The Ideal Student doesn’t play golf

The brain processes thoughts quickly but learns new motor skills such as golf or playing the violin takes much slower

The brain processes thoughts quickly but learns new motor skills such as golf or playing the violin much more slowly.

So much snow has fallen on lovely Rockwood that I don’t know where to put it all, but it has been a great winter for golf. 

In mid-January, I began working on learning the Single-Plane Swing based on the move of the late legend Moe Norman, and—in my earnest way—I’ve pledged to be the Ideal Student. With four feet of snow outside, I’ve been diligently working daily on drills in my basement to learn Moe’s swing.

According to Todd Graves, who teaches Moe’s Single-Plane Swing through his Graves Golf Academy (GGA), the ideal student focuses exclusively on learning the movements of the swing without concern for results. In other words, no concern for where the ball goes or what he shoots on the golf course.

Sure, that’s easy for a northern golfers, but you don’t even need to hit balls over the winter to improve.

At a GGA school in January, Todd prefaced his description of the ideal student, saying, “I know you won’t do this, but the ideal student will not play golf for six months.” He told the story of John Olson, a 20+ handicapper who lives in Milwaukee. He worked on drills one winter without hitting a ball. Within a year, he was a 9. Within three years, he was a 5.

John’s dedication is not in sync with our instant results culture: We want immediate response to texts, pizzas delivered in 30 minutes or less, and our slice to turn into a soft draw due thanks to a swing tip.

But our brains don’t work that way. We use our bodies to swing the club, but it’s the brain that directs the machinery. Our grey matter works incredibly fast at processing thoughts and signals from our senses, but it’s dad-gum slow when it comes to mastering new motor skills such as golf, learning to play the violin or swing a tennis racquet.

So how does anyone get better at the devil’s game of golf? One place to start is to learn how our brains and bodies develop new skills. The following are the stages of mastery:

1. Unconscious incompetence—you’re not aware that you’re doing something incorrectly (for example, you cut across the ball at impact, imparting slice spin on the ball)

2. Conscious incompetence—you become aware of your fault (a professional shows your fault on video)

3. Conscience competence—you practice swinging correctly (the way the professional showed you)

4. Unconscious competence—you can perform the move correctly without thinking about it (you’ve mastered it)

Unfortunately, there is no passing lane to speed your way through to Stage 4.

The brain’s neural pathways that control body movement fire in patterns that we have developed over years of use. This is why, unconsciously, we do most everything exactly the same way, like brushing our teeth with the same number of strokes every day.

Neural pathways become set when they become covered with a substance called myelin.

The role of myelin is articulated in The Talent Code by author Daniel Coyne, a must-read for every golfer seeking to improve. “Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying a tiny electrical impulse—basically a signal traveling through a circuit. Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibres the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster…

“When we fire our circuits in the right way—when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note—our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become.”

Next: John Olson’s journey


About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!