In 2014, Spieth ranked 20th in stroked gained putting (the best rating of how good a putter is), saving more than 31 shots over 79 rounds compared to other pros. So far this year, he has an even better ‘strokes gained’ score.
Ever notice anything strange about how Spieth putts?
What makes a good putt?
In order to hole a putt, we have to get the right combination of Speed and Start line.
There is more than one way to hole a putt – we can use different variations of speed and start line to get a ball into a hole – we could roll the ball faster and straighter, or play more break with a slower roll of the ball.
Either way, one thing is sure – we have to use a functional blend of these two elements. Roll the ball at your desired speed but wrong line and you miss it. Roll the ball on your desired line but at the wrong speed and you miss it.
The crafty subconscious and the illusion of free will
In Dave Pelz’s book “The Putting Bible”, he explains that amateurs typically play only 1/3rd of the true break. That is to say that on a putt which breaks 3 foot, an amateur would typically only play 1 foot of break. Even pros only played 2/3rd of the break consciously.
Where most amateurs will aim consciously (red spot), versus where you actually have to start the ball to hole it at a given speed (white spot)
This is why my controversial putting article about how ‘perfecting’ your putting technique will make you a worse putter is true. CLICK HERE to open it in a new tab.
If this is true (amateurs and pros both misreading putts), how on earth can anyone ever hole a putt? Well, just because you ‘believe’ you are playing a foot of break doesn’t mean that is what you will actually do. Our subconscious mind knows better and it can compensate for any inadequacies in your conscious read.
I hate the term compensation – I much prefer the term ‘good variability’.
For example, a pro may set up to play 2 foot of break, then their subconscious mind may kick in and push the stroke a foot further up the slope, and in pops the ball. Without this ‘good variability’, they will miss a lot more putts than they hole.
This discrepancy between what you think you are doing/choose to do and what you are actually doing is a well known and researched phenomenon – calling into question our own ideas about free will.
Watch the putt at 3:30
If Mcilroy’s subconscious mind hadn’t kicked in and pushed this putt, he would never have holed it.
Perception action coupling
Perception action coupling is simply our perception of everything (from the slope and location of the hole, to the weight of the putter etc) and the action we provide. For example, if you perceive the hole as being farther away, you will provide a greater putter speed to get the ball there.
What changes PA coupling?
Wulf and Attention
There are two main types of focus – an internal and an external focus.
- Internal foci are things such as focusing on body movement (arm swing, head position etc).
- External foci are concerned with the result of the body movement – such as the end result.
One thing has been reliably demonstrated in motor learning science – internal focus (body motion) de-couples, while external focuses (E.g. movement effects) improves PA coupling.
Foremost researcher on the area of focus of attention and how it affects skill acquisition and retention is Gabriele Wulf. In her paper, “A review of 15 years of motor learning an attention research” (3), she concluded that
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)
You are addicted to the internal
In 2013, Land et al (1) studied the effects of attention on putting performance using skilled performers. They split golfers into 3 groups
- Group one were given no instructions
- Group two were asked to focus on the tone/beep of a metronome
- Group three were asked to focus on the results of their movement (external)
What they found was a massive improvement in putts holed simply by shifting the attention of a player to an external focus (result).
The control group were given no instructions regarding what to focus on – they performed the worst. The neutral focus group (counting beeps) showed a medium effect – it still beat the control group.
What was interesting was that they used glasses which blocked the vision of the player either before they made their putting action, or 1.5 seconds after they had hit the putt. Blocking the vision of the players had no significant effect on the outcome – where they placed their attention was far more important.
Occlusion glasses can be switched to opaque or transparent
Even more interesting to me was the fact that, even though the control group were given no instructions on what to focus on, they almost exclusively adopted an internal focus (focus on the movement). It seems that we are addicted or conditioned to think about the movement, even though this study showed it is the most detrimental to performance.
Perhaps this is a product of all those magazine articles and tips offering constant internal advice.
