This issue probably has more “hair” on it than is found on a horse. If you've looked into it at all, the range of perception is broader than that of politics or religion – maybe both put together. And the issue itself is divided into things like thinking concepts and motor activities. The focus here is “motor” learning, since we are talking about golf which is primarily a motor function.
No need to discuss the variations – just take a look at some common sense themes. How did you learn as a child? Ride a bike, walk, run, write, use eating utensils,etc?
We could say just by watching others and that would likely be a lot of it. We could say “trial and error” and that would be a lot of it, too. We could also say “what our parents and others told us,” and that would add another dimension.
But how did we retain all that? Was it repetition? Practice? Need? Desire? Want? Fear? Demand? Command?
It is doubtful that anyone can fully fathom the impact delivered by Mother Nature. All of the above may well be involved, but if you try to come up with a way to capture that, you'll simply find a lot of frustration. If you bring yourself to believe the findings of professionals like Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and, to a certain extent, Sigmund Freud, and then add the behavioral theories of James Watson and B.F. Skinner, take a dash of Ivan Pavlov and a few others, you'll start to see how complex (not simple) it is to grasp fully how learning takes place.
It is much easier to examine what we are doing and thinking when we are in the act of reaching a result that has been grounded in our ability to keep doing something well (the result).
What is clear is that motor learning is more difficult in later years than in infancy and youth. The evidence is that after we reach about 15 or 16, we don't have that special reserve that goes with the natural plan that served our early years, and the older we get the more recessive is the ability to master the new. We start any learning at a point were we “don't know and can't do.” Then, if the peripheral issues “(like need and desire) are urgent enough, we move to a point where “we know, but still can't do.” After while, if we are not bored or frustrated, we'll move on to “we know and can do as long as we keep our minds on our business” (conscious attention). Finally, if we have followed the “rules” (which have rarely been clearly stated), we may arrive at “we know, can do and do not have to think about the action, but must continue keeping our minds occupied” (subconscious competence).
Now do a little more research and you'll find that there are some factors that are consistently present. 1. Thinking is divided into conscious and non-conscious, with the latter most directly affecting behavior. 2. Human beings can only think one thought at a time, (consciously or non-consciously), no matter how fast thoughts come in succession. 3. If you try to think about what you are doing while you do it, you will suffer any consequences from the speed difference between how fast your mind works and how fast you body works. 4. Human beings do not learn much when too many new things come too fast or too often. 5.The body and the mind work at entirely different speeds. 6. When a person does something effectively, proficiently, consistently and with confidence, the result is an action that takes place while the person's mind is directed to something other than the action itself. (Think about it. When you are driving your car, your mind is not empty. It just isn't thinking consciously about driving or the traffic or the roadway).
Check it out with yourself, especially with those things you learned before the age of 15 or so.
From that it is a short step to create a means to develop motor learning that reaches a zenith while honoring the aforementioned issues. If you want learning only for skill, just keep doing what you always did. Skill is the level in evidence for most golfers (conscious competence). For that one must think about what is being done while doing it. If you want to reach the level of habit (automatic) that corresponds to how we learned to ride, and subsequently rode, our bicycles, then it will be necessary to build the habits we require (subconscious competence). And that is marked by the ability to perform a function while consciously thinking about something other than the action itself.
No one doubts that repetition is part of learning. The problem is “how much repetition.” No one doubts that reinforcement is a necessary ingredient. The problem is, “what kind of reinforcement.” That knowledge and those questions were unnoticed when we were kids. As adults, however, we need that awareness in order to duplicate what Mother nature no longer characteristically takes care of in our behalf.
Learning that involves systematic behaviors must have a systematic framework. Golf requires such systematic behavior. While the source of the research was lost (files were decimated by flood), we knew in the early 1980s that the retention factor in repetition came in fours. Do something once, there is a 50% immediate loss and 25% more within 48 hours. Two repeats get the same and so do three. But four successive duplications gains 90% retention. Anything more than four improves nothing in retention. Problem there is that the “fours” must be clearly identified to a non-discriminatory human system. It is also found in research that learning is best served in short doses with little “rest” periods in between. So the recommended scheme for repetition is in fours, with a slight break in between each group, and that signals the non-discriminatory system that the “fours” are present. (The 32 swing drill is (4+4)x4=32).
Most golfers are so busy doing many different things (experimenting) in a practice session that the most basic elements of repetition go unfulfilled. The only learning becomes “changing this or that.” It has been observed that most practice shows players “doing a thousand different things, one time each.” That will surely arrive at the habit of experimentation, but little else.
Now add that we must have a way to learn something new and that will always start at the skill level. But if we wish to learn something that has the character of a habit, we have to alternate between repetition that learns a skill (conscious competence) and the repetition that develops a habit (subconscious competence). Repetition that merely keeps on repeating is found to waste both time and energy, unless it is organized in “fours.”
There is a codicil. Once a habit is built, it is there for the duration. We don't lose habits. Skills come and go. Habits stay, virtually forever. We can dismiss any skill, but we can only displace an existing habit by building a new one stronger than the old one. (Still the old one may creep in once in awhile, especially under enough pressure. If the new is sound enough, eventually the old will atrophy). And building either a skill or a habit takes “as long as it takes,” and that will vary considerably from person to person.
There is no alternative to substantial learning that we can find that does not follow the general format we have outlined here. There are no shortcuts. One must take the entire trip. We cannot arrive without making it.
When you work with an instructor, keep these principles in mind so that you can practice in a way that will build in what has been pre-determined as needed habits. Even if the instructor is not aware of these things, you can be if you want to be. Fortunately, Homer Kelley left us with a marvelous scheme for getting the pre-determination put together in the most effective manner and there are some instructors who know that quite well. Find them.