The Art and Zen of Learning….Golf

I recently reread one of my favorite books, The Art and Zen of Learning Golf by PGA Master Professional Michael Hebron. As is often the case, I absorbed much more from the book on this second read. I would highly recommend the book if you are interested in expanding your awareness about the subject of golf and the nature of learning.

Michael has authored five books including Modernizing Approaches to Learning, and has over two decades of research into the learning process. He has published numerous articles and traveled worldwide to assist students and PGA members in developing their skills. He has been a presenting speaker at many PGA seminars offering information and education on the subject of learning and golf. He has regularly advocated that instructors would become more effective by helping students become better learners rather than giving them instructions to follow.

However, my experience and observation tells me that the golf swing instruction industry is still very entrenched in the instruction model rather than facilitating learning. Conventional golf instruction has a similarity to the conventional medical model in that both tend to focus on empowering the teacher/instructor or the doctor/medical professional as the expert at the expense of disempowering the student or the patient. Both conventional models tend to focus on “fixing the problem” and “treating the symptom” rather than stimulating and drawing out natural kinesthetic/athletic instincts or natural healing abilities for permanent change and improvement.

A ‘holistic’ model empowers the student or patient to recognize and utilize the natural attributes of the amazing body/mind intelligence that Nature has endowed us with. In golf, that would be our kinesthetic senses and instinct and in health, our natural healing and homeostatic ability. Our body and mind are designed to function holistically, and when they collaborate in balance – for both golf and our health and wellness – the results can be inspiring. In the Art and Zen of Learning Golf, Hebron does not specifically call it ‘holistic’, but he suggests a change in the way golf is taught, one that reflects a holistic approach that empowers the student as a learner, balancing body and mind, and speaking to the body through its physical experience as appropriate for learning a motor skill rather than providing verbal instruction that speaks primarily to the mind.

Michael states, “Golf, or any other motor skill for that matter, really cannot be taught, but it can be learned. Studies have shown using language often prevents students from reaching their potential when learning motor skills. Muscles do not understand words. We do not learn motor skills through our intellect. When there is conformity, obedience, and imitation, there is little learning, only following.”

After studying both Eastern and Western approaches to teaching and learning, Hebron suggests a more Eastern and Zen approach to learning motor skills, stating “Zen is being open to self-discovery; it is not following someone else’s direction. With a Zen approach, people are guided, not taught. Nature designed mankind to learn by doing, observing outcomes, and adjusting as we see fit. In a sense, good instructors cannot teach you, but they can show you how to learn. When learning motor skills, actions and movements must be experienced. Verbal descriptions do not give sensations.”

In another excellent book about learning motor skills, The Centered Skier, Denise McCluggage states “It is difficult to teach a motor skill by telling someone what to do, because the thing that must be done is a feeling, a kinesthetic, wholly, subjective sensation.”

Michael Hebron also states, “We will play better golf recalling how a swing feels, than by trying to remember all we know about the golf swing. The natural process of learning directly from experience has been undermined by “How To” instruction.”  Awaken Your Inner Golfer encourages a path of self-discovery in learning and improving one’s golf game with a focus on stimulating kinesthetic senses and instinct through a variety of exercises (not drills).

The instinct-awakening golf exercises in Awaken Your Inner Golfer stimulate the body/mind to adapt to a variety of non-standard golf swing focuses that encourage learning from both the “clunkers of poor golf shots” and the “successes of pure and solid impact.” The exercises stimulate awareness and attention – not to control the golf swing – but to learn about how movement feels in your body and how your body responds to your mind’s subtle intentions.

Your enhanced awareness – open nonjudgmental consciousness –
of what you are doing and how you are moving
can lead you through experimentation
into a finely differentiated intentional movement.”
Denise McCluggage (The Centered Skier)

Hebron states, “Keep in mind mistakes are feedback, not failure, and they can lead to progress if we use them correctly; they are part of the process. Stop trying to do it right, and just do it and accept the results, and learn from feedback. It’s inescapable that our bodies are often smarter than our minds, if we would only learn to trust them.”

Trust eliminates trying. Trying is a result of doubt that exists in the mind. By learning to trust the instinctive kinesthetic intelligence of your body/mind, your golf swing can flow effortlessly for both power and consistency. In The Art and Zen of Learning Golf , Michael summarizes, “We must come to understand the very act of trying brings tension and rigidity. Once we understand how we learn, we will stop trying.”

In another excellent book, Trying Not To Try, Edward Slingerland also presents an Eastern and Zen approach to learning and states, “Consciously focusing on how to (perform any motor skill), or trying to explain the process in words to others, may actually impair our ability to perform the skill. The goal is to acquire the ability to move through the physical and social world in a manner that is completely spontaneous and yet fully in harmony with the proper order of the natural human worlds (the Dao or “Way”).”

This is the principal of “Wu-wei”. “Wu-wei” (pronounced ooo-way) involves “effortless action, spontaneous action and effortless ease” with no trying. It is akin to what we in the western world refer to as “flow” or “the zone.”  (See the June 2018 Instinctive Golf Blog Wu-wei on this site).  Slingerland states, “The goal of wu-wei is to get those two selves (mind and body) working together smoothly and effectively. For a person in wu-wei, the mind is embodied and the body is mindful. The result is an intelligent spontaneity that is perfectly calibrated to the environment.” (See the Sept 2017 and July 2019 Instinctive Golf Blogs Trying vs. Allowing and Golf Exercises vs. Golf Drills on this site).

I have embraced the premise that these authors have presented through their extensive research on Eastern and Western methods of teaching and learning. I strongly agree that a focus on learning and experience is much more valuable, especially in learning or improving a motor skill, than outside instruction. Michael Hebron summarizes this very eloquently: “What we are looking for is not outside, it is inside, awaiting discovery, awaiting awakening, awaiting the spark that reveals.”

I believe the golf instruction industry could make great strides in helping golfers improve their games by helping golfers learn how to learn. I urge you to embrace the process of learning as you practice your golf, and see what shows up, you may be pleasantly surprised. Golfers’ games will naturally and effortlessly improve as they learn to take joy in the process of learning rather than struggling by trying to follow instructions.


2 thoughts on “The Art and Zen of Learning….Golf

  1. Great column!
    Maybe because it happened to hit me just right… it seemed to make clearer distinctions on the differences between being taught versus learning to learn.
    Fascinating in many ways.


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