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Peak Performance Psychology

The Four Levels of Golf Skill Development.

by Nick Rosa, Ph.D

A four level, skill development, model will be presented here, We all experienced Level 1, the Level of Conscious Incompetence, when we first learned to drive an automobile. Can you remember when you began learning to drive a car? It was a intensely focused, uncoordinated, effort riddled with conscious mental self-instructions and awareness of body mechanics- Some of you may have even had the torturous experience of learning on a stick shift: "...depress the clutch with my left foot -- right foot depresses brake pedal -- left hand holds steering wheel -- right hand on transmission stick and put it in neutral ('Now, where is that?') -- take right hand and turn ignition key clockwise -- right hand release safety brake by squeezing, pulling back and then forward -- right hand now puts transmission stick in reverse - look left -- look right -- look in the rear view mirror -- put right arm over the back rest -- look over right shoulder -- take right foot off the break- pedal -- SLOWLY lift left foot up from clutch as I concurrently, and with equal slowness, depress the gas pedal with right foot -- steer car with left hand -- and we haven't even gotten out of the driveway yet. Forget trying to converse or listen to the radio or chew gum and drive at the same time. Impossible! Keep in mind, however, that even Mario Andretti started this way.

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And, yes even Tom Kite and Greg Norman who are at Level 4, the Level of Unconscious Mastery, started at the Level of Conscious Incompetence. They too started playing by giving themselves conscious mental instructions for and being highly conscious of the mechanics of pre-swing fundamentals such as grip, posture, ball position, alignment as well as for address, swing and follow through. As novices they had not yet cognitively grasped the fundamentals nor developed muscle memory nor confidence in their swing mechanics. The bottom line, conscious incompetence.

So what can we expect as novice golfers? Like Mario, Tom and Greg we too must start at the Level of Conscious Incompetence. On the golf course we must consciously attend to fundamentals and mechanics as well as mentally instruct ourselves to do everything according to the book, Coordination, timing and technique are off because we are so consciously aware of everything we do and because body memory has not yet occurred; thereby, we are incapable of playing well. It would be nice if it could be otherwise, but it can't. Learning a complex task requires beginning at this level, and golf is a myriad of complex tasks. Conscious awareness and mental self-instruction are required to learn pre-swing fundamentals and mechanics of address, swing and follow through. However, with quality instruction from a club pro and practice, practice, practice, which develops grooved mechanics or body memory, we move on to Level 2.

At Level 2, the Level of Conscious Competency, we still consciously give ourselves instructions and consciously attend to fundamentals and mechanics but to a lesser degree. At this level we have developed some cognitive grasp of the fundamentals and some confidence in our mechanics as some muscle memory takes over. Therefore, we don't need to consciously attend and mentally self-instruct as much; that is, on the golf course we think less. Accordingly, our competency level is higher. The greater the degree of cognitive grasp, muscle memory and confidence; the less the conscious attention and self- instruction required, the higher the level of competency. We are probably playing in the nineties, working toward breaking into the eighties or Level 3.

At Level 3, the Level of Unconscious Competency, conscious self-instruction is minimized or absent and we have a high degree of confidence in our mechanics. At this level our muscle memory takes over. Conscious self-instructions, if any, are brief, simple, or mantra-like such as "See the target, see the ball, let the swing go.".

Going back to our automobile driving analogy for a moment, at Level 3 we may not be as capable a driver as Mario Andretti but now we can listen to the radio, talk, eat, drink, chew gum, even let our mind wander, and be capable of driving very well. Similarly, when driving the golf ball, chipping or putting, we don't have to attend to fundamentals, body mechanics nor give ourselves mental instructions. Our conscious mind has yielded much of its duties to our unconscious. At this level, we may not be as capable as Tom Watson, but we have progressed to being a low handicap or scratch golfer.

At Level 4, the Level of Unconscious Mastery, we have developed confidence in all of our skills. Mental self-instructions are absent and 'seeing the target, seeing the ball and letting the swing go'occur with little or no conscious thought. Our muscle memory has taken over completely; most, if not all, of our body being guided by our unconscious. Here our golf mastery ranges from those of the typical club pro to that of the best touring pros. If we are fortunate we may even play at the height of this level, a place called a "zone", briefly described below.

Synopsis and Implications:

(1) The Four Levels of Golf Skill Development are:

    Level I - Level of Conscious Incompetence
    Level 2 - Level of Conscious Competence
    Level 3 - Level of Unconscious Competence
    Level 4 - Level of Unconscious Mastery
(2) Everyone learning golf starts at Level 1 of tile developmental phase. We know that conscious awareness and mental self-instruction inhibit the execution of technique, coordination and timing and, thus, our level of competency. Yet it is only through conscious awareness, mental self-instruction and practice that we learn. There's no way around it. So, if you tend to get discouraged with your competency level, just think about the conscious effort it took initially to learn to drive a car and how natural it is today; the same will happen with golf if you stay with it.

    The requirements to move one level to higher level are:
    (a) increased confidence
    (b) increased muscle memory
    (b) decreased mental self-instruction
    (c) decreased conscious attending / increased unconscious guidance
However, we can slip to a lower level; for example, when our confidence decreases. Likewise, when we increase our mental self-instruction or our conscious attention to pre- ing fundamentals, and/or to the mechanics of address, swing or follow through; we can and usually do slip to a lesser level of competency, The bottom line is that when we make conscious adjustments, and they may be necessary, we can expect to drop down a level and have less competency, at least initially.

A golf pro or sport psychologist might instruct us to "relax", "focus", "breathe deeply", "say", 'I feel confident!" and so forth. Remember that these very instructions intended to improve our game will increase conscious attention and drop us down a developmental level and negatively affect our game until the instructed behaviors become habitual or unconscious. However, there are ways to have such resources as being relaxed, focused, breathing deeply or feeling confident and so forth be triggered automatically when on the golf course,

(3) At Level 4, the unconscious mind can take over and control every movement made on the golf course, When this occurs, a golfer is in a zone; a dream-like state. This dream-like state is similar to an experience that most of us have had when driving on a highway and not remembering driving past certain towns. We were awake, yet our conscious mind yielded to the unconscious to control our movements and guide us safely for miles.

So, when in a zone a golfer in a dream-like state, is playing without conscious awareness. And, in a zone, a golfer's body is a perfectly functioning machine that produces great shot after great shot in a phenomenal round. Obviously, this is a much desired resource state.

Much has been written about the Zone and you may have read tips on what to imagine (think), say to yourself, how to breathe and so forth to create a zone. If you followed these tips, I'll bet your attempt to create a zone was not very successful. I'm pretty sure I'd win my bet because to follow these instructions you would have to increase conscious awareness and self-instruction which makes it impossible to be in a zone. The zone is an unconscious dream-like state. To be in a conscious dream-like state is a contradiction of terms, an oxymoron (love that word!).

The bottom line is, if you are among the few Level 4 golfers who has never been in a zone, you may have to wait until it occurs spontaneously. If you don't want to wait, seek out someone who applies a sport psychology system based on Ericksonian Hypnosis and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to assist you in training your unconscious to take over and create a zone when you are on the golf course. This would take less than two hours.

However, if you have already experienced being in a zone, it is a piece of cake for a trained specialist using such a system to assist you in recapturing your zone experience and make it available to you on the golf course again. This would take less than an hour. In a future article, I will describe how this is done with such a system, namely, Peak Performance Psychology (P-3).

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