2013 Monograph Series, #2 How Your Brain Really Works  

Note: The goal of this series is simple – find practical applications of the latest brain science research to how one learns and stores movement. This includes all aspects of golf.

 By Ron Cruickshank, Ph.D., Master Instructor, Toronto Canada

 Recently, on TV,  I watched Nik Wallenda, of the famed circus family, walking a high wire above an interstate in Sarasota, Florida. Just a few months previously he captivated millions of people on TV as he walked a high wire strung above Niagara Falls in conditions that included wind and mist.  Each time I watched, an overriding question occurred to me. “How the heck did he learn to do that?”

His answer of course is that he was tutored by his famed Uncle Karl Wallenda and that he is in the 7th generation of circus performers, dating back to 1760 during the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.   In a recent interview he said, “People say I’m insane all the time, but they don’t understand that this is something I’ve done since I was 2. It’s just in my blood.”  In reality, from an epigenetics perspective (see last article) this is a very accurate statement. Nik Wallenda had a high quality model available to him for learning high wire walking from birth.

Putting the motivational aspect aside, the prevailing question I wish to address is how does one really learn to walk on a tight rope (or learn a competent golf swing)?  Walking on a 5/8 inch wire is a very demanding task that requires complex balancing and timing skills in a hazardous environment.  Also in consideration is emotional management (fear), mental focus (at 200 feet above the ground you best be paying attention and able to delete extraneous input) and the mechanics such as cable tension, wind, rain, mist, lighting, your grip on the balancing pole, the weight of the pole, its composition as well as  host of other things that could influence the outcome. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

To help us answer this question I turned to golf expert, trick roper and western humorist, Will Rodgers.  Actually, I don’t know if he played golf, but I found the following quote attributed to Mr. Rodgers and decided he must have intimate knowledge of golf. He said.  “Long ago, when men cursed and beat the ground with sticks, it was called witchcraft. Today it’s called golf.”  Only a man familiar with the game could have this kind of insight.

Anyway, relative to learning, Will Rodgers once made a sage and apropos observation. He said there are three strategies men use to learn:

  1. The ones that learn by reading.
  2. The few who learn by observation.
  3. The rest that have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.

In the vast amphitheater of options available to us for learning golf, I think this is an accurate categorizing of the learning process most of us use to learn the game.  Think about the process by which you learned to play golf.

  • Did you read Ben Hogan’s classic book Five Lessons or one by Nicklaus, Player, Snead, Jones, Ballard and a host of others then try to learn by matching the pictures and absorbing the dialogue? (Learn by reading)
  • Did you discover Natural Golf tapes or Graves Golf CD’s and attempt to learn visually?
  • Did you have a teacher or golf mentor and seek to imitate what he or she did? (Learn by observation)
  • Did you get some clubs and start banging away, learning along the way from your own mistakes and success?  (Peeing on the electric fence)

Perhaps you might have used all three methods or some composite.  I know I did. I started as a number three learner (electric fence guy) when a golf team member in college gave me an old Arnold Palmer putter. Pretty soon I bought an old used set of Wilson Staff irons, some Sam Snead woods and began to read Golf Digest and anything else I could find. I spent most of my spare moments (and some study time meant for Chemistry III) going to the golf course and in the evenings would hit wedges on the soccer field. I was on the path to becoming a nice solid 90’s shooter until the soccer Coach found a series of deep divots next to the goal.

I studied hard and remained committed- hitting a LOT of balls. I spent a bunch of money, attended some golf schools and while I got somewhat better I realized it was because I was developing a really good short game. My ball striking was still just moderate at best, but I never knew how I would hit it from day to day. The truth was, I didn’t know how to get better and my model was to just keep peeing on the electric fence and hoping I would get better.

It wasn’t until I became aware of and adopted Moe Norman as a swing model did I actually start to get better as a ball striker.  For the first time in my golfing career I could depend that my swing would show up reliably. Improved results began to happen.  The question for us here is – why did adopting a model help my learning process?  The second question of more import to you is – will embracing a model speed up the learning process in acquiring an effective golf swing for you?

Will Using an Expert Model Accelerate Learning?

The answer is yes.  The use of an effective model to learn from is better than not having one. Learning that is only based on error and correction (peeing on the electric fence) can be highly effective, but it takes a long time and doesn’t always produce the results because you might not figure out a cognitive solution to the problem. Unlike Moe, you could actually hit a million balls and not get better if you don’t make the correct adjustments along the way.

By the way, I am not ignoring the obvious counter to this statement – without his experimentation, Moe would not have discovered his bio-mechanically improved method to strike a ball. However, unless you have time to hit 1-2 million balls over the next few years while keeping track of what makes your muscles sore, I believe it is more effective to find a good model and emulate.

Fundamentally, having an expert model can reduce the amount of reasoning effort and problem solving necessary on the front end of learning a sound golf swing.  Having the correct (proven to work by the expert) information saves you time because you don’t have to discover everything for yourself.  You can literally short-cut the process by getting the right information before you start beating thousands of balls while you search for ‘the secret in the dirt’.

Practicing without error is not the objective. We learn best through discovery as the brain stores constant iterations and then improves. Having a model allows us to discover concepts governing the movement, and therefore we aren’t just mimicking the movement, we are giving ourselves a ruler to measure ourselves against.  This is really a form of what the neuroscience people call augmented feedback – in other words, this is feedback you can get from an external source and not your own senses.

The science is clear – the most effective way to learn a movement skill is to have an expert model to observe and then have expert feedback to reduce the number of iterations you must perform to learn the skill. That is it!

In practical terms the best strategy sequence for learning that optimizes the way the brain works is as follows:

  1. Adopt an expert model (Moe Norman is the one we recommend)
  2. Observe and attempt to reproduce the behavior (images, CD’s, training aids)
  3. Get regular expert feedback (put yourself on film and observe, get a lesson, attend a school or send in a tape and get feedback)

What do you have to lose except a poor golf swing? As I researched Nik Wallenda I ran across this quote and thought it superb. He said, “Fear is a choice. Danger is real.”  There is no reason why you can’t have a reliable and consistent golf swing if you are willing to go about it differently.  This isn’t rocket science folks.. this is brain science!

About the Author:  Ron Cruickshank, Ph.D., is a GGA Master Instructor and he teaches at our Canadian HQ, The Royal Ashburn Golf Club, in Whitby, Ontario. Go on-line and book a school. He is finalizing a new book entitled Swing Like Moe Norman- Use Your Brain for a Change and Learn the Swing of the World’s Greatest Ball Striker featuring Todd Graves.   This book is written to utilize the latest insights from neuroscience to help turn you into a reliable and consistent ball striker.