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Changing neural pathways to make a swing change

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I’ll bet that you can’t ride the bicycle in the video clip below. You’re probably thinking, “Come on, it’s a bike. How hard can it be?”

Watch the video clip below, and then read on.

Every time you pick up a golf magazine, take a lesson, or get a swing tip from a buddy you probably say to yourself:

[quote_box_center]“How hard can it be to add this little gem of golf swing magic? I can’t wait to go to the range and work it in before my weekend game.”[/quote_box_center]

The intrigue of the game of golf is that the golf swing should be very much like riding a bike. Once you learn to ride one type, you can easily adapt your skill set and ride a wide range of bikes: single-speed, 10-speed, mountain bikes, motor bikes, etc. Most golfers apply this same mindset to swing changes. Once they have the “basics” of the swing down, they think that making changes to it might require a little more thought, but in the end they will be very quickly doable. As the video shows, “very quickly doable” becomes a relative phrase.

The brain is an amazing super computer, capable of directing and coordinating complex motor and mental skills. Once a movement pathway becomes embedded into it, however, it becomes very set in its ways. It not only took Destin eight months to learn to ride the backward bike; he also struggled to recreate the neural pathway that allowed him to properly ride a regular bike, which he had done successfully for decades.

The bottom line here, as it relates to the golf swing, is that meaningful and lasting swing changes and game improvement are not going to happen by getting to the range once a week for an hour, and then teeing it up in your Saturday round. Sorry, it’s just not going to happen, just as none of the “bike riders” in the video could get on the very normal-looking bike and successfully ride it without days or even weeks of practice.

Tom-Duke-Bike-vs-Swing

It took Destin working every day for 8 months, 5-10 minutes a day, to finally reprogram his neural pathways to successfully ride the backward bike. The golf swing has many similarities to riding a bike — two arms performing two different movements, two legs performing two different movements, core balance and weight shift requirements, timing and sequence requirements, hand eye coordination, etc.

Learning a new swing, or maintaining a successful one, requires what I call a constant approach…. especially the older we get. The more consistent the refreshening process, the less likely you will be to revert back to your old ways. If you took the old highway for 30 years, you are going to have to constantly remind yourself after starting your car to make sure you take the turn for the new bypass. And even despite this conscious awareness of trying to take the new route, it’s amazing how often we find ourselves still getting on the old highway.

So yes, this is why the game of golf is so frustrating. But here are a few things to think about.

First, it is much easier to engrain a movement pattern if it’s natural, or in accordance with the laws of nature. The point here is that the more things we can “let” happen in the golf swing, instead of trying to make them happen, the less tension and compensations are required. It will also be easier to develop and consistently use these new neural pathways.

Second, we know we can considerably speed up the process of creating a new neural pathway if we are constantly refreshing the correct movement. Ten minutes a day verses 1 hour a week will yield faster results. Note that I said “correct movement,” not “correct positions.” Without getting too deep into the rabbit hole of neuroscience, the Holonomic brain theory supports that people learn motor skills not by linking a progression of positions together like line-by-line computer code, but instead by storing the entire movement as a neural 3-D hologram. An example is children who learn to throw their first rock not by being taught a progression of, say, 1,000 positions, but instead by watching a friend or sibling simply perform the motion, storing that entire movement memory, and then recalling it when interested in performing it.

As it pertains to the golf swing, this theory supports that not only is performing repetitions of a new movement a key in learning it, but to both feel and see the movement will only make your swing hologram more vivid.

I often ask students, “Do you have a perfectly clear image in your mind of what your golf swing looks like?” Very rarely do I get a prompt reply in the affirmative.

We have all had the experience where we go to the range and machine gun through hundreds of balls, followed up by a trunk slam and a “what in the heck just happened?” moment. Not only could you not see yourself, but in the haze of firing ball after ball you most likely only felt and were aware of your brewing frustration. If you don’t have a vivid image and feel for your movements, what are you expected to recall when you hit the start button on your golf swing?

