It’s Never Too Late to Learn New Skills

Adults Can Master Skiing, Golfing or Even Coding With Tailored Techniques, If They Can Stop Overthinking Have you ever wished you could remember all those years of high school Spanish? Looked longingly at fearless children hitting the ski slopes? Admired a classroom of teenagers writing code? People are ripe for learning at any age, experts […]

Adults Can Master Skiing, Golfing or Even Coding With Tailored Techniques, If They Can Stop Overthinking

Have you ever wished you could remember all those years of high school Spanish? Looked longingly at fearless children hitting the ski slopes? Admired a classroom of teenagers writing code?

People are ripe for learning at any age, experts in these fields say, even though conventional knowledge suggests we learn better as children. It may take adults a little longer, but if they are willing to put in the time, they can learn many skills we often assume must be acquired before adulthood, or else not at all.

Jennifer Raymond, associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, says brain plasticity—the strengthening and weakening of connections, and creation of new connections, that change how the brain is wired as we learn new things—is highest until about age 20, the years when the brain is developing. With age, we begin to balance the ability to acquire new knowledge with the ability to store what we have learned.

There is much to admire about the way children learn, with open minds and fewer worries about mistakes. Adults, on the other hand, often think through a new skill in great detail before trying.

All that thinking isn’t totally negative, says Ken Paller, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. Adults can better understand all that a task entails and are able to “think deeply about what they are doing wrong,” Dr. Paller says.

When the time comes to take that first swing of the golf club, learn to stop thinking quite so hard. Elite athletes and performers relax, empty the mind and “get in the groove.” Adults picking up a new skill can do the same.

Finding time is a big challenge. For many, the most difficult psychological hurdle is learning to overcome the fear of looking dumb.

Learn to Downhill Ski

On your first ski outing, take time to get comfortable and find your balance. Don’t expect to be perfect from the start.
On your first ski outing, take time to get comfortable and find your balance. Don’t expect to be perfect from the start. ROBERT NEUBECKER
In 30 years as a ski instructor, Earl Saline, director of education programming for the National Ski Areas Association, has taught students as young as 18 months and as old as in their 80s. Generally, he says, adult women tend to be more thoughtful in their approach and to focus on getting technique right, whereas men tend to be more aggressive and to want to do it all on their own.

Athletic ability plays a big role in how fast a person learns to ski, but most adults should feel confident hitting a beginner slope solo after three days of lessons, he says. Adults may want to be perfect from the start, Mr. Saline says. Getting them to “learn to falter once in a while” is often a challenge.

Their discomfort often starts with the boots and skis, which may feel like “clown shoes,” Mr. Saline says. On the hill, the natural inclination is to lean back, as if water skiing. That leads to falls. “Keep your head over your toes,” he tells his students. His goal is to “move at a pace that keeps them upright”

To help build confidence, Mr. Saline emphasizes how to control speed at all stages, including turning the ski tips in toward each other to slow down. “What we don’t want to do is move at a pace where they get scared,” he says.

Learn Another Language

Whether ‘reactivating’ your high school French or starting from scratch, seek out opportunities to interact with native speakers and immerse yourself fully in the language.
Whether ‘reactivating’ your high school French or starting from scratch, seek out opportunities to interact with native speakers and immerse yourself fully in the language. ROBERT NEUBECKER

A complaint Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, hears a lot is, “I studied four years of French or German or Spanish, and I can’t say anything.”

Language instruction historically focused on mechanics, rather than conversation. But children just start talking, unafraid of making mistakes.

It is possible to “reactivate” language skills you may have stored in your brain, or you can start from scratch. Consider how much time you have to devote to the challenge. Learning French will probably be faster for an English speaker than, say, learning Mandarin.

As early as possible in your studies, find native speakers to interact with. There are websites that can connect you with a native speaker of your new language who is looking to learn English. Even a week or two in a new country can be enough immersion time to pick up functional basics, Ms. Abbott says.

