We know that the golf swing is difficult to learn in part because there are so many moving parts. Indeed, it is a complex motor skill that involves multiple limbs and segments and learning them all at once is quite the challenge. In 1967 Soviet neurophysiologist, Nikolai Bernstein, identified this problem and described a strategy in which motor learning researchers now refer to as freezing the degrees of freedom. His solution was to control or “freeze” the many degrees of freedom associated with the coordination demands of that skill.
In golf, this involves holding some joint rigid (i.e. “freezing” them) while performing the skill. Often I start beginners off with one arm only drills to manage the movement of one limb segment at a time. With practice, the “frozen” joints will begin to become “unfrozen” and operate in a way that allows cooperation with multiple segments.
Short pitch or chip shots are another great way to freeze degrees of freedom. These swings contain critical elements of the full swing in them (center contact, weight favoring the front foot by impact, no scooping of the wrists) but without the full backswing or follow through. By working on your short shots, you are inadvertently using this strategy.
Even accomplished players can benefit from this isolation drill as a diagnostic to see what each limb is doing – particularly those who have played for a long time and want to break a habit or play a different sport that has a different movement. In either case, this player may want to alter an established coordination pattern. What is interesting is that as hard as it may be to overcome distinct movement biases (those who play tennis regularly know what I’m talking about), it is indeed possible to overcome them but it takes a lot of practice. Isolating degrees of freedom is a great way to practice – even in your home without a club or a ball!
The beginning learner (or even an advanced learner who is making an adjustment to an existing movement), solving this degree of freedom problem is critical part of the learning process. The next time you are warming up, try building your swing in stages and check your technique as you go. You might be surprised how well you can self-diagnose.