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How We Learn Movement!

By Dr. Ron Cruickshank

The most assumed and often repeated lore on the golf practice tee is that people believe hitting a lot of balls will build muscle memory. This is entirely inaccurate and confuses the role of repetitions imprint on the brain as it builds neural skill circuits with that of what a muscle actually does – contract or relax. There is no memory in a muscle, it is simply responding to a signal of intent sent to it by the brain. Learning takes place in the brain, not the muscle. This is no longer a subject of conjecture.

However, lets us make a further and important distinction about the relationship between a brain and the bodies muscles. In movement, the brain generally does not learn how to contract a specific muscle; it learns a pattern of movement and the brain triggers the movement with conscious intent. Jason Hough, a Cape Town functional trainer said in a recent article. “Your brain does not learn how to contract muscles… it learns how to execute movements. This is the way it is designed and this is the way you should train it. INTEGRATE DON’T ISOLATE.”

Recently, in our winter training program at the Royal Ashburn Golf Club in Canada I had a student named Bill Bower that was training in the A1K Natural Swing to fully release the club.  Bill is a fine player and for some reason his mental/neural model just wasn’t accommodating a full release. We adjusted this inefficient move with a simple new model. Pulling up a heavy chair and told him. “I want you to do a Bobby Knight.”

Bill stared at me for a few seconds as the reference to the famous basketball coach sunk in. With a wry smile he asked. “You mean you want me to throw this chair across the room?”  “Yes, we are training a big movement pattern I told him and without hesitation he grabbed the chair and you can see the full release that resulted. Thank goodness he had better control than Coach Knight and he held on to the chair.

The reason this was so effective was that Bill had a very sound and complete neural pattern in his brain of how to throw a chair across the room.  Fearing some childhood deviance I didn’t ask him how he had acquired such mastery, but it was clear from the beginning he had a great internal model of how to throw the chair. In ONE rehearsal move he totally got to the position we had been seeking. He had mastered a pattern, not a series of individual muscle contractions. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Bill later told me that upon telling his wife and daughter about this training method they adroitly questioned his choice of golf coach.)

Speaking of chairs, imagine trying to learn and execute a motion as simple as sitting down into a chair.  If you concentrated on the individual muscle contractions involved and then added the timing, speed and balance components involved it would be ridiculously complex. From a learning perspective, learning specific muscle contractions is a highly inefficient way to acquire a skill. This is what Hough means when he says integrate movement, don’t try to isolate individual contractions.  Ultimately, your body relies on previously learned movement patterns stored as a generalized motor pattern in the brain. These are movements like bending, twisting, turning or reaching.

We all have exquisite visual recognition of many athletic patterns. From 50 feet away, even with a casual glance, I bet every one of you can distinguish the difference between a baseball swing, a hockey slap shot and a golf swing. In fact, I bet you had a visual image of these swings as you read these words. The reason is that you have stored the generalized pattern in your brain with great specificity. When you actually play a sport you learn to internalize these into personal movement patterns. Some are learned effectively and some not.

When it comes to learning these patterns, Hough says that “by understanding how the brain stores this information it makes it easier to understand that if we can train parts of the movement in stages…. we can assist in putting them all together into a flowing movement. An example he gives is a baseball pitch. “When you analyze this movement, you will see that it consists of a squat, a bend, a lunge and the push, along with the stabilization and balance components in between.” By training each separate chunk and then coordinating them as a whole we can improve the movement overall.

This chunking of motor patterns into small learnable movements works to accelerate learning. This is exactly why at Phoenix Golf we teach the single plane swing in six positions. These are learning “chunks” that you can assimilate as individual patterns. Once you master each component you begin to tie them together into one big pattern that can be replicated consistently and reliably via repetition.  There is no more effective learning process known at this time.

How You Can Learn Movement?

We have evolved our teaching of swing movement patterns based on neuroscience developments. It is clear at this time that there IS a superior strategy for teaching and learning how to efficiently swing a golf club.  The learning strategy has distinct steps and if you follow these steps you will accelerate the learning process.  My experience has been that two concentrated twelve minute training sessions (read slow-motion and intense mental involvement in what you are doing) per day over a month will yield positive and significant results.

Four Steps To Accelerate Learning a Movement Skill

  1. Verbal Cues: Have someone explain what you are seeking to accomplish. While this seems obvious, it is important that you have a clear understanding of what you want to get done. For example – “at impact we want the club face square to the target line. At no point should the toe of the club be in front of the heel through the impact zone.” What happens during this verbal instruction is that the brain begins to translate this information into potential movement patterns because your brain is always figuring things out – that is what the brain does.  Take a moment and self-talk yourself through your grip and address. You will be surprised by either what you do know or what you don’t. If you are not clear, get some instruction.
  1. Visual Cues: Look and match angles precisely compared to an ideal image or picture. This technique utilizes our natural ability to imitate what we see. So you learn by forming a picture of what is demonstrated and then try to reform that image using your own body.
    For example, take a picture of a perfect address position and put it on the wall or tape to a mirror. Then, model it as exactly and precisely as you can. Do the same for all the swing positions as taught.
  1. Repetition:  After you have formed a reasonable idea of what is expected of you regarding a certain position or movement, you “need to execute the movement yourself so that you can form neural pathways to co-ordinate the order and speeds of muscle contraction within a given movement.”
    You should do this in slow motion as much and as often as you can because each time it is done perfectly the brain is building a skill circuit.  We build ‘feel’ as a result of continuous and repetitive practice of the correct movements. This is THE shortcut to accelerate the learning process of movement skill.  This is true from golf to bowling and everything in between.
  1. Perception: Perception in the physical means ‘feel’. The most important way we learn is to feel the movement. The only way to learn feel is through repetition. Your body has within it several types of receptors that will help you to co-ordinate and store movement patterns over time.. Your body uses these receptors to help you learn new applications or skills.  By concentrating on how the movement feels you involve your brains learning center to help integrate all your other sense modalities (like sound and vision).

It is important to note that effective execution of a movement pattern depends on the quality of the feedback you receive (video, your coach, as well as from your own body).  Every time that you perform a movement pattern correctly, and are reinforced with positive feedback, your brain will try to repeat the performance until it is natural. However, if you perform the movement incorrectly and are not adjusted or corrected you will learn it that way and are likely to execute it wrongly in the future.  The more you do a given movement the quicker your brain will retrieve the learned pattern from memory.

In summary, if you want to accelerate your learning of the golf swing, try this simple four step method and experience how quickly you can improve.  No one said it would be easy, but it is simple!