How Learning Takes Place
2004 Carey G. Mumford

This issue probably has more “hair” on it than is found on a horse. If you've looked into it at all, the range of perception is broader than that of politics or religion – maybe both put together. And the issue itself is divided into things like thinking concepts and motor activities. The focus here is “motor” learning, since we are talking about golf which is primarily a motor function.

No need to discuss the variations – just take a look at some common sense themes. How did you learn as a child? Ride a bike, walk, run, write, use eating utensils, etc.?

We could say just by watching others and that would likely be a lot of it. We could say “trial and error” and that would be a lot of it, too. We could also say “what our parents and others told us,” and that would add another dimension.

But how did we retain all that? Was it repetition? Practice? Need? Desire? Want? Fear? Demand? Command?

It is doubtful that anyone can fully fathom the impact delivered by Mother Nature. All of the above may well be involved, but if you try to come up with a way to capture that, you'll simply find a lot of frustration. If you bring yourself to believe the findings of professionals like Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and, to a certain extent, Sigmund Freud, and then add the behavioral theories of James Watson and B.F. Skinner, take a dash of Ivan Pavlov and a few others, you'll start to see how complex (not simple) it is to grasp fully how learning takes place.

It is much easier to examine what we are doing and thinking when we are in the act of reaching a result that has been grounded in our ability to keep doing something well (the result).

What is clear is that motor learning is more difficult in later years than in infancy and youth. The evidence is that after we reach about 15 or 16, we don't have that special reserve that goes with the natural plan that served our early years, and the older we get the more recessive is the ability to master the new. We start any learning at a point where we “don't know and can't do.” Then, if the peripheral issues (like need and desire) are urgent enough, we move to a point where “we know, but still can't do.” After while, if we are not bored or frustrated, we'll move on to “we know and can do as long as we keep our minds on our business” (conscious attention). Finally, if we have followed the “rules” (which rarely have been clearly stated), we may arrive at “we know, can do and do not have to think about the action, but must continue keeping our minds occupied” (subconscious competence).

Now do a little more research and you'll find that there are some principled factors that are consistently present.

1. Thinking is divided into conscious and non-conscious, with the latter most directly affecting behavior.
Dr. Jerry Graham's research, with help from John Assaraf, finds the following:
"Your non-conscious mind is your personal operating system to use computer vernacular.  It is sustaining your life.  It causes your heart to beat, it kills off ten million blood cells every second and is responsible to create ten million new ones.  It digests your food and maintains your body’s temperature at that perfect level.  The list is virtually endless of all the things the subconscious brain does for us just to keep us alive, and I suspect that we’ve only begun to understand much of what is on that list.

So, the question of the day is, if 96-98% of our perception and behavior is controlled by the non-conscious mind, why do we invest so much time dealing with the conscious mind?  ... we can’t accomplish the goals we set because goal setting happens in the conscious mind while the application of relevant information, the actions and perceptions necessary to accomplish that goal all take place in the non-conscious mind. 

1a. Research done by Peter J. Bayley, Ph.D., and Jennifer C. Frascino, M.A., of the UCSD Department of Psychiatry was reported by Larry Squire, Ph.D., professor of neurosciences, psychiatry and psychology at the VAMC and follows:

“We know there is habit learning and have studied it extensively in animal models, but we don’t understand the process as clearly in humans because our declarative memory is so dominant.” Declarative memory is based on active learning and memorization, and is dependent on a region of the brain in the temporal lobe that includes the hippocampus...

Habit learning occurs when information is stored unconsciously, through repetition and trial-and-error learning. These memories are believed to be retained in a different region of the brain, called the basal ganglia. …We have speculated that humans might have the… capacity to acquire habit memory, but that this capability is ordinarily obscured by our excellent capacity to learn by conscious memorization.”

2. Human beings can only think one thought at a time, (either consciously or non-consciously), no matter how fast thoughts come in succession.

