For me, this idea was a game changer, and it continues to be one of my most popular articles for those with the attention span to be able to read more than a paragraph before switching to instagram.
It’s also very understandable; it doesn’t require a deep knowledge of physics, or ability to visualize centers-of-pressure.
However, as simple as the message is, really take your time to digest it – it could be the greatest golfing message you receive.
I’m standing on the range and I look across and see a horde of golfers checking out their backswing positions. The man in front of me, to whom I am giving a lesson, is also telling me about how he is a 45 handicap (yes, they go that high in Europe) because his backswing is 1.3 degrees short of parallel, and if he could just get some more shoulder turn, he is sure he would be down to scratch this time next year.
Hell, 90% of my golfers are so bound up by internal technical thoughts about their swing that, when I ask them what their target is (after they have hit a few balls), they often stand back, look confused, and then (embarrassed) quickly point their club somewhere in the region of where the last ball went.
Most golfers are so concerned with making pretty, clean swings and getting their movement “correct” that they are no longer playing golf, but they are playing “golf swing”.
Even if they are making their desired “perfect swing” motion“, their brains are not making the perceptual link between movement and target (either because they never had one in mind, or because the focus is so concentrated on the movement, that the target-awareness neurons are not firing).
Go back in time – a time before golf magazines, commentator swing analysis, high-speed video and tech. Go all the way back to when golf was first conceived; what was it?
That’s right, some farmer in Scotland likely picked up a stick, saw a stone on the ground and whacked it and thought
Hmmm, that was fun
What was it like to be that farmer? What was his mindset? Where was his awareness? Do you think this farmer was worried about where his left arm was positioned?
I remember as a kid first picking up golf, beating balls in an unused rugby field. I had no swing concepts, didn’t know what a backswing should look like, had no video camera and had not read any books on technique. It was just me, that field, that stick and that “stone”. And a sense of freedom that the vast majority of golfers don’t experience anymore.
Stay with me… I know what you are thinking. “Not another post telling me not to think about my swing”. This is NOT the message here – it goes deeper than that.
Attention and Movement
There is a plethora of research regarding where you place your attention and its effects on performance and learning. In The Practice Manual, it is one of the central themes.
One thing I have learned through years of teaching and reading everything I can about learning is that movement is predominantly a response to your intention
Movement is not the goal itself, but is a means to achieve a goal.
Yet, most golfers don’t see golf in this way. They see the movement as being the goal; they are not trying to achieve a certain outcome, but they are attempting to force a movement pattern in the hopes that the result will arise from that. This is very different, and has important implications.
To put it another way, a golfer is not reaching for the glass of water on the table. Instead, they are directing their arm through a series of commands (bend elbow, move shoulder, open fingers, apply pressure to glass etc) and having the result (grabbing the glass) being a product of that thought process. They might get the same result as the person who looked at the glass and picked it up, but the difference in how the brain is wiring up will have implications for
- Fluidity of movement
- Ability to grab glasses in other locations (on floors or higher up tables)
- Ability to grab glasses in other environments (such as a different room)
- Coordination of the movement
for many golfers, golf always has been (and always will be) a series of internal, motion directed commands – destroying instinct.
Bend my wrist, lift elbow, bend arm. Ah, screw this. Just
hook me up to a gastric feeding tube.
How to Foster This
How do you nurture and grow your instinctive side?
I have personally found great benefit (and my pupils also) with using forms of external focuses, as well as differential and variability practice – methodologies which are described in detail in The Practice Manual.
For example, for better players, playing around with shot-shaping and trajectory manipulation can definitely help to get a player out of their body. Or even try to intentionally misalign your body (say 10-20 degrees offline) and figure out how to get the ball to the target by manipulating path and face (or just using gut instinct).
Quick hitting drills, can also be great. Line up 10 balls in a row and hit one after the other without giving yourself time to think or even get comfortable over the ball. Just get a sense for what it is like to be more reactionary.
A great drill for those who get too technical and obsess over alignment is to hit shots without lining up. This is so difficult for players who been used to relying on alignment sticks on the ground.
- Pick a target, and without going through a routine, just ‘feel’ your way to the target.
- Grab another ball and go to a different flag, again relying on instinct to line yourself up, and attempting to create a better awareness of where the target is mentally.
- Avoid standing back and picking an intermediate target for this drill (not to say you shouldn’t do this when playing, but we are trying to develop a more instinctive sense of getting the ball to the target using this drill).
Research regarding how our brains link up movement patterns and environment (something called perception-action coupling) supports this.
Baby, Bathwater, Balance
As with most posts, there is probably someone reading through this with gritted teeth thinking “I can’t believe this pro is telling people not to think about/work on their swings”. Not so….
In my own development, I have made plenty of direct swing changes – so I would be foolish to say I haven’t benefitted from direct technical work. Also, I still work on technique with students (many people, for some reason, think I do not). However, I understand that there is a time and a place to be overly technical, and that is rarely when you are playing golf.
Swing technique is, and always will be, a supplement to improving your golf. But most golfers, like a moth to the flame, get caught up in the allure of achieving something impossible (namely perfect golf shots consistently), and their chosen method is the one which is sold to them (namely positional instruction). The idea that “if you just hit X positions, every shot will fly effortlessly towards your target all the time” is snake oil.
And the fallout from such a mind-set is that instinct can be destroyed.
But, Not All is Lost
My perfect golfer would have a nice blend of both – the ability to be analytical when needed, and the ability to switch it off when playing.
And switching it off is a learned skill – I know first hand because I do it myself. As an analytical person, and an instructor who immerses themselves in understanding the technical side of the game, it could be all too easy for me to get caught up in my own swing technique. But I have the ability to say
Now it’s time to play golf
and I can turn on my instinctive sense and just start hitting golf shots with very little movement awareness. This was not easy for me to learn, but it’s certainly possible.
If you ever feel like you are getting too technical, if you ever feel like you are bogged down with thoughts, if you ever feel like you are playing ‘golf-swing’ instead of golf, just picture this;
Imagine you are that farmer in the field. You have just picked up a stick and you see a stone on the ground – whack it!
Try to tap into that instinctive, athletic sense. Be reactionary. Tune into your target, or how you want the ball to be struck, as opposed to how you need to move every individual body part to achieve this.
Quit trying to play clean golf – get dirty every now and again.
Many of the drills in The Strike Plan develop a your instinctive nature through external focuses, which happen to fit in with the motor learning research. Click the image below to check it out.