How We Learn

by Tom Nordland

Recently I had a chance to coach a group of kids in two sessions, two to three weeks apart. When we had some competitive games during the second session, I could see that some had really started to incorporate the new teaching into their shots and others had not. I could see where the shot breaks down after some learning has taken place. Of course it's because old habits are hard to break. And some had done more practice than others. But I thought to comment on what I feel can be done to keep the new learning up front rather than slipping into the background.

If students move back in distance too far too quickly, the shot will break down and old habits will reappear. If the speed of the shot gets too far beyond a comfortable, slow-at-first "learning" pace, the shot will break down. If pressure is applied too soon and they're not highly confident in the new stroke, the old will take over. If they miss a couple of shots with the newly learned shot, some players will lose confidence.

This stuff takes time to learn to the point where it becomes the dominant "habit," so make sure you know (or your players know) to go easy on oneself. Relax. This stuff takes time! But there is a way to "be" with this process that will help accelerate the learning and trust.

As human beings, our focus on results, on what's called "performance," is usually so great we will sacrifice everything to get it. And the funny thing is, by trying so hard to get the end result, it actually makes it harder, it sabotages what we want. It often eludes us because you don't get development if all you focus on is the result. Instead work on feel and observation.

Awareness of what we do (what could also be called "feel") and feedback of how things are happening is how the body knows what it is doing relative to a goal, and from that feedback loop it develops. Awareness in a physical sport like basketball occurs in the present moment and is a physical feeling, not a thought. Our wishing and hoping for results are thoughts -- they exist in the mental domain. They're about the future (what you want, what you're hoping for) and about the past (past failures or successes), but not about the present. If you are consumed with performance, you will be in the mind and not the body.

But our bodies need to be present -- what we could call "in the body" -- in order for us to create and sustain high performance. It's like a Catch 22. You can't get there by focus solely on performance.

In my training to be a golf coach, my mentors and fellow coaches and I often talked about the difference between an Intention and a Goal. Let me tell you how I've come to understand them. They may seem like the same thing, but there is a difference. Let me go through a scenario to explain it (and I realize these are just my definitions of these terms).

A GOAL is something we want and we strive to get. We usually work to find a way to make it happen. We might want to kick a soccer ball into the goal or bowl a strike, or we could have a goal to put a basketball into a basket from certain spots on the floor. With this goal in mind, we then "try" hard to get it. We kick the soccer ball with our leg in a specific fashion, or we roll the bowling ball down the alley with a certain spin, or we use all of our physical stuff to send the basketball up toward and, hopefully, into the basket. We try to manipulate our experience with this end goal in mind.

An INTENTION is softer than a Goal! It implies that there is a result we want (like the goal, to put the ball into the basket), but it is achieved by sense of "Letting Go," not by trying or trying harder. It assumes that the body knows how to do things and the more we "let" the body free to do its thing, the more likely the result will be accomplished. It can be scary at first, this idea of Letting Go to get the most effective results, but once you've seen how effectively and naturally it works, it will be something you'll keep coming back to and wanting to recreate.

If you find yourself oscillating back and forth between your old shot and your new possibility, here's a way to approach it that's more powerful than just "trying" to fix things. Remember that Trying doesn't work! (Reminder: by "Trying" I mean the extra, non-helpful things we do in our attempt to make something happen.)

Intentionally shoot your "old" way. Then intentionally shoot the "new" way. Compare them, contrast them. Remember that awareness is always helpful, it is the master tool for learning. And doing more of it can't screw you up. Only when you "know" something like a shot motion fully and intimately can you choose to do it in a different way, what's called "Learning."

Observe your old shot, with "quality" awareness. Welcome it, love it just the way it is. You don't want it to continue, but it is a part of you, it's how you survived in that activity, doing the best you could at the time. Now you know of new possibilities, but the old can't be erased that fast. The more you experience and understand what you've been doing, the more quickly you can abandon it and more forward.

Stretching your experience will help. For example, let's say you want to change the location of your Set Point from it being "way overhead" to a position more near the front of your head. Besides just paying attention to feel it, consider exaggerating it. Take it further back than normal and then take it back more in front. Position it higher than normal and lower. Take it more to the right, more to left. Can you feel these different positions? If you can, the expanded awareness you now have will give clearer and clearer feedback, which leads to greater and quicker learning.

Then observe your new shot with that same level of awareness. How do the two strokes differ? Where do they differ? When do they differ? Which feels more comfortable or effortless? Which produces the best results? The more you know physically (and mentally), the better. The new stroke should give more effective results or there is no reason to switch to it. So let's assume that's the case.

Once you feel exactly what's happening with body, ball and target, you are ready to "choose" the new shot. It will give you all the benefits you want. If it still eludes you, slow the motion down more and more until you become more "super" aware. Then the learning will be stronger and the time to learn to trust the new shot will shorten.

If you find yourself getting lost in results -- and doing anything and everything you can to try to get them -- stop!!! Doing the same thing over and over expecting (or hoping for) different results is the definition of insanity, as described by writer Rita Mae Brown. If you catch yourself doing that, stop, and then start over. Shoot and truly observe what happens! Review the principles you're working with and repeat the progression you learned that empowers the new stroke. Watch yourself shoot now and see if the new stoke holds. If it fails and the old shot reappears, stop again and start over again. Your body and mind are magnificent. They won't keep doing something you don't want to do unless you get lost and stop feeling, stop being aware.

Remember that in the pressure of competition is not the place to learn a new stroke. It needs to be approached in a non-threatening practice environment first and then in practice game situations before you will truly trust it under "real" pressure. If you have a coach, tell him or her, or tell teammates that you're working on a new stroke and you want to test it under pressure but you know it may go awry. Ask them to be patient with you. (You can reciprocate with your teammates when they are working on new things.) With that approval, if it's appropriate, then you can really "go" for it and let go of attachment to results. The freedom to fail will help you break through to a new level. Expect to miss a bunch of times when you first expose the new stroke to a real (or imagined) pressure situation. Breakdowns are inevitable, but with practice and patience, very soon the new shot will become trusted, will become the automatic response and you're on your way.

Remember, you are in control of this! Your intentions are driving you. Your awareness and feedback system are the tools. But you have to get and stay awake to your experiences!