A great way to increase your see and feel awareness, as well as to take a more “constant approach” to improve your golf swing (or maintain good form) is to incorporate no-ball mirror training into your regular practice routine. Positioning two standing mirrors in a corner that will let you see your movements. By removing the golf ball from the equation, you will instantly see how much ball-bound tension you have, as well be able to better focus on seeing and feeling your movements. Eyes-open, slow-motion swings will increase your visual awareness, and eyes-closed swings will further enhance what you are feeling.

Time and schedule conflicts that make it tough for many golfers to get to the range should no longer solely determine success, or lack thereof, on the golf course. Daily movement memory, no-ball training works in the convenience of your home, even for 5 or 10 minutes a day, will more quickly take the training wheels off the swing movements you are interested in performing.

For more information on these and other no-ball swing training routines, check out windandsling.com.

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Tom Duke is the Founder of Wind and Sling Golf Swing (WindandSling.com) and The Original Golf Company, and developer of the No-Roll Release™ Swing Trainer. He is a swing coach and long drive specialist who has trained extensively under the tutelage of Mike Dunaway, who many consider the greatest driver of the golf ball in history. Duke holds a Masters in Business Administration from George Mason University, and is certified by the internationally recognized AO Foundation for Intraoperative Spine and Orthopedics. He earned Collegiate All-America, is an Ironman Triathlete USA, and a proud benefactor to the St. Judes' Children's Hospital.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Brain Game. » Golf in Portugal

  2. Pingback: July 2015 Happenings From John & Susan | John T Fitness

  3. mikee

    Jul 2, 2015 at 7:00 am

    There is excellent scientific research confirming this theory

  4. jargon

    Jul 1, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    I’ve been working with this technique for 2 years now …. it’s been difficult if not impossible to change my swing . it’s so myelinated in ! I’ve been using the mirrors now with out the distraction of the golf ball and am making slow progress with help from my swing coach Lucas Wald .

  5. Kyle

    Jul 1, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Great article.

  6. Gareth

    Jun 29, 2015 at 3:06 am

    Great Article Tom

  7. John

    Jun 28, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    Tremendous article.

  8. Jim

    Jun 26, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Great article thanks Tom!

  9. David

    Jun 26, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Great article. This runs parallel to The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, in talking about the programming of myelin to make consistent movements.

  10. Derek Wall

    Jun 26, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Google “IKKOS” for some pretty amazing research and products regarding altering neural pathways “permanently.” The product was developed by a high level swim coach, but Sean is refining it for use in other sports… golf included.

    • Tom Duke

      Jun 26, 2015 at 10:58 am

      Hey Derek…thanks for your interest…already have reached out to the Ikkos team!

  11. other paul

    Jun 25, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    Very interesting. But I have found it not that difficult to make changes when they are drastic. 2 weeks ago I had never hit a ball over 280 on course without the help of wind. Today with a new swing I started on Saturday I hit 315 (won a beer for it to). And I haven’t had issues with reverting to an old swing. More like forgetting to consciously add features if anything.

  12. Alex

    Jun 25, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    Can’t I have my brain changed?

  13. Adam

    Jun 25, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    this was an incredibly interesting read.
    Very enlightening! Makes me think about where else in life this applies…

  14. Cons

    Jun 25, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Solid article.

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Instruction

Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 1)

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Golf is hard. I spend my career helping people learn that truth, but golfers are better than they give themselves credit for.

As a golf performance specialist, I give a lot of “first time working together” lessons, and most of them start the same way. I hear about all the ways the golfer is cursed and how s/he is never going to “get it” and how s/he should take up another sport. Granted, the last statement generally applies to an 18-plus handicap player, but I hear lots of negatives from better players as well.

Even though the golfers make convincing arguments for why they are cursed, I know the truth. It’s my job to help them realize the fates aren’t conspiring against them.

