Focus your attention
Imagine a simple exercise. Roll up a piece of used paper and throw it into a waste basket 10 ft away. What would be your desired outcome for this task? Paper ball in basket. What’s your target? The basket. Easy isn’t it. It’s a basket and a target. It provides your focus for attention. Your target and desired outcome in this example happen to be in the same physical location. Does the target create any anxiety? No. Would it create any anxiety if it were 20ft away. 50ft. Of course not. It’s just a TARGET. Sometimes you will hit it, sometimes you won’t but it always provides a focus for your actions.
Now, if you could win $100,000 on completion of a successful throw would the basket suddenly create any anxiety? No, it’s still just your target. However, you may notice that you do experience some anxiety when you start to think about potential outcomes. The target itself can not change your physical state but your perception of the task can. Unwittingly you can switch your attention from target to outcome orientation in an instant. Your heart rate quickens. Your muscles tighten. You throw. You miss the target. Was it due to poor technique or poor focus?
Now, imagine for a moment you and I are standing on the tee looking down the fairway of your first hole on your golf course, preparing to play a shot. Can you see it clearly in your mind’s eye right now? Consider this for a moment. Where are your thoughts in time when thinking about achieving your desired outcome for a golf shot – present or future? Clearly the future. You have read or been told how important it is to “stay present” or “be in the now” to play your best golf. So how do you stay “present” during a golf shot whilst thinking about your desired outcome? Can you see the dichotomy? A determination to be “present” but thinking about the future? Mentally, it’s like pulling a chicken wishbone.
So how and why should you stay present when playing a golf shot? You have many thoughts in your daily lives about the past and future which don’t create any issues like anxiety or tension. You can even successfully drive your car whilst doing so, where your life is at risk, without trying to be ‘present’. In fact, you spend most of your waking day thinking about the past or future as those 60-70,000 erroneous thoughts pass on through. How do you stay present if your mind is continually time traveling? Ever been taught HOW? Can you consistently control your attention when required? If you can not, is golf really any different to playing roulette mentally? Spin a wheel and do whatever pops into your mind?
Mind control for golf
So what should you be asking as you look down the fairway? “What’s my desired Outcome?” is a good start. This identifies where you want your ball to finish. Then follow it with “What’s my Target?” This is important because in golf your desired outcome (the future) and your target (the present) will often be different physical locations. We don’t hit many perfectly straight shots in golf so your target and outcome are rarely the same place. You should differentiate between them physically AND then psychologically focus your attention appropriately. If you have chosen the right target and the right club, you will often achieve your desired outcome. It is a natural bi-product.
Destroying the physical flow
Unfortunately, many golfers do confuse their target with their desired outcome and can frequently feel anxious as they try and ‘create’ their desired outcome. The ‘yips’ often manifest themselves when chipping and putting when a golfer is fixated on their outcome. Due to this confusion with targeting many golfers deliberately shift their attention away from the target after aligning themselves towards it. After all, why do you need to think about it if it’s not going anywhere? However, if you are not thinking about where you want to hit the ball as you swing or putt, what will occupy your attention? For many their attention shifts to the outcome, course hazards or their mechanics. This often results in physical flow being destroyed as they attempt to consciously control their movements, leading to the immediate follow up question “Why does my practice swing always look and feel so great?!”
Consciously controlling our physical actions is the antithesis of how we perform life skills and highlights the reason why ‘swing thoughts’ are so destructive. Not only do you lose your target mentally (it’s a bit like playing pin the tail on the donkey but wearing a mental blindfold) but you interfere with your natural, physical flow. For me, the challenge in my golfing life was overcoming the fallacy that my conscious mind knew best when learning, practicing and playing golf. It does not and never will. When you learn how to keep your conscious mind occupied with the target, you simultaneously allow the non-conscious mind to carry out the physical movements required to play the shot. It has performed without fail every other time in your life when you have needed it, from learning to walk through to driving a car. Why not give yourself the opportunity to benefit from it in your golfing life?
If the concept of target, as opposed to outcome orientation, resonates you may also appreciate it’s not a simple skill to master. Eye on the ball, mind on the Target is easier written than done. You can’t just turn this skill on in competition, it must become your dominant behavior in your practice.
Deliberate practice for golf
Through deliberate practice you will discover, when successfully occupying your attention with your target whilst executing your actions, how successfully your non-conscious mind can swing a club and putt a ball given effective direction from the conscious mind. You have to align your intention with your attention. However, if your dominant mentality in practice is technical analysis, you already know what happens under ‘duress’ in competition. More thoughts about your swing. Typically it’s a vicious cycle of self doubt and self deprecation. I lived it myself and it wasn’t much fun.
Photo by George Grinstead