brain only has so much attention to give to tasks at any one time, and that attention is split between The Player and The Learner.

The Learner requires the most attention, and is disrupted when attention is drawn away.

The Player also requires the allocation of some attention.  When The Learner is working hard, it interferes with The Player.

When The Player runs into difficulty, it requests help from The Learner.  The Learner is in charge of self-control.

The Player has more influence on the activities it knows when The Learner is busy, but is disrupted when The Learner takes too much attention.

Self-consciousness and self-control require a lot of effort from The Learner.

You can see the affects of all this in the following scenarios:

  • When you’re out for a stroll and you perform a very complex calculation, you naturally stop walking — the attention that The Player needs to perform the simple task of walking is interrupted by The Learner.
  • Walking quicker than normal requires some attention from The Learner, making it harder to concentrate on complex calculations.  When The Learner’s attention is drawn away, your pace will slow as The Player takes over.
  • Walking in a straight line is easy.  Although it’s a complex movement, you’ve practised it a lot and so The Player knows how to do it very skilfully.  But when you try to take full control of walking, using The Learner to think about each muscle activation, each part of the movement, then you’ll probably fall flat on your face.  The Learner pulls all the attention away from The Player and disrupts its activities.

The Player works much better when you are in a good mood.  Just the physical act of smiling (even when you’re not happy) will improve The Player’s performance.

As well as through cognitive effort, The Learner is activated by sadness, bad moods, vigilance, and doubt.  All of these things will draw attention away from The Player and damage its ability to perform.

 

How Does Learning Happen?

Learning is a biological process.

To perform a complex task, like blasting a golf ball 300 yards down the middle of the fairway, your brain must perform many complex and highly coordinated steps in a split second.

Your brain is made up of grey matter (neurons) and white matter (nerve fibres and their insulating materials).

Signals are transmitted through the brain, from neuron to neuron, along pathways called axons.  Complex tasks like the golf swing require complex networks of these pathways to fire signals extremely quickly, in a precisely coordinated and perfectly timed sequence.  The faster and more precise these signals are, the more ability we have to perform complex tasks, the more skilled we are.

When you first attempt a complex task, the required pathways in the brain aren’t yet well formed.  Your conscious mind, The Learner, needs to feel its way, slowly and clumsily trying to discover and coordinate the desired signals in the brain to perform the task.

When we practise, the repetitive use of pathways in the brain triggers cells called ogliodendrocytes, which wrap the pathways in layers of an insulator, called myelin.  The better the insulation (the more layers of myelin), the faster and more precise the signal transmission along the pathways.

Practise enough, and these insulated pathways become super-highways in the brain, able to work extremely quickly and coordinate precisely.  These super-highways enable The Player to perform complex tasks quickly and efficiently.  The movement becomes ingrained, effortless, instinctive, highly skilful.

These super-highways are what you might call muscle memory, though in actual fact the muscles themselves aren’t able to remember anything, it’s the pathways in your brain that control and coordinate your muscles.

Your golf swing is the result of The Player using the pathways that you have built in your brain.  If you have practised something faulty by repeating it often enough, then you will revert to that bad habit every time.  That’s the way that The Player does it, because those are the pathways you’ve built for The Player to use, and only The Player can work quickly enough to perform the golf swing.

If you try to do something new or different, you will activate The Learner, and in trying to discover and coordinate new pathways, The Learner interferes with the signals used by The Player, and your movement will become slow and clumsy.

The only way to break these bad habits is to build new, stronger pathways and break down the old ones.

Mindless repetition will form new pathways eventually, but practising in the right way will build better, more precise, and more lasting pathways, and it will build them much faster.  Proper practice will also build stronger, more efficient pathways that The Player will default to, thus breaking your bad habits forever.  As we’ll see below, proper practice is a specific process which takes time and effort.

The Learner grows new pathways quickly through proper practice, and The Player uses those pathways to perform the golf swing on the course.

The Golf Loopy Swing Like a Champion system has been carefully designed to help you to build the new pathways that you require for a great golf swing, in the quickest and most effective way possible.

 

Deliberate Practice

It is a miracle of nature that the conscious mind, The Learner, can, when properly focused, actively grow and reinforce the neural pathways needed to perform any skill better.  With proper focus and effort, this growth, and the associated increase in skill level, can be accelerated to an astonishing degree.

