What if a simple change of focus could completely revolutionise your golf game, or ruin you as a golfer?
You may not be aware of it, but, as a golfer, you have many options for where you can place your focus. And luckily, there is a lot of scientific research on each different type of focus and its effects on learning, performance and transference to the course. In this article, we will look at what is called an internal focus of attention. I will not only give some of the research, but I will give my own personal opinion on it (as the research can be quite limited to the study parameters).
What is an Internal Focus?
Imagine you are throwing a ball into a bucket. It is very likely that you will be looking at the bucket and simply visualising it going in – this is an external focus.
Now, imagine I ask you to focus on the arm movement
- when you bend your wrist
- when you bend your arm
- the point you release the ball
- the force in your fingertips
This is an internal focus. We are focusing on the movement itself, in particular, the body parts. In golf, internal foci could be having your attention on your left arm, your shoulder turn, hip movement, weight shift, head position, takeaway with the hands etc.
That Means You
Over 95% of golfers I see on a daily basis have internal focuses of attention like this. And it’s easy to see why – turn on the television, pick up a golf magazine or book and you will be instantly inundated with internal focuses. “Do X with your shoulders like Dustin Johnson, or do Y with your arms like Tiger Woods”. The golf industry is massively weighted in favour of internally focused information.
Paralysis by Analysis
The other week, I had a very analytical German student (now there’s a cliche if ever I heard one). I could see that he was playing poorly because he was inundated with too many thoughts – all of which were internal. In order to demonstrate this message to him, I asked him to throw 10 balls into a bucket nearby. He got 9 out of 10 in.
Then I asked him about his movement. I asked him if he bent his wrist before he bent his arm, at what point in space he released the ball, did he use any wrist action at the point of release. I asked him to describe the motion to me. At first, he looked a little perplexed – when he was originally throwing the ball he clearly wasn’t thinking about the motion (interesting).
After his mind was full of internal analysis of the motion, I asked him to throw another 10 balls into the bucket while focusing on the motion so he could give us a clearer explanation of what he was doing.
The first ball missed the bucket by a couple of feet. He then proceeded to miss the next 7, before (clearly) flipping back to an external focus and getting the last 2 balls in.
This time, he was able to give me a much better explanation of what he did in his motion (as he was more focused on it), yet his ability to get the ball into the bucket severely declined.
I have done this trick so many times with students – it never fails.
Gabriele Wulf is an exceptional researcher who has dedicated herself to studying the difference between internal and external focuses of attention. 15 years of research, and she had this to say;
Over the past 15 years, research on focus of attention has consistently demonstrated that an external focus (i.e., on the movement effect) enhances motor performance and learning relative to an internal focus (i.e., on body movements)” (Wulf, 2013)
That’s right, it seems that how you perform, as well as retention of that performance is diminished with an internal focus when compared with an external focus.
When we perform an act, we have the movement and we have the outcome. For example,
- “move arm ‘this way’ (movement) versus “get the ball in the basket” (outcome).
- “move body ‘this way'” (movement) versus “hit the golf ball” (outcome).
However, with an internal focus, we can focus so much on the movement that we lose valuable information relating to the task in hand. For example, thinking about your left arm movement in the golf swing may cause your brain to lose information relating to
- where the ball is in space
- where the target is
- where the club is in space
It’s similar to having a computer with only so much processing power – the more we direct the CPU resources towards an internal focus, the less processing power is available for other relevant information.
As an analogy, imagine you are driving your car along a busy road and you discover there is a bee/spider/snake/lion/something you are afraid of in the car with you. Your attention would be diverted internally (into the car). Even if you have your eyes on the road, your brain will be thinking about where the (insert thing you are afraid of here) is, leaving much less attention available for the road – probably resulting in a crash.
Why is That an Issue?
If your brain is not linking the movement to the external cues, we typically see a drop in coordination.
