Understanding the Cycles of Improving your Swing

I’m sure you have heard it before: “Winter is the best time to work on your golf swing,” and “You can make permanent changes to your swing while not worrying where your ball goes.” You may have even heard your coach tell you about the stages of learning and how nobody is exempt from them. Those stages are why winter truly is the best time for most of us to make changes to our swing. For the short summer months that we have we want to get out and play, enjoy the outside and compete against our fellow league players or comrades on the course. Despite hearing it again and again, every spring I get golfers coming to me, wanting to make changes to their swing, but expecting to play their best golf immediately. The stages of learning make that very difficult to do.


Unconscious Incompetence


There is a reason you come to take a lesson. You either want to improve, but do not know what to do, or feel like you know what to do, but cannot make the changes and have them stick. During this stage of learning, it is very important to make sure you have a full understanding of why you are making changes to your motor pattern and buy in to the process. You potentially have a long road ahead but have the opportunity to enjoy the challenge of making a change to your swing. When you leave your first lesson, you may not be able to execute the new motion at all, but you should understand what to do and how to do it.


Conscious Incompetence


After leaving that first lesson, this is the stage you should be in. You understand what you need to do, but cannot seem to do it. During this stage, you should spend a lot of time in a block practice—repeating a drill or movement—setting working on the drills and completing the rehearsals your coach has asked. You will experience failure, you will get frustrated, and you may feel a lack of motivation. But stick to it. Failure is when learning happens. It may not feel like it right away, but you are getting better. You will spend the majority of winter in this stage, but at least you don’t have to experience it while trying to shoot a score during our valuable summer months.


Conscious Competence


You have spent many hours practicing and are finally getting it. In this stage you can execute the new pattern, but you really have to focus on it and think about it. Some days it seems quite easy, other days it’s not quite there. This is the stage where most golfers quit the process because they feel like they got it nailed. You have had your ‘aha’ moment and think you have mastered the move. Completing it one time, having one good day or being able to do it day after day in a block setting on the driving range, does not mean you have learned the skill. Doing it on the driving range, with one club over and over, having a perfect lie, perfect stance, and no consequence, is not going to make you shoot lower scores on the golf course. In this stage, you need to stay committed to your process and start altering your practice habits. Your practice should start to include lots of random practice and game like simulation. A basic start would be hitting a different club to a different target, using your full routine on every shot. I would also suggest taking a small break between each shot, grabbing a sip of water or just taking a couple breaths and looking around. As you start to implement the random practice, you should start to again experience failure. Remember that failure is a good thing, that’s when learning happens.


Unconscious Competence


Your hard work has paid off! The moments of failure, and the times of frustration, have all led to you learning a new skill and striking the golf ball like you never have before. The best part about it is that this is the new you. We all strive to reach this stage but most of us never get here because we think we own it in the previous stage when that is not truly the case. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back, but continue to work on your drills, continue to use random practice and make sure you are a master of the skill. In my opinion, Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of all time. He worked on the same skill for 9 to 12 months at a time and would practice eight to 10 hours per day. Psychologist Anders Ericsson spent over 30 years studying deliberate practice and came out with the 10,000 hour rule. The rule simply states that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. Many experts in motor skill development do not believe in this and neither do I. I do however feel it shows us the reality of how long it truly takes to learn something new and become proficient at doing it under pressure. During your practice, be fully engaged in your tasks. 30 minutes of mindful, focused practice is much more effective than two hours of mindless practice where you are not engaged in the tasks. Come to the practice facilities and the golf course with a plan and be fully engaged in your tasks. Doing that will allow you to crush the 10,000 hour rule and make that permanent change to your golf swing you have been talking about year after year.


Derrik Goodwin
Associate Professional