3. The body and the mind work at entirely different speeds.

4. If you try to think about what you are doing while you do it, you will suffer any consequences from the speed difference between how fast your mind works and the slower speed at which your body works. Such mismatches will inevitably involve consequences in execution.

5. Human beings do not learn much when too many new things come too fast or too often. We learn best in short doses, one thing at a time, with little rest periods in between.

6. When a person does something effectively, proficiently, consistently and with confidence, the result is an action that takes place while the person's mind is directed to something other than the action itself. (Think about it. When you are driving your car, your mind is not empty. It just isn't thinking consciously about driving or the traffic or the roadway).

7. Take note, however, that the mental function involves two locations; one for conscious, rational thinking, and another in a different location in the brain that is non conscious and handles emotional activity and stores habits.

Check it out with yourself, especially with those things you learned before the age of 15 or so, and compare that with what you are able to master later in life.

After you understand what is involved, it is a short step to create a means to develop motor learning that reaches a zenith while honoring the aforementioned issues. If you want learning only for skill, just keep doing what you always did. Skill is the level in evidence for most golfers (conscious competence). For that, one must think about what is being done while doing it. If you want to reach the level of habit (automatic) that corresponds to how we learned to ride, and subsequently rode, our bicycles, then it will be necessary to build the habits we require (subconscious competence). That is the fourth level of learning, marked by the ability to perform a function while consciously thinking about something other than the action itself.

No one doubts that repetition is part of learning. The problem is “how much repetition.” No one doubts that reinforcement is a necessary ingredient. The problem is, “what kind of reinforcement.”  That knowledge and those questions were unnoticed when we were kids. As adults, however, we need that awareness in order to duplicate what Mother Nature no longer characteristically takes care of in our behalf. Part of "her plan" clearly is to transfer her nurturing into our personal responsibility.

Much of our learning involves systematic behaviors so learning needs a correspondingly systematic framework. Golf requires such systematic behavior. While the source of the research was lost (many of our files were decimated by flood), we knew in the early 1980s that the retention factor in repetition came in fours. Do something once, there is a 50% immediate loss and 25% more within 48 hours. Two repeats get the same and so do three. But four successive duplications gains 90% retention. Anything more than four improves nothing in retention. Problem there is that the “fours” must be clearly identified to a non-discriminatory human system. Since it is also found in research that learning, as noted, is best served in short doses with little “rest” periods in between, the recommended scheme for repetition is in fours, with a slight break in between each group, and that signals the non-discriminatory system that the “fours” are present. (The 32 swing drill is (4+4)x4=32).

Most golfers are so busy doing many different things (experimenting) in a practice session that the most basic elements of repetition go unfulfilled. The only learning becomes “changing this or that,” and the development of "the habit of experimentation." It has been observed that most practice shows players “doing a thousand different things, one time each,” which is unlikely to help us create working habits suitable for golf.

Now add that we must have a way to learn something new and that will always start at the skill level. But if we wish to learn something that has the character of a habit, we have to alternate between repetition that learns a skill (conscious competence) and the repetition that develops a habit (subconscious competence). Repetition that merely keeps on repeating is found to waste both time and energy, unless it is organized in “fours.”

There is a codicil. Once a habit is built, it is there for the duration. We don't lose habits. Skills come and go. Habits stay, virtually forever. We can dismiss any skill, but we can only displace an existing habit by building a new one stronger than the old one. (Still the old one may creep in once in awhile, especially under enough pressure. If the new is sound enough, eventually the old will atrophy). And building either a skill or a habit takes “as long as it takes,” and that will vary considerably from person to person.

There is no alternative to substantial learning that we can find that does not follow the general format we have outlined here. There are no shortcuts. One must take the entire trip. We cannot arrive without making it.

When you are the instructor, or you are working with an instructor, keep these principles in mind so that you can practice in a way that will build in what has been pre-determined as needed habits.