In a golf swing, our body produces a massive amount of moving parts. Our brain acts as a central coordinator, organizing all of those moving parts (degrees of freedom). If our brain is not focusing on the task, it essentially loses sight of what it is trying to coordinate towards. E.g. if you are trying to strike the middle of the clubface, your brain can work to organize all of the moving parts towards achieving that goal.
However, an internal focus of attention disrupts the coordinative ability of the brain.
An internal focus essentially changes the brain’s goal away from ‘coordinating all the moving parts’, and replaces it with the goal of ‘move X body part this way’
This has been demonstrated in many scientific experiments. This is also why my German student lost his ability to get the ball in the bucket.
Essentially, an external focus allows the brain to absorb all of the external information cues, and automatically work out/coordinate all the body parts to achieve the goal.
However, this goal achievement is not always an instant thing. We still have to enter a Goal-Movement-Feedback loop. We still have to practice – but external focuses can speed up the learning.
A Change of Mind
What most people don’t realise is that, when we learn movements, these movements get linked to the focus we learn them with. A mouthful, I know. Let me explain.
Say you learn to hit chip shots on the practice area by thinking of keeping your weight on your left foot (internal focus). You get to a point where you are hitting the shots quite well – then you go out on the course.
Your first chip shot of the day, you have a delicate shot over a bunker. Your mind immediately starts visualising the flight of the ball (external). As you stand over the shot, your eyes are looking at the ball, but your mind is still thinking about the bunker and flying the ball over it (external).
Do you see the disparity – you learned with an internal focus, yet on the course, you are now thinking externally.
You then proceed to produce a back footed scooping motion – because that is the motion your brain learned with the external focus of attention.
So, if you have ever wondered why you can’t take your game onto the course. If you have ever wondered why all those repetitions you did immediately go out of the window, you now have a potential answer. And when most golfers learn their games with an internal focus, yet flip to external when the result becomes important (such as on the course), we can now see why so many golfers struggle to transfer their game from the range to the course.
Baby, Bath Water
So, the research is pretty clear, and the logic backs it. Due to an internal focus of attention being
- detrimental to coordination due to the loss of task attention
- un-couples the environment and movement
- links the movement to a focus we may not use in a real game
we can see why learning, performance and transference can be shown to be poor with this type of focus. And, as most golfers out there use this type of focus, we can see why everyone struggles so much with this game.
However, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
There may actually be valid uses for this type of focus, which I will explore here.
Learnin’ Don’t Stop
Just because most of the research shows that performance, learning (retention of performance) and transference (performance in a game situation) is worse with internal foci vs external, doesn’t mean these parameters don’t improve at all.
For example, a study may show that external focus of attention outperformed the internal focus – but internal focus may have shown some improvement over baseline values. So learning still happened, just at a slower rate.
It may be that internal focuses improve players via a different mechanism to external foci. For example
External foci – may improve the ability for the body to coordinate movement synergistically, and link it to the environmental cues.
Internal foci – may improve the technical proficiency of the player, allowing them to produce a movement which has a bigger margin for error (what I define as technical consistency).
This would make sense as most studies are quite short-term, and we would more likely see a benefit from improved coordination than improved technique in a short time frame – hence the results of the studies.
We should be careful not to extrapolate from existing studies beyond what they show
Lots of the research is not done long enough to see learners take the internal focuses of attention to the autonomous stage of learning (where they are not thinking about them much). Thus, it could well be that, when enough repetitions have been put in, the learner starts to do the movement more automatically, and can then divert more brain-processing power towards the environmental cues. Just as a learner driver in Europe has to think about what their feet are doing and where the gear stick is during early stages of learning, but now focuses on the road.
In fact, in terms of learning, it could well be that the initial benefits that an external focus of attention offers (from coordination improvements) could eventually stagnate when the player is held back by their technical inefficiencies.
Another plus point for internal focuses of attention is that they can produce better quality movements quicker.