We call this accelerated learning mechanism “Deliberate Practice”.  You’ll also hear psychologists referring to it as “Deep Practice” or “Flow”.

Deliberate Practice is a cornerstone of the Golf Loopy Swing Like a Champion system.

It used to be thought (and still is by many golf teachers), that mindless repetition was all that was needed for learning to occur — that being world class at something was just a matter of putting in your 10,000 hours of intensive practice.  That learning a skill just means putting in the reps.  This thinking not only misunderstands how learning works, it’s intimidating (10,000 hours?! Ouch!), and demotivating, you can just end up counting hours and repetitions.  Developing a skill is about enthusiasm and energy.  It’s not about counting hours or repetitions, it’s about having a strategy and a mechanism for being better tomorrow than you are today.

We now know with certainty that cognitive effort plays a vital role in learning, that’s why we call your cognitive self “The Learner”.  The Learner provides the decision-making processes that underscore a new movement pattern — anticipation, planning, regulation and interpretation.  You still need to put in the reps, but it’s the quality of practice that is most important, not the quantity.

Deliberate Practice works because it fully engages The Learner.  It works because it is hard work.  When The Learner struggles to repeat a task which it knows is important to you, it accelerates the insulation (myelination) of the neural pathways needed to perform the task, so that it can offload the task to the more capable Player, and thus improve efficiency and reduce the effort required to perform the task.

 

“It is only human nature to practise what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lots less work and a hell of a lot more fun.”  — Sam Snead

 

Outstanding performance is the product of Deliberate Practice, quality information, and good coaching, not of any innate talent or skill.  Yes, innate characteristics like height and intelligence matter, but bashing a little white ball around a field isn’t an evolutionary advantage, you can’t be born with it, there is no “golf gene”.

Practising the right things in the right way will enable anyone to build a great golf swing.

That said, the journey to truly superior performance on the golf course is neither for the faint of heart nor the impatient.  It requires dedication, struggle and sacrifice.  It requires honest and often painful self-assessment.  There are no shortcuts, but Deliberate Practice will dramatically increase the return on your investment of the time and effort spent practising.

Deliberate Practice will rocket power your learning velocity.

 

What is Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate Practice is practice that focuses intently on tasks that are beyond your current level of competence and comfort.

Deliberate Practice is not about the amount of time you spend practising, it’s about the number of times that you stretch yourself to the edge of your ability, making intense, high quality reaches towards a specific target.  It’s about the number of times that you make mistakes and fix them.  You can accomplish more in 10 minutes of Deliberate Practice than you can in 2 hours of regular practice.

When you’re working really hard, at the limit, on one thing, your natural attention span is probably about 10 minutes.  So you should practise in short, intensive sessions, and divide each practice session into segments.  In each segment you will reach for a particular goal, perfecting a new move.  If you don’t get it perfect, come back to it in the next session.  Limiting the time spent on each segment will force you to prioritise, to strategize, thus eliminating sloppiness and increasing your intensity.

Don’t count time, count reaches.  If you can make mistakes and learn from them, and perform a drill perfectly 25 times, all the time working at the limit of your ability, during a 10 minute session, that’s about ideal.

As soon as you start to tire, as soon as you can no longer work as urgently and intensively as humanly possible, stop.  Walk away.  Come back for the next session ready to give it your all.

Deliberate Practice isn’t about getting it perfect first time, it’s about a framework that helps you to improve steadily and systematically.

 

Chunking and Isolation

The brain can’t learn very effectively by taking a lesson and then going out on the range and hitting balls at full speed, trying to groove a swing change.  You can’t perform Deliberate Practice when you’re moving at full speed and focused on hitting a golf ball.  You’re likely to perform the movement imperfectly and inconsistently, you won’t build new pathways very quickly, and the ones you do build will be weak and probably faulty.  You’ll quickly revert to, or include, bad habits, so that when you practise you’re just reinforcing the faulty pathways.

Instead, you need to take baby steps.  You need to break the swing down into simple parts, or chunks, then use specific drills to practise those chunks in a way that enables you to perform them perfectly.

When you first learn a new movement pattern you have lots of things to think about.  The golf ball and club demand your attention and distract you from what is most important, how you move.  So, at first, you need to focus on the movement, isolate it, perform it without a golf club or a ball.

