Most golfers I speak with are unsure exactly where their focus should be during a golf shot. And it’s amazing how many swing thoughts someone can have during the 2 second period of the golf swing!
Studies have shown that when golfers (or athletes in general) focus on something external during their swing, they perform better than when they focus on something internal. By external, I mean focusing on the effect of the movement, like the motion of the club or the ball, On the other hand, internal focus is focus on the movement of the body itself, like where your arms are during the swing. This concept is called “attentional focus”. Where the focus of your attention is in golf can make a big difference in your scores.
Gabriele Wulf, Director of Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory, and her colleagues at the University of Nevada performed several experiments on this subject. One study was with 2 groups of novice golfers (those with very little playing experience). Each group performed the same pitch shots, but with a different set of instructions.
One group was asked to focus on the pendulum motion of the pitching wedge (external focus), while the other group was asked to focus on their arm movements (internal focus).
The results showed that the external focus group was considerably more accurate with their shots than those who focused on their body’s movements.
Further studies have been done which show that focusing on what your body is doing during an action constrains the motor system and the automatic control process. Conversely, focusing on the effect of that movement, promotes use of the automatic process (a more fluid motion).
In another study to prove this, an EMG (electromyograph – a machine for recording the electrical activity produced by muscles) was connected to a basketball player’s shooting arm during free throws.
2 groups of the same ability level performed the same free throw test, with one group focusing their attention on their wrist movement while throwing while the other group focused on the basket.
The free throw accuracy was far greater in those with the external focus on the basket, vs those focusing on their wrists. Additionally, the EMG activity on those with the external focus was lower than those who were thinking about what the body was doing, meaning the muscles were less active, but they had greater control of the basketball.
The conclusion is easy to see. When you’re performing any action, external focus enhances body movement by lowering the noise that can hamper fine motor control.
In the golfing context, when you focus on the effect of the shot (the target, the ball, the hole, the shot shape, the line of the putt etc), you’ll be a lot more accurate than when you focus on anything your body is doing during the swing or putt. Next time you’re out on the course remember this and resist the temptation to control your swing or putting stroke – your shots will never be as accurate as trusting it and focusing on what you want the ball to do.