The mind is such a massively important factor when you are making a technical change for the better. Failing to understand this could be setting yourself up for lifelong lack of improvement.
During this article, we will look at some of the things stopping you get better, as well as offering some solutions towards the end.
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Separating body and mind
In sport, it is often attempted to improve technique without consideration of the mind. This is one of the biggest mistakes we can make.
The mind is an integral part of change. Anyone can find out information about what to do – the hardest part (and the thing which separates people who learn at rapid speed versus those who can’t learn at all) is understanding how the mind interacts with the body to produce the changes.
Almost all body movements first stem from the mind
Holographic Brick Wall
In front of you is a brick wall – it looks pretty solid. Your coach says to you “Just run through it. Go on, it doesn’t exist – It’s just a hologram.” You look at him as if he is mad – it looks so real.
But you know you have to do this; the other side is full of goodies – new skills and techniques that will create a better sportsperson. You simply have to get through that wall if you want to get better.
You start to give yourself positive self talk. “I can do this, it’s just a hologram. The wall does not exist, I’m going to run right through.” You wind up and start your run. As you gather speed you feel confident; you are going to do this.
At the very last millisecond, you back out. Your body comes to a screeching halt as if controlled by some external force. You fall into a crumpled heap and curse yourself.
Why can’t I do this?”
Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like changing our technique/lives, right?
Knowing versus Experiencing
The issue is, you have never experienced running through the brick wall; you might understand it conceptually, but your reptilian brain is telling you something different.
The reptilian brain was first in the evolutionary order – the parts which bring rise to our conscious thoughts (neocortex) developed later. Unfortunately, our reptilian brain will often win in a short term fight, and can override any conscious attempts we have at making a change.
In my book “The Practice Manual”, I discuss the ideas behind what I call the “Conscious concept” and the “Subconscious concept”. For example, we may understand consciously that the brick wall is just a hologram, but our subconscious concept (or reptilian brain) may believe something different. And until it experiences something different, it will continue to run on automatic – which will be either our instincts, or ingrained habits over the course of time.
You might know the wall is a hologram, but you haven’t experienced that it is a hologram.
Both are important, one is vital
I am a big believer that understanding the task is an important element to doing something correctly – but it is not vital. This was never more evident to me than when I watched a +3 handicap golfer flushing shot after shot. I remember asking her if she thought about where her divot should be, to which she replied
I thought I shouldn’t take a divot
She was taking a divot, and she was taking it in the right place – but she had no conscious awareness of what she was doing. But through thousands of hours of practice, she had experienced the correct divot so many times that her reptilian brain was overriding her conscious understanding – luckily with the correct things.
This above example shows the difference between where a player may think the ball should start (pink line) versus where they actually start the ball (blue line).
In motor learning science, this is deemed the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge. The lesson from this is that knowing is not enough alone (although it is a big step in the right direction for most), you have to also experience it. And experience it enough times that it sends the message to your reptilian brain.
One of the biggest issues we see as golf instructors is students making a divot/brushing the grass in a non-functional place (such as a foot behind the ball – yes, that’s YOU).
I recently had a pupil whose biggest issue was exactly this. After understanding conceptually what was needed to produce better golf shots (he had a poor conscious concept of what was needed), we then moved on to the important part – Experiencing.
Everything was in place technically for him to be able to do this skill. He was even able to contact the ground in the right place time and time again without a golf ball there, indicating to me that his coordination levels were sufficient for the task. However, put a ball in the way and suddenly the old technique comes rearing back.
Ah, the Holographic Brick wall.
I know it does because almost every golfer/sportsperson is trapped in this cycle, seemingly unable to change it. The brick wall here is simple –
The player is being told that this is how a pro strikes a golf ball
However, the reptilian brain of the pupil still believes that this is the way a golf ball should be hit.
After all, it is instinctive for us to (try to) get under an object that we are trying to hit in the air. Our reptilian brain doesn’t understand something as unnatural as loft – it’s not something it came across in our evolutionary path to being a human.
