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Can an old dog learn new tricks? Research says yes


The more we learn about the human brain the more amazing it is.

          New research in neuropsychology is telling us that, as we get older, our brains can actually get better, instead of the other way around. 

The phenomenon is called “brain plasticity,” and I am excited about it. Our brains may be the most adaptable organ we have.

While it was once thought that our brain just gradually deteriorated as we aged (from about age 50 on), neuroscience is demonstrating that the aging brain can change and actually improve.

This means that learning new ideas, skills, attitudes and behaviors is possible. But learning requires memory, suggesting that brain training and brain experiencing are certainly worthwhile, even while we get older and our bodies stiffen.

          Let’s take the average 65-year-old golfer.  He’s been playing about the same game, on the same golf course, with the same group, using the same swing, getting the same results, for about the last 20 years now.

Time and habit, along with Charlie (horse) and Arthur (itis) have beaten him into submission, so he tends to accept golf stagnation.

One of the things we know about the aging brain is that if you keep doing the same thing, over and over again, especially when you’re older, you end up making your brain and actions more rigid. Do you want a cemented brain? Basically that’s what happens with individuals who have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where the mind-driven behavior becomes stereotyped and automatic, mostly beyond their control.

          Fundamentally what I’m saying is that if you want to improve your golf game as a senior you can’t rely on only upgrading your physical skills.

You have to change your brain and here’s some of what you need to know to do exactly that. First of all, brain plasticity requires motivation. You have to be willing to change and be in a mood to learn new stuff. In golf, that translates to taking lessons and trying things which are out of your comfort zone. It also means getting into a more golflike routine of practicing and maybe even working out.

          Secondly, we can only change things we’re aware of, and things we’re paying attention to. I’d like you to note that high self-awareness is one of the key requirements of mental toughness.  It’s also a critical element in high emotional I.Q. – the very thing that helps us to succeed in social and business settings. Just like executives, professionals and public servants, golfers need a lot of feedback. When you heighten your self-awareness you increase your chances of understanding what went wrong – and then being able to correct it.  Feedback for golfers unquestionably involves regular lessons from a golf teacher; otherwise you’re flying blind.

          Thirdly, challenging ourselves with new tasks and games turns on the brain plasticity switches. We can try playing new courses, perhaps even with different companions. Also, be open to upgrading your equipment and taking advantage of new technology.  We absolutely have to step out of our comfort zone once in a while if we are to grow and improve, regardless of our age.  Are you a student of the game?  Do you want to reach your full potential?

          So I’m suggesting that your brain is inviting you to be young again. The bottom line for you and me as senior golfers who want to get better is skill acquisition.

We can go a long way by promoting positive brain change (no, it’s not too late!) by harnessing our potential for brain plasticity.

 If you’re not happy with your current game, change it. Revamp your swing; develop new shots; hit the ball farther.  Skill building certainly extends to learning new mental toughness techniques, such as acute visualization. Be open-minded.  Try different problem-solving approaches. In golf that means different shots and creative strategies. We absolutely can’t afford to get stuck in old habits.

Dr. Charles Blanchard is a licensed sports psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact him at docblanchard71@gmail.com.

Charles Blanchard