PGA Pro Tips: The Learning Process: What’s My Brain Doing?
Whenever we learn something new we go through three phases of learning: the Cognitive phase, Integration phase, and Automatic phase. These three phases are called the Learning Process, and understanding how the learning process works will help you learn new skills better, faster, and easier.
Let’s take a fun example you can do right where you are sitting: grab a pen and write your name with your off hand (your left hand if you are a righty). It will feel awkward and probably won’t look much like your regular signature. Here’s what’s happening:
Because this is probably a new skill for you, you’ll have to consciously think about what you are doing. You’ll have to figure out how to hold the pen, where to put your hand, how to move your hand, how to create the letters, and more. This is the cognitive phase, where each part of the process has to be thought about separately and there is a great deal of inaccuracy.
Your task in the cognitive phase is to experiment: to find the most comfortable and effective way to do something - such as how to hold the pen. There’s a lot of trial and error in the cognitive phase, along with a great deal of inconsistency. Failure is your friend in this phase, because when you fail you know you’ve at least eliminated one approach. The quicker you eliminate approaches the faster you figure out what works.
Eventually - as you keep experimenting - one method will emerge as the best. The various parts will begin to feel like a smoother process, and accuracy will improve. This is the integration phase, where parts come together into the greater whole.
Your task in the integration phase is to learn to repeat that best motion as consistently as possible. This is where training kicks in. There’s a lot less emphasis on trial and error, and much more emphasis on creating routines and habits.
The more consistently you repeat your routines the faster you move into the third phase - automaticity. In the automatic phase you don’t have to think about how you do something; you just think about what needs to be done and do it. Like signing your name with your regular hand: you’ve done it so many times you don’t have to think about it.
The goal for all golfers should be to make their swing as automatic as possible so that they never have to think about how they do something, only what they need to do, and then trust their training. Understanding when to shift from practice to training is how you accelerate the learning process.