Adults flock to online programs, but there is an even faster route to learning a new language, she says: Love. “Nothing improves your language capabilities more than being interested in someone who wants you to learn that language.”

Learn to Golf

Start learning to golf in winter or early spring, when courses and driving ranges aren’t very crowded. Work on your form and your swing, but don’t forget to get out on the course.
Start learning to golf in winter or early spring, when courses and driving ranges aren’t very crowded. Work on your form and your swing, but don’t forget to get out on the course. ROBERT NEUBECKER

“It’s not that hard, it’s not that hard, it’s not that hard.” That’s the mantra Ralph Landrum offers his new students.

Mr. Landrum , director of instruction at the World of Golf in Florence, Ky., and the PGA of America’s 2014 Player Development Award recipient, begins with basics of grip and stance, then looks at a player’s swing, paying close attention to the follow-through. His instructions are simple: “Keep your head fairly still, turn your shoulders, keep your arms straight, swing it hard.”

Time on the putting green or the driving range is important, but Mr. Landrum wants to get students out on the course as soon as possible. “We’re not trying to teach you to swing the golf club,” he says. “We’re trying to teach you to play golf.”

The PGA has a series of five group lessons for adult newcomers, called Get Golf Ready, at participating clubs. Mr. Landrum suggests beginners start in winter or early spring, when indoor facilities and outdoor courses aren’t very crowded.

Mr. Landrum says he finds women enjoy the social setting of a group lesson, while men prefer individual lessons. He is quick to note golf’s professional benefits. His son gets invited to company functions because he is a good golfer.

Learn to Sing

Join a choral group where you can gain confidence singing alongside more-experienced voices.
Join a choral group where you can gain confidence singing alongside more-experienced voices. ROBERT NEUBECKER

Singing is one thing everyone can do without ever taking a lesson. But singing well takes practice, says Allen Henderson, professor of music at Georgia Southern University and executive director of the National Association of Teachers of Singing.

If you want to try learning on your own, in the privacy of your home, remember: What you hear when you sing isn’t what an audience hears. Besides the sound coming from your own vocal folds, you also hear bone conduction, or frequencies conducted in the skull, Dr. Henderson says. “That makes the sound very different,” he says. Use your smartphone to record yourself and listen for places that could use improvement.

Dedicated practice is a must, with warm-ups and voice-building exercises, Dr. Henderson says. Pay attention to posture and breath support.

Beginners should look for a choir, whether at a house of worship or a community center, where they can sing with stronger voices and build confidence, he says. Private lessons offer individual attention. “It’s nice to have the ears of somebody else who can help us improve,” Dr. Henderson says.

Learn to Code

To learn computer coding, adults might want to adopt the experimental attitude of many children who don’t worry about breaking technology.
To learn computer coding, adults might want to adopt the experimental attitude of many children who don’t worry about breaking technology. ROBERT NEUBECKER

Fear is a big factor in adults’ aversion to learning to code, even though coding is one of the most sought-after professional skills. Adults need to “get past their inhibitions that this may be too hard or too scary,” says Hadi Partovi, chief executive of the nonprofit Code.org, which offers 100 hours of free introductory coding courses. Children’s philosophy toward technology is worth adopting, he says. “They are less scared of breaking it.”

“Hour of Code,” the most popular course, uses a series of puzzles to outline simple commands, as well as loops, “if” statements and conditions. To avoid mistakes resulting from typos, the course does away with typing altogether, using drag-and-drop commands instead.

Participants use code to solve puzzles by moving characters on a grid. At the end they can see the coding in the text equivalent of JavaScript. “It won’t teach you to become a software engineer,” says Mr. Partovi, “but it will teach you what any of this is all about.”

Mr. Partovi says it is important to teach the basics without getting into specifics of any one language. Adults who want to learn coding for practical or professional purposes, such as to build an app or get a job, should sign up for a local class or an online course. Expect to spend eight weeks or longer in a full-time program.

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