Learning Golf is like Learning a Language

Golf is a complex fine motor skill and takes quite a long time to learn to a high standard.  This year I have been making attempts to learn Mandarin as I am spending a lot of time with the Taiwan National Golf Team.  Speaking Mandarin is also something that is going to take quite a long time to do well.  That is without giving any thought to understanding the thousands of Chinese characters in everyday use!

There are so many parallels between learning a new language and learning golf, even though they are quite different activities.

The beginning stage in learning a new language, particularly one which has no relationship to English is learning a few words and almost immediately forgetting them.  After continually repeating just a few words they seem easier to remember.  Any language has a vocabulary with thousands of words, so knowing half a dozen doesn’t even put a dent in understanding, or does it?

The first few golf swings for a beginner often result in either missing the ball or just hitting it with the edge of the club (the bottom of the club or one end or the other).  After a practice session or the first lesson, it seems as though there hasn’t been much progress at all, or has there?

I like to think of this stage as being one where you have to overcome the inertia of learning something new.  The foundations of learning what is to come are being laid down even though there is not much noticeable progress.

In learning Mandarin it took quite some time to attune my ear to hearing individual words in a sentence rather than hearing the sentence as one long sound.  It didn’t help with my understanding of what was being said or of speaking, but was absolutely necessary for me to take the next steps in learning the language.

For a beginning golfer holding the club correctly and standing with good posture seems complex in itself and doesn’t seem to guarantee improvement, especially as the grip and posture are unfamiliar.  However they are core components – the foundation – on which you can build an effective golf swing.

This early stage is where frustration can kick in as progress seems so slow.  Whether it is golf or a language, this is a critical stage and once you have worked your way through it, the time it took to get the foundation right doesn’t seem so long.

Once I had developed some words in my Chinese vocabulary and was able to create very basic sentences and then speak them (lots of times), all of a sudden greetings became automatic.  From there, building more words and creating other sentences from them became easier.  I have become used to hearing the sounds and tones of Chinese and can decipher words in a sentence.  Even though I don’t know what they mean, I acknowledge my progress.

After a beginning golfer can make a basic motion and control their swing length, they can use different clubs to produce a variety of shots.  They can watch good golfers play and have an appreciation of their skills as well as seeing how they might be able to create different types of shots themselves.

In the past I have attended classes to learn languages.  Many of the students do some review between classes, but often they don’t practice the language they are learning at all between classes.  The result is that they forget most of what they learn from week to week.  They are usually fearful of making errors if they speak the language outside the classroom in case they embarrass themselves by fumbling with the language.  The best way to be able to remember the language is to use it, especially with a native speaker as they will help with your pronunciation.  In my experience the native speaker will correct your pronunciation and have you repeat it until you get it right … that is a fantastic help!

Many people who are learning golf, especially if they are in a class with other students, avoid practice between their weekly lessons.  This is usually out of fear of practicing the ‘wrong’ things and embedding errors.  Unfortunately this avoids the player familiarising themselves with the overall movement of the swing.  It is far better to make errors as they can be corrected next time you see your coach.

With both learning a new language and learning golf

  • There is an inertia to overcome in the beginning where the learning is slowest.
  • Frequency is the thing which will bring the fastest progress.  Daily training rather than cramming your learning into one session per week.
  • Once you have the foundations your progress will advance fairly rapidly.
  • Speak with people who know your target language, as this tests your knowledge.  This is the same as getting out on the course as it measures your progress with scoring and shot quality.  Yes it is more challenging, but moves you forward more quickly.

 The satisfaction in conversing in a foreign language is the same as striking quality golf shots … the effort is worth it. 


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