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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mechanical Problems, Part 2

I'm really starting to feel sorry for Tiger. Everybody's begun to psychoanalyze his game now. And when he wonders out loud how other people can know what's going on inside his head, they poke fun at him. After all, he fixed his swing, didn't he? What else can it be but a lack of confidence?

Back in early April I wrote a post called But It IS a Mechanical Problem where I took issue with virtually every analyst and instructor on the planet. (I have to single out Frank Nobilo as the primary exception. He alone seems to believe the problem isn't as simple as everybody else does.) I wrote it after Tiger won at Arnie's Place.

Did anybody notice that I didn't pick Tiger as a favorite going into the Masters? Did anybody notice that I haven't been on the "he's back" bandwagon yet?  Back in February, after Phil pounded him at Pebble, I wrote:
"As for his swing, Tiger has always said it takes 15 months or so for him to "own" a new one. He may win before then, but we should withhold any judgments about his future until we see what he's like in June or July. I suspect things will look quite different by then."
Was anybody paying attention? Did anybody wonder why I remained cautious, even after the win?

It's time to return to the subject. This time, let me explain a little bit about how people learn. I don't want to go all geeky here, but I've got to refer to some scientific stuff in order to make it all clear. I want you to know that I'm not just making this stuff up. (Disclaimer: Mike Southern is NOT a brain expert. He only pretends to be one on his blog.)

The key word here is synapse (plural: synapses). Synapses are, according to this educational website:
"...the microscopic contiguous gaps between brain cells. These junctions form tiny synaptic gaps that are approximately 0.02 microns (8 millionths of an inch) wide. Synapses link the cells inside the brain through the process of synaptogenesis, which organizes those cells into the all-important operating circuits."
Or, if you prefer a more entertaining (and perhaps clearer) explanation, take a quick look at this video:

Synapses are bridges that your brain's instructions travel across or, if you prefer, electrical switches that "turn your muscles on and off." And learning a new activity -- such as swinging a golf club -- involves building new bridges or "rewiring" your nervous system so that you can get the correct instructions to the correct muscles at the correct time. That's simple enough to understand.

However -- and this is where Tiger's critics are missing the boat -- you also have to consider the existing switches (or bridges, depending on which analogy you prefer). Those instructions from your brain are used to traveling along different synaptic connections that result in different movements... and that causes some problems. Let me cut right to the chase, or this post will get ridiculously long:
  • When you're learning a new golf swing, you focus on resisting the strong synaptic signals traveling along the existing routes. At this stage, your swing looks pretty mechanical but you can play decent golf after a little practice.
  • When the new synaptic connections are fully in place, they carry the strong signals as the old routes weaken from disuse. You focus on allowing the strong synaptic signals traveling along the new routes. At this stage, your swing looks very flowing and may even feel effortless to you.
In both cases your mental choices are based on the strongest signals. You can focus on them and take the appropriate action to either encourage or impede them and thus help the proper synaptic routes to develop.

The problem comes at the halfway point in their development, where the old neural pathways are weaker and the new ones are stronger but neither is really in charge. In effect, there's a fork in the road and your brain's instructions can follow either path. At this point it doesn't seem to matter what you're thinking because your thought processes are built on either resisting or following the strongest path. Without a path that's clearly the strongest, performance becomes a hit-or-miss situation.

When Tiger talks about playing better when he's "uncomfortable," he's acknowledging this. When he's comfortable, he's responding to the mixed signals... and they send his muscles "hybrid instructions" that result in poor shots. To overcome them he has to consciously try to play shots... and that's uncomfortable since he's forcing one synaptic route to override the other. And it's complicated by the fact he may choose the wrong synaptic route.

The only way through this time is to tough it out until the new pathways become the strongest. But it's an extremely frustrating time in the learning process because you have no way of knowing how long the process will take.

This is why players who try to change their swings often lose their games. If they go back to their old swing method they may be able to get back on track, although they frequently end up with new hitches in their swing. These are caused by the new partially-formed synaptic patterns that are just strong enough to interfere with their familiar motions.

More commonly, however, they hit this very frustrating part of the process and -- because they don't know what's happening -- they give up and move on to yet another swing method. As a result, they end up with multiple layers of partially-formed synaptic patterns that conflict with each other.

There's a good chance you've experienced this yourself. Many years ago (as a teenager) I tried to learn how to fingerpick guitar. The book I had taught three-finger style -- forefinger, middle finger, and thumb -- and I was making decent progress. But I got interrupted and had to stop for several months. That wouldn't have been a problem... except that when I started again I tried to learn classical-style fingerpicking. That uses four fingers -- forefinger, middle finger, ring finger, and thumb. I ended up unable to pick either way and was so confused that I finally quit trying.

This midpoint in the process is where Tiger is right now. He's struggling, not because he has no confidence in his game, but because his new synaptic patterns have developed to a crucial point and he's on the verge of truly making these swing changes "his." The new swing may "take" any day now, or may be several months yet. I give him a lot of credit for ignoring everybody else's opinion and staying the course. I believe he's going to succeed in these swing changes simply because, despite what his critics say, he IS confident in his swing and the process he's following.

And those times when he suddenly seems to become more engaged in his shots and starts playing better? That's when one of the synaptic patterns momentarily becomes a bit stronger and he realizes he can focus on it. Then he knows what to do to get the most from where he is at the moment, and his play improves.

So I'll say it again. Tiger IS dealing with mechanical problems, not mental or emotional ones. He hasn't "lost his way" -- he knows where he's going much more clearly than his critics. It's going to look a bit "fragile" for a while, folks, but if you understand the learning process you'll expect that and even recognize it as a sign of progress.

And just for the record, our "lost, fragile little Tiger" made the cut... unlike some star players who shocked us by missing the weekend. Like I said, just give him a few more months. Tiger will have the last laugh yet.

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