The Golf Loopy Swing Like a Champion system does just this.  It breaks the golf swing down into a set of very small, simple chunks.  It then provides a sequence of drills which isolate each part of the movement, so that you can learn each chunk properly.

At first you will perform each drill very slowly, making sure that you perform it perfectly.  Then you will slowly add speed and complexity, but never so much that you can’t perform the drills perfectly the majority of the time.

As you work through the system, you will take the time to learn each movement correctly before building on it and combining it with other movements.

The pathways you build are based on focused repetition of exactly the right movement.  The new pathways will be strong, they will last, and they will enable The Player to perform perfectly.

 

Try, fail, and try again

With Deliberate Practice, you rejoice in your mistakes.  Failure is the path forward, mistakes are the wellspring of progress.

It’s the struggle that makes you smarter, grows those pathways, makes you more skilful.

Mistakes are absolutely vital to learning.  You should have total focus, and be ruthless about noticing and fixing errors.  Each time you perform a drill even slightly imperfectly, you should pause, think to yourself “Oh, that’s interesting, how did that happen?”, analyse the error, then decide how you can fix it.

You should be constantly reaching, failing, and learning from your mistakes.

 

The sweet spot

You should always be practising at, or close to, the limit of your ability.  Not comfortable.  Not flailing.

You should be getting to the point where you can perform each drill perfectly, with zero mistakes, 5 times in a row before moving on and building on it.  If you can perform the drill perfectly 6 times in a row then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.

Getting it right is not the finish, it is the beginning, the moment when the real work begins, the work to reach further, repeat and take ownership of the skill.

 

Put your game face on

Your mood, and even your facial expressions, help to activate your brain’s systems.

When you’re practising, frown.

This might sound strange, but it’s proven to work.  Just the physical act of frowning will help to activate The Learner, the hard working, slow, rational, calculating self that works through complicated problems and builds skills.

Your facial expression, and your mood, should be one of determination.  You should be reaching, engaged, purposeful.

 

Feedback is vital

Deliberate Practice requires feedback, you need to be able to quickly detect your mistakes and verify your successes.

Intrinsic feedback consists of your vision and proprioception — your sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of your body, and the strength of effort you employ in the movement.

Augmented feedback is usually provided by visual aids such as mirrors or a video camera.  When you are first learning a movement this feedback should be instant, you’ll look at yourself in the mirror to make sure that the movement is correct, that you are in the right position.

Once you can make the basic movement perfectly, you should focus more on intrinsic feedback.  Concentrate intently on the feeling of your body as you make the movement, constantly validating those feelings against the augmented feedback.

When you can make the movement perfectly correctly 5 times in a row in this way, however, augmented feedback is more effective if it is delayed by about 8 seconds.  Make the move focussing only on intrinsic feedback, perhaps sometimes with your eyes closed, feel it, think about it as you move.  Then pause, without looking, take time to estimate the magnitude of your error, using only intrinsic feedback, again feel it, think about it, before checking with augmented feedback to see if your feelings were correct.  Was your estimate correct?  If not, why not?  How far off were you?  What does the difference between your actual position and the one you anticipated feel like?  How can you do it better next time?

When you use a video camera, pause to think before you analyse the video.  What are you expecting to see?  What did you feel when you were performing the drill?

You need to be careful as you progress to use augmented feedback only to verify your intrinsic feedback.  If you become reliant on augmented feedback to perform a movement correctly, this will detract from your ability to interpret intrinsic feedback, which you will need when out on the course.

 

Mix it up

If you solve a problem once, then you’re usually able to solve it again immediately after with little effort.  Simply recalling a recent solution bypasses the cognitive effort.

It is the cognitive effort required to interpret intrinsic feedback that teaches you the new skill, that grows the pathways.  Each time you perform a movement that you find difficult, you will focus more, you think harder, you make the task more distinctive, you remember it better.

Drills that are too repetitive will make you great at performing the task at the end of the practice session, but a mix of drills that makes you think harder throughout a session will make you more skilled in the long term.  Repetitions when you are comfortable don’t require much cognitive effort, and so are of diminishing value when it comes to building pathways in the brain.

High levels of automaticity — where you can perform a drill quickly, proficiently, without thinking, on autopilot — are great for performance, but useless for practice.  Performing the drill automatically just reinforces the automatic circuit, and progress stops.

