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.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The coaching 'life cycle'

I wrote this a few months ago on a different forum and thought I would post on my blog. It is a story of the general coaching cycle - or life cycle of a golf coach. I thought it would be interesting for players to see this also, as there are many parallels to your playing and search for the perfect swing as there are a coach's search for that 'one thing' that is going to help all golfers.

Basically, the cycle goes like this;

1. Coach knows nothing - feels a little insecure about lack of knowledge

2. In an attempt to get better, they start researching

3. They come across a book/seminar/theory that strikes a chord with them. This now becomes EVERYTHING. Any fault in golf can be attributed to this, and it is now 'the only way' you can improve your golf. everything else pales in comparison. This information you now know was the 'missing link', the reason that handicaps have not progressed in the last 50 years.

4. You start to implement the knowledge.

5. You get a few hits.

6. All of a sudden, everyone who comes to you has the same fault and can be fixed with the same things. This is an interesting concept fuelled by our reticular activating system. 10 coaches looking at the same swing will 'see' different things because of how their past experiences and recent successes influence where their attention is directed.

7. Whilst confidence is high with the new 'methods' you get really good results (likely a placebo-ish experience from the pure enthusiasm with which the information is delivered, and the body language and other subconscious cues the coach gives off as a result of the belief system in place).

8. After a while, it becomes hit and miss.

9. Coach starts to realise that maybe this is not all it was cracked up to be. Maybe a new 'fad' comes along to replace it, the old info takes a back seat

10. the cycle repeats

Eventually, at the end of repeating this cycle numerous times, you become a good golf coach with a lot of tools. You can see the problems in certain methods and realise that there is no 'secret' in golf coaching, just as there is no secret to being a good player. Usually, coaches will go back to simple things, but with a more complete understanding of how they work, and a much better way of teaching them.

Understand it in its complexity in order to teach it in its simplicity

An example of this is when I learned how to change people's swing mechanics effectively. I would often see amazing results on video camera, the club coming down more on plane, with a squarer face and better body motion. 'I'm a great coach' I thought! But I wasn't looking at the correct evidence, players weren't necessarily hitting the ball better, they just looked better on camera. This hit home with me when I changed a player with a +2 handicap from a 20 yard drawer of the ball to a nice 3 yard fade with a very neutral swing. Everything looked amazing on camera, probably one of the best swings I had ever seen. Body motion was great, plane was great, clubface was now neutral. It looked better than the model swing we were comparing it with.

The player couldn't break 80 for the next 3 months. Eventually he got it back, after about a year. But looking at his swing now, it has just gone back to the old ways - the way he originally played. Whilst I don't feel I have made him worse, I certainly didn't make him better, and potentially set him back a year of progress he could have had getting better with his old movement.

Lessons Learned

But I learned a lot from this. Making someone look great on camera doesn't always make them a better player. What I didn't realise at the time was that I was battling a lot of other forces. The player's subconscious mind (see my article on SUBCONSCIOUS CONCEPTS)  preferred to see a draw shape. His entire STRATEGY was based around a draw. With a draw shot, he knew his miss was left; with his new swing, he could lose the ball both sides and so was not confident at aiming at one side of the course. He also had his old swing ingrained for 15 years, so even though it looked great for the most time on the course, he was susceptible to going back to old habits under pressure or fatigue. Also, he was having to think and be overly conscious about his new movement... not a great thing for optimal performance.

The lesson I took from this was that you have to look at a player as a whole. You cant just see an individual component in a machine - it's not all about having a great swing motion on video for example ;) . Being deterministic and reductionist about coaching is doomed for failure, as you are not teaching a player as an interconnected web of psychological and physical relationships, which it is. I learned that theoretical consistency (better technique) is just that... theoretical. We also have to take into account the biological and psychological.

So my advice to new professionals is, don't get too far ahead of yourself and think that what you know now is the be all and end all. It will change. You may not believe it now, but in 20 years time you will probably have a very different philosophy, and the things you think are 'gold' now, will probably be laughed at by yourself. Understand that learning these things are important for you, but they must be a tool in a much larger toolbox. Golf is a holistic sport, with a lot of variables including equipment, concept of impact, concept of swing, previous sporting movements, injuries and physical limitations, age, ability to learn new things, past environmental experiences and much much more. To pin down just one aspect and say that this is the 'new way' will cause you more problems than benefits. 

I know a lot of people reading this will be saying, of course it's not just all about the swing. But ask yourself this - are you making a better player, or are you just making them look pretty? Is turning a slice into a drawer of the ball really making them the best player they can be? Or is it just satisfying a different myth?

I will leave you with a quote to think over

"You cannot define a winning golfer purely by their technical prowess. Their technique is a representation of the whole golfer; their thoughts, their development, their skills, their co-ordination, their strategies, their physical make-up, their history and much more. To take a snapshot of a position of a golfer and say "This is it", or even to take a 3d model of a swing and claim 'The secret' is naive at best. At worst, it can be damaging".

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The ups and downs of learning

I wrote last week CLICK HERE about how learning sometimes has a little delay whilst the neurons in your brain are strengthening and being myelinated over time. This article continues on from that, and introduces the up and down nature of learning.

When you are learning something new, often you can progress quite nicely during the session. This is especially true for beginners with no prior experience. They can start off the first five minutes of their golf career not getting a single ball airborne. But by the time they finish the hour, a good 70% are flying nicely through the air.

But what happens next day? Normally, the player turns up to the practice tee with the same expectations as the end of the last session. They think that they are going to be able to get 70% (or more) of the balls airborne from the get-go; but it doesn't work like that. During the warm up, they rush through it to get to the ‘good stuff’, but in an attempt to do so they get frustrated that the balls aren't flying like they did last time. 

If the person applied patience here, they would soon warm up their skills/co-ordination or body and would break through this short period. This is because learning often looks more like this;

In this graph, the player started out with very low performance, but increased it by the
end of the session. But between session 1 and 2, some of the learning was lost/or the player 
is not as warmed up at this point. They are still better than the day before, and have potential
to push the boundaries further today, as long as they practice with patience 
and realistic expectations during the initial stages of the session.

In between the end of session one and start of session 2, there have been lots of changes in the brain giving you POTENTIALLY better performance this session. However, due to the fact there are other factors determining performance (like having your body fully warmed up), this potential is not yet realized.

A beginner, not versed in the act of learning, may start session 2 with such a high expectation level that they start to become frustrated that they can’t do what they did yesterday. Through their frustration, they then start trying different things/getting angry with themselves and the whole session is lost, or even a backwards step as they are chasing the secret. Their graph would look much more like this;

In this graph we see the player starts out a little lower than the end of the 
previous day. Through high expectations, they then get frustrated and spoil
their chances of doing any learning/boundary pushing that day.
the catastrophe theory of learning

Take home notes

So you have to remember, during the transition between the end of session one and the start of the new session, expect a little performance drop. Stay patient during this, allow your body (and your brain) to fully warm up, before you start pushing the boundaries further.

Learning is not always linear - it often has more peaks and troughs. Just like learning a new word in a foreign language; the first time you learn it, you think that you 'have it'. But next day you may have forgotten it again. But each subsequent time you re-learn it, you learn it a little better - as long as you don't get stressed and upset racking your brains to find the word.

Remember - you only have potential to do better today than yesterday. Don't sabotage your efforts with overly high expectations early on.

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Currently working for the World famous Turnberry Resort at the Golf Performance Academy. I am a golf coach who specialises in not only what to learn, but 'how' to learn. I am always looking to further education of myself and others, and improve knowledge and understanding so that we can be better golfers and coaches