For example, when I learned to drive the ball 56 yards farther, I first had to learn how to increase my angle of attack to produce the desired ball flight. In the early stages of learning, I used an internal focus (body positions in set-up, as well as a feeling of keeping my upper body behind the ball).
Changing my AOA has allowed me to keep up with the longer hitters, despite slow swing speed
If I had simply been told to ‘launch the ball higher’ (external focus), I may have been able to do that with many different set-up positions, but my internal focus (along with my technical knowledge) allowed me to quickly arrive at and ingrain a more effective set-up for my goals.
Essentially, internal instructions can sometimes allow us to arrive at a better answer more quickly.
Isolate and Improve
In 2014, Carson, Collins and Richards showed that focusing internally can reduce the variability of the variable focused on.
For example, if you were to focus on the movement of your left arm, you would
- increase your ability to produce the desired motion
- reduce the variability with that individual part
We also know that the ability of the body to coordinate all of the other moving parts gets reduced (as Lohse, Sherwood and Healy found in 2010) – so there will be a trade-off. However, in some cases, this may be worth it. For example, in the case where the technique is so poor that no amount of coordination can save it, an internal focus may produce a technique which is so much better, that the reduction in coordination is completely offset.
Also, when working with a long-term outlook (more than a year), improving the motion of a certain body part may force all the other moving parts to organize around it to produce a result. This may produce poor results initially, but when all the other pieces to the puzzle have arranged themselves, we may see a technique with more advantages than the old one.
By isolating the virus, we can change the code, forcing the rest of the program to self-organize around it
Performance losses are not always seen with internal focuses.
Depending on the unique blend of technical, mental and biological consistency a player brings to the table (CLICK HERE to read more about that topic), an internal focus of attention can definitely improve performance.
Although it is much more common to see external focuses produce better performance, in order to find out, I use a specific testing procedure (performance training) which is outlined in The Practice Manual. This procedure allows us to give a much better indication as to how a certain attention will perform.
For more information on how thought processes can dramatically affect your learning and performance in golf, as well as information on how to improve skills, strategy, psychology, technique and more, check out Next Level Golf by clicking the image below.
So, we can see that, while the science is quite overwhelmingly in support of not using internal foci of attention, I think there is a call to keep it in our repertoire.
We just have to know when to use this focus, where to use it, and how much of it to use. For example, internal focuses of attention may be valuable
- during long-term direct movement changes
- when technique is so poor that a short-term drop in coordination may be offset by improved technical proficiency
- when we are looking to get to a more effective technique quicker
However, when we consider performance, transference and short-term learning (less than a year), internal focuses may be harmful.
For this reason, using internal focuses of attention should be periodized away from important tournaments. If you are going to use them, they should be scheduled in with enough time to de-condition the mind, ready for maximal performance when needed. This is why players often go ‘off-the-boil’ when re-vamping their swings. In some cases, they never come back because they are never able to get out of the internal focus of attention.
This is why hearing the phrase “I stopped playing golf and started to play golf swing” comes from the mouth of an ailing tour player way too often.
Also, the 90%+ of golfers who play with an internal swing focus might want to branch out a bit and look at other types of focus which may improve their game quicker.
I personally believe the whole golf industry is dominated too much by internally focused information, and I would like to see it become more balanced. I do use internal foci with my pupils, but I use it very sparingly, and make sure to get players back to a more external focus as soon as possible – or I try my best to get the desired technical changes via an external focus first.
Carson, H. J., Collins, D., & Richards, J. (2014). Intra-individual movement variability during skill transitions: A useful marker?. European Journal of Sport Science, 14, 327–336. doi:10.1080/ 17461391.2013.814714
Gabriele Wulf , (2013) Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Vol. 6, No. 1, 77_104
Lohse KR1, Sherwood DE, Healy AF.um Mov Sci. 2010 Aug;29(4):542-55. doi: 10.1016/j.humov.2010.05.001. Epub 2010 Jun 11. How changing the focus of attention affects performance, kinematics, and electromyography in dart throwing.