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Memory of a Swing

Every year around this time, faced with another summer season of golf, I swear that I am going to take some lessons. Every year, June eventually passes without an appointment with a local golf pro. The same yearly excuse seems to be responsible for my failure to seek to some professional guidance: “I don’t want to mess up my entire golf game in order to learn a new swing.”

But one night last winter while carpet-putting and watching a health show on television that briefly highlighted motor memory, I had an epiphany: virtually any complicated physical movement can be learned, including a proper golf swing!

I first became aware of the term motor memory back in the eighties when I was a college student deciding whether or not to dedicate myself to the field of medicine. While studying the central nervous system in a human biology class, I learned how essential motor memory is to most of our physical movements. It makes possible nearly all voluntary muscle movements, from the simple things we take for granted, like walking or brushing our teeth, to more complex actions such as playing the piano or pole vaulting.

Motor memory, or as it is commonly called, “muscle memory” or “motor learning,” is what gives the human body its ability to learn movements, which over time can be repeated even if the conscious mind is otherwise occupied. The brain keeps track of each complex orchestration of muscles and nerves that perform an action like a golf swing. Each time the action is repeated, the brain remembers it a little bit better.

After revisiting this neuromuscular study, I discovered that my golfing movements are stored in the motor memory of my brain.  Unfortunately, these memory stores have long been corrupted with improperly learned movements. Worse, these movements have been practiced year after year — mastered in a sense.

Professional golf instruction can be very helpful for experienced golfers who wish to improve parts of their game. Unfortunately, many experts insist that improper golf movements are more difficult to correct than to learn properly for the first time.

If you’re willing to abandon the dclv01i01-fairways-ball-basketsecurity of an improper yet consistent draw or fade, or any other swing dysfunction you play with, you might want to consider lessons from a professional golf instructor.

Golf lessons are not for everyone. Randy Meyer, who is the head golf professional at The Orchards in Egg Harbor explains, “It really depends on why they’re out there. If golfers are out on the course to have fun and are perfectly happy with how they play, then there’s probably no need for lessons. But, if they want to step it up a notch, and play lower rounds or lower their handicap, then lessons combined with practice can help.”

Neurologists tell us that time and repetition are the key ingredients necessary for the body and brain to learn and repeat movements.  How much time and repetition depends on the difficulty of the motion. When considering that the golf swing is one of the most complex and unnatural movements in sport, it’s easy to understand that making an improvement to your swing will not happen overnight, or even over the course of a seven-day vacation.

Motor memory experts say that with the consistent practice of any new swing to exdclv01i01-fairways-golf-backpect a minimum of four weeks before the action begins to feel natural. On the bright side, four weeks is only a third of the summer season.

Golfers who aim to correct many parts of their game in a single season should proceed with caution. Professionals like Meyer generally agree that trying to make many different improvements to your game in a short period of time is not advisable. “We usually limit lessons to cover one or two things because it’s so hard to work on more than that effectively.”

This is not to say we should only visit professional instructors at a maximum of once per month. Meyer explains, “fixing something properly usually involves a series of follow-up visits with a professional. After the initial lesson, we give golfers what I like to call homework.” Quick follow-up sessions give your pro the opportunity to observe and make adjustments to your motion and body positioning for the new swing, and ultimately the one-on-one time needed to monitor your progress and keep you on course.

Consistent practice when combined with professional instruction offers the best opportunity for improvement. Training (or re-training) the brain and body to consistently hit the ball properly will undoubtedly take a commitment of time and practice. Meyer agrees that professional instruction is “no good unless there’s consistent practice of what was learned during the lesson.”

dclv01i01-fairways-tee-practiceProfessional instructors insist that having fun while learning will make the whole process easier. Isn’t that what golfing is all about?  Ask your instructor to provide different exercises that will focus on the same swing change.

Don’t set your expectations too high and allow yourself plenty of time to make the improvement. Eventually you will notice the improved swing starts to become ingrained in your motor memory, and this will give you all the incentive you need to stay on course.