Column: The challenge of learning something new

Chilliwack golf instructor Jennifer Greggain writes a bi-weekly column in the Chilliwack Progress.

As a follow up to my previous column, I will continue to share the story of how I learned something completely new to me — how to play the ukulele.

As a professional golf instructor and coach, I thought it would be good for me to go through the process of learning something from a complete beginner’s perspective. I wanted to experience the struggles and fascinations of learning, and test theories on skill acquisition and motor learning.

After getting over my initial fears and intimidation, I got to work on my learning process.

Here is what I found, and how it relates to golf or any other activity.

As I was learning the fundamental skills needed to play my instrument, I realized pretty quickly that it was much easier to do this if I broke the skills down into smaller parts. This is a theory of learning called ‘chunking.’

So, as I was learning how to play different chords in a song, for example, I would break down different parts to the song, then bring them all together.

In golf this would be like learning the different parts of the swing, including the set up, take away, impact and finish positions. As I learned each of these parts one by one, it was easier to bring them together in the end.

Next, I honestly found that at times I got bored with some of the fundamentals. I knew it would be important to learn chords and strumming patterns, but what was the real reason why I wanted to learn how to play the ukulele? I wanted to learn because I wanted to play songs.

So I felt that I was more motivated to learn with the prospect of learning songs that I enjoy.

This is similar to golf.

No one wants to learn how to play golf so they can just practice putting or chipping for endless hours. They learn because they want to play on a golf course. I found that many of my greatest lessons taught were those on the golf course.

So remember, some of your greatest learning happens on the golf course and not the driving range.

And finally, a point to motor learning that I ultimately wanted to test was the theory of ‘Challenge Point Framework’ by Mark A. Guadagnoli and Timothy D. Lee (2004).

In short, this theory states that the learner experiences the most effective learning through optimal challenge. If the student fails too often, they will feel anxiety, and not learn.

The opposite is true if succeeding too often.

The student is bored and doesn’t learn. So an ideal learning environment would include just enough challenge to learn, and just enough failure to learn, which in the end is about a 70 per cent success rate.

I found this theory to definitely hold true in my experience in learning the ukulele. When I was trying to play a song that was too easy, I got bored and wasn’t challenged.

But when it got too tough, I would give up easily.

So the true task was to practice in a way where I succeeded, and failed, just the right amount of times to optimize learning. When that wasn’t happening, I needed to change the task until that balance point was reached.

How can that theory help your golf?

Be sure to practice with a purpose, and task yourself with activities that are challenging enough to learn, but not so challenging to discourage.

In the end it is true that we learn a lot from our failures, outside of our comfort zone.

However, be sure to adjust your tasks to keep yourself engaged and challenged at the same time.

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Jennifer teaches golf to adults and juniors at the Chilliwack Golf Academy. She played professionally on tour for over 10 years, won the 2016 LPGA Western Section Teacher of the Year award, and most recently has been named the 2018 PGA of Canada Junior Leader of the Year. She can be contacted at 604-798-9805, chilliwackgolfacademy.com, or at Jennifer@chilliwackgolf.com

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