Slow learning and the hand-speed fairy

By Kingsley Flett ~

Paige
Paige Pierce driving on the uphill hole 13 at Mundaring DiscGolfPark in Western Australia during the Aussie Open in January 2017. Photo by Kingsley Flett.

A player who I was coaching received a visit from the hand-speed fairy the other day.

After getting used to the sight of her merely throwing the disc, I was taken aback by how suddenly her arm whipped around in a blur, and how the disc ejected from her hand with a crisp violence. Without her knowing it, her brain switched on more muscle fibers that power the throw while switching off the ones that decelerate it. The correct term for this is reciprocal inhibition, but I prefer ‘hand-speed fairy.’

Now she could make the disc glide longer, turn-right and truly ride the wind, and I could see the joy she got from making it fly.

But when I told her hubby about it, the words were out of my mouth before I could drag them back: “She’s a bit of a slow-learner, that one,” I said.

He didn’t look happy for a moment. It was meant as a compliment. It really was. This got me wondering how the term slow-learner evolved into such a put-down. What on earth is so wrong about learning a skill slowly? And where is it written that speed of early uptake is a predictor of long term success? In fact, the opposite is often true.

As we start performing a new movement, the first place we adapt is in the muscles, and the nerves that talk to them – collectively called the muscle spindle. Both grow thicker as we get stronger. Then, in the long term, the tendons and ligaments, even the bones, change their architecture.

So right at the coalface, in the mechanical bits, we see these two types of adaptation. Short-term adaptations reverse quite quickly when you stop practicing, where long-term adaptations become permanent. Studies of sedentary people who take up an exercise program always show that the people who used to be in shape improve faster, because they’ve got that architecture laid down.

But it gets interesting when we look at the brain. Imaging studies of the brain while people are learning a new skill show activity in specific parts of the cortex and cerebellum. As they continue practicing, however, something quite remarkable happens: The activity in those places diminishes and subcortical areas on both sides of the brain start to light up.

In other words, there’s a handover. The part of the brain you learned the skill with is different from the part that you use in the long term. To do this, the brain must grow neurons specific to that movement. This is called synaptogenesis. We know that nerves grow at a pace of about one millimeter a week, so it’s a slow process.

The benefit? Practice a skill long enough and it becomes hard-wired in your brain. The problem? Practice a skill poorly for long enough and that’ll become hard-wired into your brain too.

To me, this is the true benefit of slow-learning. It comes down to your focus during the learning phase. If that focus is impatient, and purely on external measurables like distance and score, then you could develop techniques that serve you in the short term, but put a cap on your long-term potential.

One example of this is muscling the disc, using the arm to propel the disc as opposed to it being merely the end of a whip-crack that starts from your feet, travels through your legs, hips, shoulders, down the arm and to the hand. Sacrifice a bit of short term distance, on the other hand, and focus on smoothness and technique? Then the hand speed fairy will pay a very nice visit when she comes.

Same goes with trying too hard to aim or ‘steer’ the disc. With backhand particularly, for a natural swing of the shoulders to occur, your eye must come off the target momentarily. This will make you less accurate in the early learning phase but long-term you’ll have a way more powerful throw, as opposed to the strange, neck-straining, side-skipping techniques you see in people who’ve laid down poor movement patterns early on.

The other benefit of being a slow-learner is in resilience. I’ve seen them come and go. Not just in disc golf too. Seen how abundantly talented people can pick up a new skill a bit too easily. Their effortlessness can become just that; effort-less.

Mastery is unraveling the mystery; and the mystery has layers. Some layers yield like a silk curtain; others like a brick wall. You don’t learn to chip away at the brick wall by being casually brilliant. There comes a time when you need to put it in low-gear and grind. Struggle is the only teacher of this.

To me, slow learning is like slow food or slow travel. Take time to let each layer soak in. Appreciate its nuances and let the insights from one inform the next. Don’t be in a hurry to make the next step. Poke around on your current level – get to know all it’s dark corners.

As Ghandi said, “Life is not enhanced by increasing its speed.”

Be patient. Trust. You’ll get it in the end.

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Kingsley FlettWhen he’s not playing disc golf, writing and taking photographs, Kingsley Flett is a mild mannered biomechanist with twenty years of experience in coaching. You can check out more of his work at kingsleyflett.com.

 

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Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

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One thought on “Slow learning and the hand-speed fairy

  1. Great article. Slowing down is hard and takes a lot of discipline—not always easy in the moment! And you’re right that “slow learner” has a negative connotation. Maybe a less touchy term would be “deliberate learner”?

    Liked by 1 person

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