Back to Spieth
Spieth used to suffer with the short putting yips – as a result he decided to adopt this ‘looking at the hole’ technique, and everything improved. In fact, it is known that one of his strengths is putting ability.
It is very likely that by adopting this technique, he has shifted his attention more towards the target – there are a few potential benefits to this
- Improved perception-action coupling – brain has a greater ability to take the environmental cues (break, distance etc) and provide a complementary action
- The different locus of attention could potentially have provided a new neural pathway – away from the attention which was linked to the yip
Is looking at the hole for everyone? No, but it is worth practicing and experiencing.
In fact, if you have the yips, it may provide a cure for it due to the shift in attention – I discussed this with Dr Sasho Mackenzie and he agreed that it could be a potential solution for some people.
Won’t I duff it?
In 2011, Mackenzie et al. studied the effects of traditional putting (looking at the ball) versus Spieth style putting (looking at the hole while making the stroke). The results showed that players who looked at the hole showed not only lower variability in putter head speed, but their
Quality of impact as assessed by the variability in face angle, stroke path, and impact spot
did not differ.
In other words, looking at the hole did not negatively affect how they hit the ball.
What do you do? Internal or external
So, what do you do when you putt?
Are your thoughts dominated by internal body cues (keep your head still, swing your arms and shoulders, keep your wrists quiet etc), or are you more result oriented?
While everyone is different and has different needs (which may vary depending upon the stage a golfer is in), the majority of research is pointing towards external foci being more beneficial.
In my book “The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers” I discuss attention in depth, and how it relates to improving your scores. In the Performance Training chapter, I also discuss simple tests you can use to find out what the best attentional focus is for you, to give you your best performances when you need them.
(To get a copy of the book from amazon, click the link at the end of this post.)
No good blog post would be complete without a Tiger Woods anecdote.
During a clinic with Tiger, he explains that is Father taught him to
- Look at the hole
- Say “click” as if he is taking a mental photograph
- Strike the putt shortly after, with the image of the photograph in mind
This is a really good way to get your attention more external without having to look at the hole during the stroke. Try it yourself, it really works.
Something I have noticed a lot is that better players tend to spend a massive amount of their routine with their eyes on the hole, whereas most amateurs and poor players I see tend to be looking at the ground as they do their practice swings.
Fairchild, Johnson, Babcock and Pelz also found the same during a small study – better players spend more time looking at the hole during the routine with a steady gaze.
To me, this makes no sense. Why would you be looking at the ground as you are making your practice swing?
The lesson here is this – when making your practice swings, fix your gaze on the hole as you are making the movement. This allows your brain to make the links between the perception of the hole location/break/speed needed and the action provided.
- The science shows that we can create very significant performance improvements simply by shifting our focus.
- While most people automatically adopt an internal focus (body movement), science is consistently showing that this tends to be the least effective; although this may vary on an individual basis.
- The improvements in performance with an external focus are likely down to improved Perception-Action couplings, and an increased ability for our subconscious mind to provide more ‘good variability’.
- Spieth is a great putter – he looks at the hole, which may help some people shift their attention more externally, and may also be a potential solution for players with the yips.
- A study (Sasho et al.) has shown that your ability to strike the putt consistently stays the same, regardless of whether your eyes are actually on the ball or not
- Better putters tend to have their eyes on the hole for much more of their routine. Amateurs tend to spend less time looking at the target during preparation.
- Try Tiger’s “mental photograph” routine to help get your attention more external while performing.
- Try a drill where you look at the hole when you putt. If you like it, why not use it. Screw tradition.
The book is also available at amazon.co.uk, amazon.de, amazon.it, amazon.es, and amazon.fr
(1 )W, M. Land, G Tenenbaum, P Ward, and C Marquardt (2013). Examination of Visual Information as a Mediator of External Focus Benefits. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2013, 35, 250-259. Human Kinetics, Inc.
(2) Mackenzie, S.J; Foley, S.M; Adamczyk, A.P; (2011) Visually focusing on the far versus the near target during the putting stroke. J Sports Sci. 2011 Sep;29(12):1243-51.
(3) 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,