All golfers can play well consistently

I know this is a bold statement, but I believe this because I know that “well” does not equate to trophies and personal bests. Playing “well” equates to understanding your margin of error and learning to live within it.

With this said, I have arrived at my first point of proving why golfers are not cursed or bad golfers: They typically do not know what “good” looks like.

What does “good” look like from 150 yards out to a center pin?

Depending on your skill level, the answer can change a lot. I frequently ask golfers this same question when selecting a shot on the golf course during a coaching session and am always surprised at the response. I find that most golfers tend to either have a target that is way too vague or a target that is much too small.

The PGA Tour average proximity to the hole from 150 yards is roughly 30 feet. The reason I mention this statistic is that it gives us a frame of reference. The best players in the world are equivalent to a +4 or better handicap. With that said, a 15-handicap player hitting it to 30 feet from the pin from 150 yards out sounds like a good shot to me.

I always encourage golfers to understand the statistics from the PGA Tour not because that should be our benchmark, but because we need to realize that often our expectations are way out of line with our current skill level. I have found that golfers attempting to hold themselves to unrealistic standards tend to perform worse due to the constant feeling of “failing” they create when they do not hit every fairway and green.

Jim Furyk, while playing a limited PGA Tour schedule, was the most accurate driver of the golf ball during the 2020 season on the PGA Tour hitting 73.96 percent of his fairways (roughly 10/14 per round) and ranked T-136 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee. Bryson Dechambeau hit the fairway 58.45 percent (roughly 8/14 per round) of the time and ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee.

There are two key takeaways in this comparison

Sometimes the fairway is not the best place to play an approach shot from. Even the best drivers of the golf ball miss fairways.

By using statistics to help athletes gain a better understanding of what “good” looks like, I am able to help them play better golf by being aware that “good” is not always in the middle of the fairway or finishing next to the hole.

Golf is hard. Setting yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations is only going to stunt your development as a player. We all know the guy who plays the “tips” or purchases a set of forged blades applying the logic that it will make them better in the long run—how does that story normally end?

Take action

If you are interested in applying some statistics to your golf game, there are a ton of great apps that you can download and use. Also, if you are like me and were unable to pass Math 104 in four attempts and would like to do some reading up on the math behind these statistics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Broadie Every Shot Counts. If you begin to keep statistics and would like how to put them into action and design better strategies for the golf course, then I highly recommend the Decade system designed by Scott Fawcett.

You may not be living up to your expectations on the golf course, but that does not make you a bad or cursed golfer. Human beings are very inconsistent by design, which makes a sport that requires absolute precision exceedingly difficult.

It has been said before: “Golf is not a game of perfect.” It’s time we finally accept that fact and learn to live within our variance.

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Walters: Try this practice hack for better bunker shots

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Your ability to hit better bunker shots is dramatically reduced if you have no facility to practice these shots. With so few facilities (especially in the UK) having a practice bunker it’s no wonder I see so many golfers struggle with this skill.

Yet the biggest issue they all seem to have is the inability to get the club to enter the sand (hit the ground) in a consistent spot. So here is a hack to use at the range to improve your bunker shots.

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Golf Blueprint: A plan for productive practice sessions

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Practice range at the Dormie Club. Photo credit: Scott Arden

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

You’ve gotten lessons.  Several of them.  You’ve been custom fitted for everything in your bag.  You even bought another half a dozen driver shafts last year looking for an extra couple of yards.  And yet, you’re still…stuck.  Either your handicap hasn’t moved at all in years or you keep bouncing back and forth between the same two numbers.  You’ve had all the swing fixes and all the technological advances you could realistically hope to achieve, yet no appreciable result has been achieved in lowering your score.  What gives?

Sample Golf Blueprint practice plan for a client.