Golf is one of those horrible sports where it often goes against our deeper instincts.
So, how do we get the reptilian brain to experience what we want without it reacting instinctively?
Prepare for failure
One of the biggest differences I see between quick learners and slow learners is that they (quick learners) are not afraid of failing or making a mistake.
If you don’t allow yourself to hit a bad shot, your reptilian brain is going to kick in and protect you from a potential poor shot by doing your old move (as it knows it is a safe bet). Unfortunately, this is preventing us from going through the wall to the other side.
But if you are open to failing. Hell, if you even encourage failure, all of a sudden, it loses its power.
A quick learner will say
I am open to exploring this, and I am going to try and do it so extreme that I will make the opposing mistake. From there, I will then be able to bring myself back to where it needs to be.”
This above mindset completely de-activates or disabilitates the reptilian brain and brings us open to learning things at rapid speed.
On the other hand, a poor learner thinks
I hope I get this right first time. This better be a good shot”
This mindset is one which activates Threat Mode; the pupil tries to do things so perfectly that they activate the reptilian brain and the instinctive or habitual nature comes back.
Sometimes this is an attempt to impress the coach – you guys don’t want to let us down and we appreciate and respect that. But we prefer to see you make a bunch of mistakes in the early Stages of Learning and explore the skill you are trying to improve, as opposed to being perpetually trapped in your old motion from not allowing yourself to make a mistake.
My colleague Laurence Brotheridge and I have often said that some of the biggest breakthroughs come when we say to a pupil
For the next 5 balls, I want you to make a mistake. I want you to try and do (X) so much that you over do it completely
Within the first ball, we see a completely different motion, and one which is much closer to what we are working towards. To us, this shows just how important the mind is during the learning process. It also shows us exactly how much you are holding yourself back.
Also, we will often say to a pupil that we are leaving the room for a moment to get a training aid or something. We encourage them to use that couple of minutes to try (X) as hard as they can without worry of us looking.
This form of practice is showing great promise – you can read more about it with a link at the end of this article.
In basic form, Differential practice is practicing in a way which encourages exploring boundaries, pushing the envelope, doing things we might not use much/ever on the course, but which go towards skill development. As we are often intentionally exploring mistakes with this form of practice, it is a completely different mindset to “Practicing Perfection” – we are no longer constrained by the reptilian brain, and it becomes deactivated.
I have countless examples of breakthroughs in improvements with players which are seemingly unable to make a change. Often, 5 minutes or less of a differential practice drill can unlock the desired changes – or an increased ability to make the change.
Differential practice is a VERY powerful tool for learning.
Tame the Reptile
Our reptilian brain is very stubborn, especially as we get older.
But it does come around. With time, and enough experiencing of the right things, we can coax our reptilian brain into accepting the new moves/concepts. This is why I am not always against blocked practice in the initial stages of learning.
We are trying to change a subconscious concept, a deeper control level which is stronger than our own (illusory) free will. But luckily, the thing that separates us from most other animals is our higher brain – and given enough desire, we can communicate with and change the reptilian brain and make better moves more habitual.
This is why awareness and attention during the learning process can be important.
But this takes times. As I said, the reptilian brain is stubborn.
The Right Environment
This is an important area for us coaches to understand. It is also important for players when they are setting their own practice environments.
A correct learning environment should
- Encourage exploration
- Initially, be free of judgment (nothing is good or bad, it’s just different)
- Actively encourage ‘mistakes’ to disarm the instinctive reflexes which prevent change
Don’t forget, we are battling billions of years of evolution.
I discuss all of the concepts above (blocked vs Random, differential practice, strike concepts etc) in “The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers (available from amazon). Click below to learn more
Also, don’t forget to check out my video series – The Strike Plan, which discusses many of the ways to improve your strike quality – the easiest way to lower your scores and enjoy your golf more.