By Bob Mullen USGTF Master Golf Teaching Professional, Wichita, Kansas
The year was 1975, and golfing legend Sam Snead had just read a Golf Digest report on the average score of the male golfer; he was dismayed to learn it was 100. He considered all the improvements he had witnessed over the years in equipment, course maintenance and availability of instruction, and concluded there was no reason the average golfer should be scoring that high. He wrote, “Something’s wrong some-where.”
With his book Simple Key Approach to Golf, Sam set out to provide simplified instruction to address what was “wrong.” This book was one of eleven books Sam wrote, believing in his books somewhere would be the answer that would help the average golfer. Snead was not alone: almost every notable professional golfer and teacher has written one or more books on the fundamentals of our game. I have read and studied the books written, not just by Snead but by Jones, Hogan, Palmer, Penick, Nicklaus and Watson, and I admit I also thought I had the answer. I gave writing my own book a try in2009.
Since the time of Snead’s statement, 40 years have passed and millions of words of instruction have been written. We now have teachers on the web, more than a dozen magazines and countless training camps, schools and academies, all teaching the basic fundamentals and giving tips on how to play the game. The equipment has undergone major changes in design. Golfers can choose steel, graphite, or composite shafts with custom kick points. Heads come in graphite, titanium, or carbon fiber with fusion technologies that can only be described as space age.
It all amounts to lighter, stronger clubs with bigger sweet spots that are easier for the golfer to hit. Courses are now immaculate in every respect, greens putt truer and, thanks to the USGTF, instruction is uniform and directed toward the correct fundamentals. Golf ball technology alone should make the game easier. All of this combines to make the golfing experience vastly improved and should result in better performance by the average golfer. It is hard to believe, but the latest report published by the National Golf Foundation in 2016shows the average male golfer still shoots 100.
So, what is the story? Sam was right in 1965, and he is still right today, something is wrong. But it’s probably not what you are thinking. If you teach what the US-GTF offers, and your students learn, they will have the opportunity to develop the best game they are capable of playing. So, if that is true, then what is wrong?
I make no claim to being an expert in neurology, but I have spent the past ten years studying how the brain works because of my involvement with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and lately because of my interest in muscle movement and motor control by the brain. I have spent the last three years learning a solution to the problem. The complete answer appears in my new book, Golf: Learn from the Legends.
I can give you a good look at the answer in this article. What’s wrong is not what we are teaching, but how we are teaching. We work hard at explaining how to perform motor skills. But we don’t tell our students how they learn motor skills. We tell them to practice, but we don’t tell them how necessary this practice is and what the consequences are if they fail to practice. We don’t tell them that it all deals with the brain and how the brain absorbs information. We should all be aware by now that that muscle memory is a very inexact term often used to describe complex signals that travel from our brain to our muscles every time we need a muscle to contract or relax. Everything we do in teaching golf is teaching the brain how to send signals via electric impulses to the muscles to contract or relax so that the proper coordinated action can take place. If there is no message from the brain, there is no movement in the muscle. There is no muscle memory.
New brain-scan technologies have been developed and used on people with damaged brains. They needed to relearn everything from walking to talking. The imaging observed by the neuroscientists showed pat-terns on how this relearning was taking place. It is no longer guesswork, and we now know how motor skills are learned. First, the information goes to your frontal cortex, which is the thinking part of your brain. Here, it is memorized and the action is analyzed, and then sent to the motor cortex for assignment to muscles through the cerebellum prior to being sent to its destination via your spine. Initially, the skill is not permanently learned and must be thought about each time you want to re-peat the action. The skill must be practiced daily and it must be perfect practice, or the skill will not be learned perfectly. Each practice effort must be correct. Practice sessions must be short and exact. These sessions are building neural patterns in the motor cortex. This is called the cognitive stage of learning. It is stage one.
Since the student must rely on his/her memory in the cognitive stage, you must be aware that there is a capacity problem in the frontal cortex. This is where all the thought processes for the individual take place, and only seven items can exist in the working memory function. It is best that you do not overload the frontal cortex by trying to learn or teach more than one motor skill at a time. Do not confuse the learning process.
The object in stage one is to practice the motor skill daily. The recruiting of neurons in the motor cortex will take about 10 to 14 days. Once a sufficient bundle is created, you will have reached stage two, or the associative stage of learning. In this stage, you do not have to rely on your memory each time you want to repeat the skill. From time to time you will have problems, but for the most part you have learned this skill.
Practice of the skill in stage two refines your ability to perform. The large muscle groups are joined by the fine muscle groups, and your performance becomes smoother and you act less like a “klutz.” During the associative stage, you can take on another new skill. You may have several skills in your game that have reached the associative stage, and you should manage your practice time and drills to move them ahead to keep your game in balance.
The third stage is the autonomous stage. This is the stage you have for the majority of your motor skills like walking and eating and riding a bike. You don’t even think about how you do these tasks. This is the destination for your golf skills. Stand up to the ball and be comfortable with your swing. You can then focus on course management. That is when golf is really fun.
• Memorization takes place in Stage One in the Frontal Cortex. If you practice the skill, you can move it to the Motor Cortex. If you don’t practice, you will lose the skill.• Permanent learning begins in the Associative Stage in the Motor Cortex as neurons are recruited through repeated practice. This will happen after about ten days. Your continuous practice builds a neuron bundle in the Motor Cortex, recruiting more and more neurons and refining the muscle patterns used to perform the skill. This level begins after 10-14 days and lasts for months to years, depending on your dedication.• In Stage Three, you will recruit neurons in every region of your brain. The skill is permanent and autonomous. This takes hours and hours of dedicated and continuous practice. This is the level you want to attain.