When a person is first learning a motor pattern of any kind, typically, we start with instruction
of the task. Next, there is intellectual comprehension or understanding. After that, there is
conscious learning to perform the motor pattern. Finally, there is conscious repetition. After
enough conscious repetition, depending on the complexity of the motor pattern, conscious
repetition evolves into a subconscious skill. Meaning, a person can perform the motor pattern
in their subconscious without conscious thought or effort.
By the time a person is an adult, they probably have tens of thousands of these ingrained
subconscious motor patterns. They are called myelin. You developed one for each letter of the
alphabet when you were learning to write cursive. A more complex one would be when putting
individual myelin together to sign your name, then write a sentence. Everything that involves
movement that you can do in the subconscious that takes movement is a myelin. When you put
multiple myelin together, you can have a complex myelin. To keep it simple, I would rather just
call it a “motor pattern”.
As another example, if you have ever learned to drive a manual transmission at the stage where
you can perform that task in the subconscious, you have developed a more complex motor
pattern, which takes more skill. There are many people who know how to drive a manual
transmission. To initially learn the task, someone probably took you to a parking lot like my
father took me. There was no pressure, no cars, plenty of flat space, and time for me to learn to
depress the clutch, shift into gear and then decrease pressure of the clutch as I simultaneously
depressed the gas pedal. Eventually, with practice, I could shift through the gear pattern fairly
smoothly without much effort or conscious thought. There are people who can do it smoother
and exceedingly faster under pressure than others such as a stunt driver. But no matter what
level the driver can perform the task, every driver who has operated a manual transmission can
usually recall the moment they felt pressure to perform the task of manually shifting their car.
It was the first time you were on a hill waiting at a red light with a car in front of you, a car
behind you when the light turns green. The moment you depress the clutch, with gravity your
car starts to roll backward as you quickly shift into gear, while pressing down on the gas pedal.
You feel the pressure of performance. If you press the gas too fast, you rear-end the car in front
of you. Not enough, and you stall out rolling into the car behind you. That is pressure to
perform a task. After enough time and repetition, you can perform the task in the subconscious
because it is now an ingrained motor pattern. The more times you perform the task, the deeper
it is ingrained.
Now, imagine I come along and show you a better, more efficient shifting pattern which, if you
take the time to learn, WILL make you a better driver. So back to the parking lot we go. With no
other cars to collide with, plenty of room and a flat surface, you learn the new pattern. With
some confidence, you take the new pattern to the open road where there is mounting pressure
because there are unwanted consequences if you fail to perform the new motor pattern. There
are different levels of pressure. First the pressure of stalling out, then the gravity of shifting at a
stop light on an uphill. Then the pressure of shifting on the hill at a light with a car behind and a
car in front. At some point, and it just may only be not stalling out, or it may take the gravity of
the uphill, a light and cars behind and in front of you but under pressure your subconscious
takes control. The amazing thing is that in your conscious mind, the new pattern is understood,
it is better but at the subconscious level you have not performed it enough to trust that you can
do it under pressure. At that moment, your subconscious takes control and performs the
pattern it has done more times because it trusts that pattern verses the newly learned pattern.
Apply that concept learning to golf. The first swing pattern you learn on the range with some
general guidance, gets you to a point where you can strike a golf ball. Not all the time, or the
way you would really like to, but good enough to take to the course (the open road). Now,
there is a consequence for the result, which means there is pressure to perform. With enough
time and repetition, you get to the point where your swing pattern becomes ingrained at the
For a while, you play thinking that you will be able to improve with the initial swing pattern to
play at a level you would be content with, but sooner or later, you come to a place where you
recognize to get better you need professional help. So, you engage an instructor, such as
myself, and to the driving range (parking lot) we go, to learn a new pattern. You learn it, understand it, practice it, and can perform it while consciously thinking through the pattern.
Swinging the golf club on the driving range without a golf ball is the same as learning a new
shifting pattern in a parking lot. There is no pressure to perform. Just the pressure of hitting the
golf ball is enough for the subconscious to take over and use the more ingrained pattern that it
trusts. After time, repetition, and practice, the subconscious starts to trust the new motor
pattern, even when the ball is there. The analogy is the ball represents a slight hill and not
wanting to stall out. Taking it to the golf course might be like adding a stop light to the hill.
Playing in front of people and maybe even a competition is like adding cars to the equation. The
point is that the more pressure, the more your subconscious wants to revert to what it trusts,
even though your conscious understands the new way is better.
Next week we will continue with why winter indoor practice is the best time to learn new
motor patterns in your game from full swing to putting.