As a general rule, repeat a drill until you are comfortable with it, then stop, move away, shake yourself down, and work on another drill.  Come back to the original drill in the next session, and see if you can perform it correctly from cold.

You should embrace variability, use it to sharpen your control and modulate your performance.  Mix up your practice sessions further by disrupting your routine, choose new strategies that reveal your shortcomings in new ways.  Try performing the drill at different speeds, super slow then over speed.  Isolate particular parts of the move.  Find new kinds of feedback.

 

Enjoy the plateau

Even with Deliberate Practice, learning new skills is always a series of sudden jumps in ability, followed by prolonged plateaus where you don’t seem to be improving.

It is on the plateaus where your brain is building and reinforcing your new neural pathways, consolidating your skill level.

Learn to love the plateau, enjoy practice for its own sake, even when you seem to be going nowhere.  Delight in the discovery of endless richness in the subtle variations that each practice session brings.

Mastery is a journey.  Be aware of the mountain you are climbing, but stay mindful of the path in front of you.  Remind yourself how good it will feel when you reach your next goal — when you shoot 80… 70… 60!

 

Strategize

After each session, reflect, analyse, and critique your performance.  Stay cool and objective, make an honest evaluation of the session.  Accentuate the positive, but acknowledge the negative.  Where are you?  Where do you want to be tomorrow?

Make notes, strategize, plan and reflect.  Increase your understanding.  Connect the plan for your next session to your long term goal, step back and look at the bigger picture.

 

Watch someone else learning

If you can, team up with a learning buddy and watch them practise occasionally.  Or just find time to watch others learning the golf swing — really learning, not just beating balls on the range.

You’ll be more actively engaged in the problem solving processes that characterise learning.  Carefully watch how they move, analyse their attempts to reduce error.  This will give you a valuable conceptual insight into the learning process.

 

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

Practice at an early age is important if you want to be a world class golfer.  Not only does building the skills necessary require years of effort and intensive practice, but our ability to grow stronger connections for new motor skills is at its best in our formative years.

The good news is that we retain our ability to build strong pathways (by adding more myelin insulation) through Deliberate Practice as we get older, indeed until the end of our lives.

Myelin is living tissue, always being generated, and always degenerating.  Like your muscles, the more of it you use, the more of it you get.  Don’t use it and you’ll lose it.

The result:  no matter how old you are, Golf Loopy can help you to build the golf swing of your dreams.

 

The 8-Week Programme

The Swing Like a Champion 8-Week Programme provides a framework for learning a great golf swing as quickly as humanly possible using deliberate practice.

8 weeks isn’t an arbitrary amount of time.  It is the minimum period required to know if a training programme really works.  8 weeks is the threshold time required for practice to build reliable new circuitry in your brain.

 

Footnote:  Get Out of Your Own Way and Let The Player Play!

As far as playing golf is concerned, The Learner believes itself to be where the action is, but The Player is the real hero.

We’ll discuss this more in our articles on the mental game, but it’s worth noting here that while it’s The Learner that practises, that builds pathways for The Player to use, it needs to get out of the way when you’re out on the course.

The Player is the super-fast, instinctive, intuitive self that works on autopilot to make swift, simple decisions.  It is The Player that is the athletic you, the part of you that can swing a golf club best, the part that you’re training through Deliberate Practice.

During practice, thinking and planning are your friends.  When you want to perform at your best, thinking and planning are your enemies.

Just as you frown when you practise, you should smile out on the course, even if you don’t mean it.  This will help to activate The Player and keep The Learner at bay.

The Learner is activated by analysing, planning, sadness, bad moods, vigilance, fear and doubt.  All of these things will draw attention away from The Player and damage your ability to perform.

 

The Performance Zone

Out on the course, you need to learn to switch off, let go, and just play.

A great way of doing this is to draw an imaginary line 2 yards behind the ball.  When you’re behind the line, you’re in the Practice Zone.  You’re strategizing, planning, thinking.  You’re thinking about the wind, the slope, your lie, what club to use.  You’re visualising your shot.

Step over the line and you’re in the Performance Zone.  Don’t think, just set up to the ball and hit the shot.

 

If you have any questions or comments about this or other articles on Golf Loopy, please send us an email.

 

Next:  Overview of a Great Golf Swing.

 

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