Coaches are really teachers of learning, or should be. Understanding how players learn is essential to developing the athletes they work with.

In my 20 years of coaching I’ve always studied the art of learning, however, my passion for skill acquisition really peaked three and a half years ago just after our daughter was born.

Watching her learn how to sit up and walk was interesting enough to say the least, but now, as she’s on the verge of understanding Croatian (our second language) better than me, I’m trying to work out how she got to my level so quickly?! I’ve had group lessons, individual lessons, tried to learn from YouTube and even practiced (a bit, the subject of another blog)

We were told by other bi-lingual families that both languages should be introduced straight away as, and I’m sure you’ve all heard it, “It’s the best time to learn.”

Reading studies such as “Cognition without control: When a Little Frontal Lobe Goes a Long Way” (Thompson-Schill et al, 2009), demonstrates that the reason for this is due to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where working memory is stored. This is more developed in adults than in children. A developed prefrontal cortex means that adults are hampered by a ‘functional fixedness.’

So, functional fixedness, a great code word for being boring and sensible. When I was learning Croatian in a group environment, even as a beginner, we spent a lot of time on structure and grammar. I was introduced to such things as past participles and objects of a preposition. I’d managed to get through college and university without knowing what those were. All I wanted to know was the word for ‘hello’, ‘ball’, ‘fairway’ and ‘Mashie niblick.’

However, the tables are now turning and I’ve discovered how to learn! Like a kid! Reading her much simpler toddler books is really helping the information stick for a number of reasons. First of all, as well as reading and repeating the words myself, I’m also forced to understand them at a quicker rate as our daughter will test me “What does that mean Daddy?” At the moment, I’m not reading a wide variety of books but just a couple, this means I’m doing lots of repeating and learning the words and sentences slowly but correctly. Finally, it’s also a lot of fun! Reading them alone may not be, but reading them to her, with the occasional funny voice and a bit of acting out the scenes, really makes her laugh and makes me want to do it again.

The ‘fun’ element allows us to move away from the functional fixedness and experiment. From a language point of view, other than learning how to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Thank You’, the next thing you may learn in a foreign language is how to swear. Why? It’s fun. I can’t speak 6 languages, but I can swear in German, French, Korean, Croatian, Punjabi and Italian!

Children experiment all the time and should be encouraged to do so (not just by swearing in other languages). When buying our daughter her first golf club she was so excited, she held it and hugged it and I had visions of her chipping into the washing machine aged 3. Until she said, “Thank you daddy, my own magic wand!” It’s since been a broomstick that she has flown like a witch, a hoover so she can tidy her bedroom and on rare occasions, she has hit some golf balls.

As adults, when we see a golf club, it’s just a golf club and we don’t experiment. When we go to the driving range with the golf club, we often try to hit the same shot and we don’t experiment. As adults we know how to learn better than kids, we just don’t let ourselves.

In lessons Ill often challenge players of all ages to hit a type of shot and work it out for themselves how to do this. On most occasions we’d support them with video feedback, launch monitor feedback, practice drills, questioning etc., but if its something they discover for themselves it is easier to remember and practice post lesson.

So, next time you’re at the range, spend at least some of this time experimenting and trying new shots. Can you hit a Tiger ‘stinger’ or a Mikleson flop shot? Can you hit a 50 yard fade like Bubba? If so, how did you control your club and body? Feel the contact and watch the ball flight to see what changes and how you could relate this to your own game. Do things slowly, do things in parts but most of all, don’t be boring, learn like a kid. You can then even ride your driver home like a horse! Have Fun!