When I give a playing lesson to a new student and ask them where their focus of attention was before and during a shot, I rarely find that it was on the same things. Apparently, golfers are very good at training their swings, but not as good at training their attention. The mind can become distracted, unfocused, and more concerned about the movement of the swing than the intention for the shot. Most golfers “go through the motions” during their Pre Shot Routine and convince themselves that they are focused, but really they are unaware of where they are directing their attention.
External Focus For Golf
The swing and stroke needs to be trusted, and guided not by conscious thought about it, but by a sensory connection with the target and intention for the shot. When we are able to place our attention on what we are trying to do with the golf ball or the effect of our movement (impact) rather than the movement itself, it’s called External Focus for golf. Studies by the likes of Professor Gabriel Wulf show that generally speaking (and even more so for the short game and putting) having an external focus is the most effective way to play. When we become too focused on what we need to with the body (called “Internal focus”), energy is directed away from the intention for the shot and towards thinking about the swing. By doing this, the intuitive “athletic” mind, which is needed to play the shot, is pushed out of the process.
As Bobby Jones once said: “the golf swing is too complex a movement to be consciously controlled”.
A Holistic Approach Is Needed
One of the problems is that golf coaching and information to help golfers lower scores is, generally speaking, very technical. Few coaches teach players how to access the athlete within, and instead they have them trying to achieve a multitude of “correct” positions in their swing. I’m by no means undervaluing the importance of the technical aspects of the game (nor am I saying that you shouldn’t play with a “swing thought”), but my view is that it needs to be taught using a more “holistic” approach.
As a golfer hits more poor shots during a round, it can cause them to become increasingly focused on the mechanics of the swing which further distances them from their intention for the shot, creating tension and a loss of rhythm and tempo.
Options For External Focus For Golf
The Pre shot routine gives us so many options for external focus for golf and attentional cues that can affect how we connect with what we’re trying to achieve and how we swing the club or stroke the putter.
I’ve worked with many players over the years who have found different ways to create an intention for a shot and have an external focus as they execute it. When I do golf schools or work with teams, it is interesting to see how different players respond to the use of different attentional cues.
Helping golfers find this out about themselves is part of the coaching assessment and “self-discovery” process I go through with new students as we build their Pre Shot Routine. This is part personality driven, but experience and experimentation can tell us a lot about which cues work best.
Shot routines and what a player focuses on, can be different for full shots, short game and putting, but most of them should be an external focus for golf.
What are the different options? Here are a few examples:
- The target – how do you see it and can you retain it?
- The feel of the strike (path, face, ground contact)
- The speed of the putt (being able to trace it with your eyes before starting your stroke)
- The visual image of the ball taking off, the apex or landing
- The tempo of the swing
- The sound of the shot
What type of external focus for golf produces your best shots?
It’s well worth spending the time working on this. Building an effective Pre Shot Routine shouldn’t be taken lightly. Every shot gives you the opportunity to reset and get yourself ready to hit a great shot no matter how you are playing. Next time you go to practice, instead of just hitting balls while focusing on technique, do some experimentation.
Use Practice To Improve Focus and Make Your Routine A Habit
Intention of focus and awareness of your attention is an important part of practice. After all, when you are on the course, perhaps playing in a tournament, focusing becomes harder because more of your energy goes to your nervous system. Decide what you plan to focus on and practice it mindfully, so you make it a habit. Train your focus as you practice and take notes about what you observe in your shots.
Discover, learn and set goals for external focus for golf
Immediately after your next round, write down all of your best shots. Take yourself back there and recall what you were focusing on before and during your swing. Take note of any patterns. By doing this, you’ll understand more about how your “athletic mind” works and you’ll take a step closer to knowing your best attentional cues. The round after that, take out your mental scorecard and hold yourself accountable to where you place your attention. Next time you’re on the course, keep yourself accountable to it using the mental game scorecard, which you can download below.