Learning empathy by trying new skills

For PGA coaches golf comes as second nature, so it is sometimes worth trying a new skill to relive how difficult learning something new can be, writes Sue Shapcott. 

I became an expert golfer at a young age. I represented England when I was fifteen and GB&I when I was eighteen years old. Golf has been second nature to me for decades. Although I no longer play well, I know what I should be doing. I can see it, feel it and I can still imagine myself making good swings and hitting great shots. As a golf coach, this is not necessarily good!

Many of my golf students sit at the opposite end of the golf experience spectrum. For example, unlike me they may not have grown up playing golf. Probably nothing about golf feels instinctive to them, and they may not have yet experienced the feel of a controlled and powerful swing.

I thought about my novice golf students a lot last month. For Christmas, I received a new pair of cross-country skate skis. Luckily for me, there was enough snow on Christmas day to try them out. I had some experience downhill skiing, and had tried traditional cross-country skiing. But skate skiing is a very different style of skiing. It involves propelling yourself forward by pushing off one ski, gliding, then pushing off the other ski. With poor technique, it is difficult to move forward on flat ground, and near impossible to ski up a hill.

What does this have to do with teaching golf? Although my skiing performance was abysmal, I was elated that I’d been given insight into what many of my students experience when they take up golf. For example, although I knew my skiing technique was fundamentally wrong, I only wanted one thing to focus on. Much of my attention was being used to just stay upright. Therefore, any more than one coaching point would have been enough to overload my brain and put me on the floor. Furthermore, I was very happy only working on one thing – I realised improvement would take time and it would not happen faster if I tried to fix everything at once.

I was also reminded how frustrating it is to really try, and not see any results. Considering my frustration, I was overly sensitive to the feedback I received from others. I could only assume that my golf students experience the same frustration and my feedback to them may often overlook their levels of frustration. The feedback I wanted to receive was exactly as motivational theories recommend. I wanted to understand what the process of learning would look like, and what steps I needed to take to get there. In short, I wanted to feel that I had control of the process. I did not want feedback that comforted me to make me feel better. I wanted to know how to get better!

Obviously, I needed to practice my skiing, but I did not really know how. This makes sense because researchers have found that mental representations are one of the differences between experts and novices. Experts have very developed mental representations of skills. They can visualize exactly what they are trying to do and can imagine doing it. Novices, by contrast, have under-developed mental representations – they are unable to imagine what performing a skill looks or feels like.  To help develop my mental representation of skate skiing I turned to the internet and watched videos of skate skiers. I tried to visualize myself moving correctly and imagined how that would feel in my legs and balance.

By developing a better mental representation of skate skiing, I was able to engage in mental practice. Learning new motor skills requires forging new neural pathways in the brain. This is done through practice. Luckily, research shows that visualizing what you are trying to do activates the same neuro pathways as when you are physically practicing the movement. So, although it is not as good as the real thing, mentally practicing my skiing is a tool that can help me improve.

Overall, learning a skill as a novice felt like a valuable professional development exercise. I assume it would be a similar experience for other golf coaches. So, I challenge you to take the humbling step and learn a new sport – it is the only way to put yourself in your students’ shoes.