The Learning Process

Whether it is learning how to tie your shoes, or how to hit a high push draw with a 5-iron, there is a process to learning any skill. Every lesson I teach, regardless of skill level, covers not only what to practice, but how to practice it. If students would spend more time focusing on the how, not just the what, you would see people improving at an alarming rate. Below I detail the four stages of the learning process, and how each one will help you make lasting improvements.

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

Put simply, “you’re bad at golf, and you don’t know what you’re doing wrong”. This stage varies by handicap, to the degree of the error. A 30 handicap might not know why he is hitting behind the ball every time, whereas a college player might not know why they keep over-curving the ball.

When I work with a player for the first time, the first 10 minutes of the lesson is much the same as seeing a doctor when you have a cold. I have a player hit a dozen 6-irons and drivers. I will shoot video face on and down the line, narrating the pattern of the contact and the curve. The purpose of the narration is to demonstrate to the player the consistency of their pattern.

From here, the student and I will look at the video, keeping in mind the pattern that we saw on the range. The purpose of the pictures is to show how to improve the contact with the ball and ground, the distance the ball is flying, or the direction and/or amount of curve of the ball. Golf is not a beauty contest, so don’t get baited in to having a “pretty swing” if it isn’t functional.

From here, we determine the priorities of the errors, and discuss how we will go about fixing them. To this point, we are 15 minutes in to the lesson, and the student is now officially consciously incompetent. They haven’t fixed anything, but they are aware of the issue and why it needs fixing.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

The second stage of the learning process is where the work begins for the student. We begin with slow motion swings, identifying a cue that helps the student create the desired movement. Inevitably, there will be some struggle here when the ball is added to the equation.

The swing is shortened in this portion of the lesson to help isolate the movement being worked on. It is vital to have checkpoints for the finish of the drill, in order to have feedback on whether the motion was done correctly. This is where most students begin to get the urge to go back to their old habits. Hitting an 8-iron 50 yards isn’t natural for anyone, but the key is that we’re doing things consciously. Going slower allows the brain to be in charge of the swing, ensuring you begin to change the pattern.

Often this is referred to as building “muscle memory”. The phrase has the right intentions, however to be clear muscles don’t have memories. The process of making a motor pattern change is actually occurring in the brain. You are making a new neural connection, and strengthening it over time. Until your new connection is stronger than your old one, the original pattern will continue to show up.

The process of creating a new connection and strengthening it is called myelination. Once the new connection is made in the brain, every time you use it, you insulate it. The more insulated the connection becomes, the faster it can be accessed and the more reliable it performs.

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Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

This is the stage I feel responsible to get the student to by the end of the lesson. When you are consciously competent, you can accomplish the change being made, but it requires a higher level of focus. From the beginning of the session to this point, we have broken down the video, explained the roles of the various pieces, discussed how much of the change is enough versus too much, and boiled all of that down to a simple two word cue with a checkpoint for the finish.

For example, to keep the upper body centered during the backswing, it must turn to the right (right handed golfer), tilt to the left, and extend upwards equally. For the majority of players, they lack tilt and extension. A simple cue I use frequently to address the extending portion is to imagine you are a marionette, and someone is pulling your strings upwards.

Once this is explained, I simply have to say “marionette” to the player, and they know exactly what to do, and have a clear visual in their mind of the task. Finding the cue that works will often depend on the type of learner the student is. For someone who is an auditory learner, the spoken cue is effective. Some people are visual learners, where they need to see a video of themselves making the change. For the kinesthetic learner, they need to feel something in the swing to trigger the new pattern.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

The final stage of the process is unconscious competence – being able to achieve the desired motion but not having to think about it. Examples of daily activities that fall in this category would be walking, driving your car, and writing your name. These are all things that you had to learn to do, but no longer require conscious effort.

I am asked daily, “how long will this take until I improve?”. The answer to this question is always “that is up to you”.  The fourth stage occurs in the student’s practice, and can take as little as an hour (getting comfortable with a grip change), to many months (shortening the downswing arc). As the student becomes more comfortable with the motion, they can make longer swings, change clubs, and begin to trust the motion on the course.

I make the comparison to cross country skiing when it comes to making a swing change, and how the brain learns new patterns of movement.

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In the picture above, this woman is the first person through this trail. She has the hardest job, as she is creating the tracks for her skis to move through. With no existing tracks, she has to work hard to create momentum. This is the exact reality for a golfer in the beginning stages of their change. There is no trail to follow, they are consciously moving the club in the desired manner. The more deliberate motions they create, the more they are helping the brain make the new connection.

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With enough deliberate practice, the trail looks like the picture above. The woman who was struggling to make her way through the snow can now place her skis in the grooves, and be on her way. The golfer who has done the work in the proper manner over time, doesn’t need to think about the movement, it is now natural to them. Going back to the myelin topic covered in stage 2, the new connection has been created, and is well insulated.

To move from conscious to unconscious competence is not just about number of repetitions, but rather the number of quality repetitions. I see people every day buy large baskets of range balls, and simply get better at their bad golf swing. They have grooved a trail to ski down, but it leads them off a cliff every time they step on the course.

This is a topic I am incredibly passionate about, as this is the ultimate determining factor to whether the student gets better or not. The person who can delay gratification and do the work required will improve immensely over time, whereas the person who is impatient and wants it right away will always revert back to their old habits. As a coach, I feel as though the better prepared the student is for what lies ahead, the more likely they are to succeed.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

-Will Durant

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