by Russ Roberts on August 25, 2008

in Education

Technique fascinates me. Part of my fascination comes from my interest in specialization. But most of it, I think, comes from being a teacher and a parent and a very amateur baseball coach. Some things are easy to teach. Facts. Some simple insights. But many things are not so easy. How to swing a baseball bat. How to sing. How to be an economist. Some of these things we learn simply by doing them over and over. But sometimes, doing them over and over—learning by doing—is unproductive or worse. We learn a bunch of bad habits and they become ingrained in muscle memory.

For many things, there is a best or close to best technique. Swinging a baseball bat is a simple example. Virtually every major leaguer swings in a very similar manner and it is very different from how it is usually taught. (FYI, here is the only material I have seen on the web or in a book that actually helps a kid make progress toward a quality swing.) There’s a lot of advice given by many coaches that I think is the wrong technique. (Keep your elbow up). Some advice is simply unhelpful. (Keep your eye one the ball. No eight year old knows how to implement this advice without further assistance, it requires you to rotate your head toward home plate as the ball comes in and your body toward the field at the same time. Nearly impossible.) But sometimes the technique, though well known, is so complicated that only a skilled teacher knows how to teach the technique well. The worst case is the unskilled teacher of a complex technique who points out every flaw. Because there are so many things to remember, the beginner has no chance of making progress.

This wonderful drawing illustrates this last problem perfectly. A good teacher knows which flaws to start correcting and which flaws to ignore. This illustration, which I found in the office of a voice teacher, is the guide to a great golf swing. (I don’t know who drew this. If anyone recognizes the artist, please let me know.) If you can keep these few things in mind (and you have a full 1.5 seconds to execute the swing while remembering these rules), you’ll have a good chance of succeeding at the game. Good luck!



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