post by corey lundberg


Learning is a process, not an epiphany. – Dr. Rick Jensen

When I first read this quote, I immediately wanted to forward it along to a handful of students from my past.  Those students that came to me in pursuit of the secret, that one lesson or fix that would change it all.  Just sprinkle the magic pixie dust to finally expose the innate skill that had been hiding inside of them all along.

Years of swing tips and quick fixes have indoctrinated the golfing masses to believe that an epiphany is all they need.  So now, the golf instructor bears the burden of the ‘miracle-worker’.  What’s worse is that sometimes the quick fix works.  For a while…

After a successful lesson, a student might report back to me that I ‘fixed’ them!  I cringe a little every time I hear this.  While I am confident that I have provided quality coaching, I know that I can’t fix them on my own.  Unless they stay engaged in an effective motor learning environment, the old habits will inevitably return.  Then the cycle begins anew and the search for the next great fix begins again.

But fortunately for both coach and student, we are approaching a new era of instruction.  An era where the hard facts provided by scientific research are shedding light onto some longstanding myths.  Just as Trackman has debunked enduring ballflight myths, continued research in the field of motor learning will transform how we coach– if we pay attention.

When a coach has a greater understanding of crucial motor learning concepts, a learning environment is created that produces the sustained improvement which all students seek.

Here are a few basic motor learning concepts that all coaches should be familiar with.


Help student understand the three phases of skill acquisition.  

I refer to the phases of skill acquisition often.  Longtime students have grown very familiar with them as they are often listed on the white board in our teaching bay.  Without understanding the process required for changing a motor program, students may be tempted to abandon a swing change before they had enough time to master it.  I find that a simple understanding of this concept helps manage expectations and motivate students to stay on task.

Cognitive Phase – The ‘understanding’ phase.  The coach has given instructions and the student is trying to ‘conceptualize’ or make sense of it.  Big changes can occur, but performance is inconsistent and unlikely to transfer to the course.  The traditional one-hour ‘fault and fix’ golf lesson only allows time for the Cognitive Phase to begin.

Associative phase- The ‘refining’ phase.  The golfer understands the ‘what’ and has moved on to the ‘how’.  They are able to make subtle adjustments to achieve desired outcomes.  Usually the associative phase is the longest phase, but after a period of effective training with the new instructions the golfer is starting to get it.  Less mistakes are occurring and the golfer will begin to realize performance gains on the golf course.

Autonomous Phase – The ‘habit’ phase.  Now they get it!  The new motion no longer requires the checklist of swing thoughts or internalized commands to perform.  After a lengthy period of effective and often supervised practice, the swing change becomes permanent and automated in this phase.  The golfer can now transfer the skill to the golf course and make the required variations that any on-course situations might require.

Once a student understands this, the pressure is off!  Neither coach or student faces the impossible task of ‘fixing’ a deeply ingrained motor pattern in 60 minutes or less.


Provide a mix of guided AND discovery based learning exercises.

We have all heard students report after a lesson that tasks which seemed so easy during the session seemed impossible on the course.  This usually happens when too much Guided Learning occurred in the lesson and not enough Guided Discovery.

Guided Learning— Refers to a variety of separate procedures, including physically pushing and pulling the learner through a movement sequence, preventing incorrect movement by means of physical limitations on the apparatus, or even verbally ‘talking someone through’ a new situation.  These guidance procedures tend to prevent the learner from making errors in the task. (Schmidt & Lee)

Guided Discovery Learning –The instructor devises a series of statements or questions that guide the learner, step by logical step, making a series of discoveries that leads to a single predetermined goal. In other words, the instructor initiates a stimulus and the learner reacts by engaging in active inquiry, thereby discovering the appropriate response. (Mosston)

Guided learning should sound pretty familiar to the golf coach as it occurs in the majority of golf lessons.  And it works!  By manipulating movements, explaining the motion, and providing frequent feedback– performance gains are prevalent and errors minimized– but only during the lesson.

Guided learning is great for achieving changes and clarity during the cognitive phase of skill acquisition, but does little to facilitate sustained changes.

That’s where coaches can begin to implement guided discovery into lessons and practice prescriptions.  In discovery learning the student becomes a more active participant in the learning process.  Once a general foundation of knowledge is established, the student can experiment with different commands and evaluate the subsequent outcomes.

For example, you can ask a student what they would change in their setup or swing to achieve a certain ballflight.  But you don’t tell them how.  Obviously, you have a predetermined goal for the exercise, but you force them to utilize their knowledge and creativity to achieve the desired outcome.  Especially with juniors, the creativity and world of possibility that you can open up is awe-inspiring.

It is the coaches responsibility to decide the most appropriate method, based on where the student is on the road to skill acquisition.


Introduce an external focus of attention when teaching a student a new skill. 

Keep your head still!  Swing to right field!  Finish high!  Without judging the merits of these verbal commands, consider them from the perspective of a student with little awareness of what is actually happening in their swing.  The instructions get converted into an internal command or focus of attention that provides zero feedback– other than the outcome of the shot, of course.

Now consider how a cleverly placed alignment rod can magically extinguish that gap between ‘feel’ and ‘real’.  I have spent too many lessons spinning my wheels in search of the perfect ‘swing thought’ — only to discover that when I shifted their focus to an external object, they achieved the desired change immediately!

Whether it be the target, training aid, alignment rod, etc– introducing an external focus of attention will often provide the ‘a-ha moment‘ that more efficiently automates motor programs.

EXAMPLES OF EXTERNAL FOCUS OF ATTENTION: Click this link to see a compilation of Tour Striker inventor, Martin Chuck put on an absolute clinic on how to effectively utilize an external focus of attention.  The compilation contains 42 drills using external objects to direct motion during both cognitive and associative phases of skill acquisition.  Take notes!

Commit to keeping these learning concepts in mind during your lessons.  Coaching golf cannot begin and end with identifying faults and prescribing a solution.

For our students to achieve sustained improvement that results in lower scores and higher performance, we have to consider how they learn most effectively.

And these three concepts don’t begin to scratch the surface of the motor learning concepts coaches should implement in their daily practice, they are just three very important ones.

Luckily, more and more information on how the brain works relative to golf performance is being introduced to mainstream golf instruction.  Attending Rick Jensen and Henry Brunton’s Golf Coach TPI Course would be a great starting place for coaches looking to learn more.  I credit both of them for exposing me to the ideas contained in this article.  For more information specific to golf instruction, here are a few excellent resources to continue your exploration of learning concepts:

Rick Jensen and Henry Brunton’s Golf Coach TPI Course

Michael Hebron’s NeuroLearning Golf Blog

Matt Wilson’s Twitter Feed

Motor Learning and Control by Richard A. Schmidt and Timothy D. Lee

Skill Acquisition in Sport

For the motor learning experts, please feel free to add additional resources for us in the comments.

– CL

Sign up below if you would like to be updated on new posts from Curious Coaches.   And if you liked the post, please share via Twitter or Facebook.



  1. Hi Corey,

    I’d strongly recommend you have a chat with Dr Anthony Piparo (mindmasterygolf.com) if you are interested in the subject of attentional focus in relation to expediting motor skills acquisition.

    He’s dedicated his life to motor learning. People should find out what he has developed. It is of value to any one who coaches golf.


  2. Hello again today, Corey;

    I’m catching on your favorite posts….on skill learning…you’ve walked us through the three stages of learning, how each serves skill acquisition to eventual automatic play…every coach, no matter the sport, gains from the information.

    I include the stages in most of my work with athletes and always with coaches. How effectively have you been able to ‘sell” the theroy…that there are no shortcuts…as James says…”do the work.”


Leave a Reply