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Why Losing Focus Can Kill Your Golf Shots

There is a common theme amongst academic psychological theories that suggests we as humans have no control over our thoughts and consequently, our emotions can be put into a state of dis-ease at any moment in time with little choice in the matter. A bit like a lava pool in a volcano, erroneous non-conscious thoughts bubble their way into consciousness.

You then attempt to deal with the consequences with behavioral change techniques hoping you cope better next time. This symptomatic approach to mental skills development leaves you forever vulnerable to the next  lava bubble which chooses to pop up, a bit like putting out spot fires. Imagine the number of situations you have yet to experience in your golfing life and what happens when you find yourself in competition beyond your comfort levels? A potential meltdown.

This vulnerability concept may be relevant if you are not actively engaging your mind with a series of specific tasks designed to occupy your attentional focus, just as you are doing right now as you read this article. There is no opportunity for erroneous thought whilst you are actively engaged in the reading process. When you stop reading,  your attention switches and you are once again ‘vulnerable’ to erroneous thought.

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Your Pre-shot Routine Is Critical

This is why the SECONDS prior to and during shot execution in golf are so critical to performance but they are not systematically being coached in practice on the range today. Consequently, golfers are left to find their own way of occupying their attention during this critical time and it is erroneous thoughts during this period which creates such great variability in your shot outcomes. Unfortunately, many will analyze their swing after a poor shot suggesting ‘the swing’ was the cause, rather than the symptom, due to dominant methods employed by traditional golf coaching.

If the poor shot was simply due to poor attentional control, imagine the consequences of continually believing your technique was flawed every time you hit a poor shot. Constant doubt about your technical skills. This is a very self destructive approach to any life skill, so why do golfers believe this is the pathway to performance when it clearly is not.

Target Oriented Golf

Target Oriented Golf teaches golfers techniques which engage your attentional focus on a series of tasks as you prepare to execute, using sub-vocalization up until the moment of execution where the golfers shifts to a state of visualization. The mind is quiet, the eyes are still and the body experiences flow. There is no opportunity for erroneous non-conscious thought to manifest itself if the golfer is actively engaged with specific tasks. Generic coaching advice like “don’t think” or “just hit it” or have a “think box, play box” prior to execution will always leave golfers scratching their heads at the lack of consistency which follows, which manifests itself as a result of such simplistic psychological advice. Golf demands more.

The conscious mind abhors a vacuum. It will always be attending to something whilst awake, so who’s driving your bus?

Some attempt to occupy their attention when preparing to hit a golf ball by using repetitious mantras but the very act of attempting to ‘block’ your non-conscious thoughts is one grounded in fear and trying to suppress what are perceived as ‘non-conscious involuntary responses’. This is akin to a child putting his fingers in his ears and screaming “I can’t hear you” at its mother whilst she is talking, when he knows he can. I coach people to think and behave in golf using the same natural behaviors they use in their daily lives. If you are using different mental techniques in order to perform on the golf course compared to how you perform other life tasks, you have to ask why. You may believe reciting mantras whilst carrying out a life task is normal human behavior for you but it is not for me. It makes no sense to play golf if you spend all your time simply trying to ‘cope’ with the situation. In fact, I’d recommend finding a less stressful past time.

Clearly in a life threatening situations, the non-conscious survival systems are essential in order to activate the flight/fight state we rely on in order to survive. Unfortunately, our body can’t differentiate from a real or “perceived” threat we like to make up on the golf course. However, it is an individuals CHOICE of how they perceive a non-life threatening situation, we don’t all react the same way. If we see a lion heading our way we certainly will but this is not the case in many other life situations, golf included. For example, 2 students may perceive a future examination very differently – 1 may be calm, the other anxious. The exam is not the cause of anxiety or both would always feel anxious. The individual does have choice how they perceive a situation and this is key to how to perform in the game of golf.

The future task (be it an exam or hitting a golf ball at a target) or it’s location in time is not the critical factor on or off the golf course. We have literally 1000′s of thoughts a day which exist in the future or past which do not create any sense of anxiety or fear so clearly time is not the critical factor in triggering an anxiety response. It is an individuals PERCEIVED control over the situation which determines how they respond, NOT the situation itself. This is important to understand.

Clearly you can not directly correlate a future event with the anxiety response or you’ll be attempting to hit golf balls at a target whilst thinking about something else totally irrelevant to the task at hand like your swing, ball or humming a mantra. People look forward to going on holidays (the future) so you can certainly enjoy the challenge of hitting golf balls at targets anxiety free, when you feel in control of the situation. When the golfer understands the difference between focusing on their target rather than their desired outcome and focus on what they can control, the target provides a freedom to swing and putt free from conscious mind interference. This is HOW we perform all life skills.

It’s actually quite difficult trying to hit golf balls at a target and doing it accurately, so removing it from the golfers attention prior to executing a shot is literally like playing golf with a mental blindfold on. The consequence of technical swing thoughts is even more destructive, as they also destroy physical flow, and yet there’s an entire coaching industry unconsciously promoting the use of these very thoughts in their teaching methods, without understanding the consequences whilst learning, practicing or playing. It’s little wonder so many blame their ‘thinking’ for their poor golf.

Teaching golf below the neck and seeing the human as a-machine rather than an e-motion is very common but it is not teaching golf in our world of golf instruction, it is teaching people how to swing golf clubs efficiently. It is clear we have to learn how to use tools in order to carry out a task but we only perform a task when we stop thinking about using the tools. Think about how you ride a bike, drive a car or play an instrument and then think about how you try to play golf.

There is a piece missing from your essential golf instruction jigsaw puzzle but the good news is you can find it between your ears.

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Photo by Roman Pavlyuk

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Colin Cromack

is the creator of Target Oriented Golf, an independently produced applied golf psychology coaching program. He specialises in the brain function of Attentional Focus. This lies at the heart of skills acquisition (how we learn) and psychology (how we perform). His work is supported by the very latest academic research. He is a PGA UK recognised Coaching Specialist and presents his work to PGA coaches, Pro players and dedicated amateurs.

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