One could argue that no one scientifically disassembled and then systematically reassembled the game of golf quite like the great Ben Hogan.  His penchant for doing so created a mystique which is still the stuff of legend even today.  A great many people have tried to decipher his secret over the years and the inevitable conclusion is always a somewhat anticlimactic, “The secret’s in the dirt.”  Mr. Hogan’s ball striking prowess was carved one divot at a time from countless hours on the practice range.  In an interview with golf journalist George Peper in 1987, Mr. Hogan once said:

“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. I’d be at the practice tee at the crack of dawn, hit balls for a few hours, then take a break and get right back to it. And I still thoroughly enjoy it. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply—when anyone is— it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

Let me guess.  You’ve tried that before, right?  You’ve hit buckets and buckets of range rocks trying to groove the perfect 7-iron swing and still to no avail, right?  Read that last sentence again closely and you might discover the problem.  There’s a difference between mindful practice and mindless practice.  Mindful practice, like Mr. Hogan undoubtedly employed, is structured, focused, and intentional.  It has specific targets and goals in mind and progresses in a systematic fashion until those goals are met.

This is exactly what Nico Darras and Kevin Moore had in mind when they started Golf Blueprint.  In truth, though, the journey actually started when Nico was a client of Kevin’s Squares2Circles project.  Nico is actually a former DI baseball player who suffered a career-ending injury and took up golf at 22 years old.  In a short time, he was approaching scratch and then getting into some mini tour events.  Kevin, as mentioned in the Squares2Circles piece, is a mathematics education professor and accomplished golfer who has played in several USGA events.  Their conversations quickly changed from refining course strategy to making targeted improvements in Nico’s game.  By analyzing the greatest weaknesses in Nico’s game and designing specific practice sessions (which they call “blueprints”) around them, Nico started reaching his goals.

The transition from client to partners was equal parts swift and organic, as they quickly realized they were on to something.  Nico and Kevin used their experiences to develop an algorithm which, when combined with the client’s feedback, establishes a player profile within Golf Blueprint’s system.  Clients get a plan with weekly, monthly, and long-term goals including all of the specific blueprints that target the areas of their game where they need it most.  Not to mention, clients get direct access to Nico and Kevin through Golf Blueprint.

Nico Darras, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

While this is approaching shades of Mr. Hogan’s practice method above, there is one key distinction here.  Kevin and Nico aren’t recommending practicing for hours at a time.  Far from it.  In Nico’s words:

“We recommend 3 days a week.  You can do more or less, for sure, but we’ve found that 3 days a week is within the realm of possibility for most of our clients.  Practice sessions are roughly 45-70 minutes each, but again, all of this depends on the client and what resources they have at their disposal.  Each blueprint card is roughly 10 minutes each, so you can choose which cards to do if you only have limited time to practice.  Nothing is worse than cranking 7 irons at the range for hours.  We want to make these engaging and rewarding.”

Kevin Moore, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

So far, Golf Blueprint has been working for a wide range of golfers – from tour pros to the No Laying Up crew to amateurs alike.  Kevin shares some key data in that regard:

“When we went into this, we weren’t really sure what to expect.  Were we going to be an elite player product?  Were we going to be an amateur player product?  We didn’t know, honestly.  So far, what’s exciting is that we’ve had success with a huge range of players.  Probably 20-25% of our players (roughly speaking) are in that 7-11 handicap range.  That’s probably the center of the bell curve, if you will, right around that high-single-digit handicap range.  We have a huge range though, scratch handicap and tour players all the way to 20 handicaps.  It runs the full gamut.  What’s been so rewarding is that the handicap dropping has been significantly more than we anticipated.  The average handicap drop for our clients was about 2.7 in just 3 months’ time.”

Needless to say, that’s a pretty significant drop in a short amount of time from only changing how you practice.  Maybe that Hogan guy was on to something.  I think these guys might be too.  To learn more about Golf Blueprint and get involved, visit their website. @Golf_Blueprint is their handle for both Twitter and Instagram.

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