What should a golfer think?

What should a golfer think?

We all battle with which swing thoughts we should be using on the course. Some people are very technical and analytical, others can be almost free of thought. But what is the correct swing thought for you?

When people talk about golf psychology, most have no idea what it entails. Some envision sitting on a couch whilst a Freudian gentleman talks to you about your game, and others think that it involves psyching yourself up before a tournament in the style of an American football team before the superbowl.

Man lying on a sofa while with therapist making notes

Tell me about that duck hook on the 13th

Most people believe that golf psychology is ‘not for me’ and aimed simply at professionals who have already mastered their swing. While it is true that a professional can get a lot out of the correct psychology, so too can complete beginners.

 

 

Type of Thoughts

A simple thing, such as the type of thought you have over the golf ball, can dramatically transform your game for the better, or completely ruin your chances of making a good shot. Although everyone is different and needs instruction tailored to them specifically, there are some universal ideas that hold true in 90% of cases.

In my experience,

  • beginners are better off with a process swing thought (such as thoughts of brushing the grass), rather than thoughts of where the target is.
  • better players can deal with thoughts which don’t relate to the motion/task at all, such as target thoughts, or thoughts of breathing/relaxing/counting

 

zoning in

Zoning in on the target may be good for a top professional, but is it the best thought for you?

 

So what exactly is an internal and external swing thought? I would define internal thoughts as anything that keeps your mind on the movement process, not on what you are trying to achieve.

For example, a swing thought that keeps your conscious mind on the movement of your body, can constitute internal focus. On the other hand, a thought of hitting the ball high, or hitting to the target with a certain shape can be an external focus. While it is true that you may have a crossover in thoughts (be partly internal or external), we will predominantly be focused in one area.

 

 

Pitching an Idea

Let’s take an example of a 30 yard pitch shot over a bunker. For a beginner, the main problem is getting the ball up in the air and on the green. The main skill to make this happen is to hit the ground in the correct place – as close to the ball as possible. If (as most beginners do) this person has an external focus of visualizing the ball flying high over the bunker, they are likely doomed for failure. Visualizing a high shot will tell the player’s instinct to send their body backwards and try to lift and get under the ball. This will result in the ball either being chunked into the bunker, or a skulled shot flying indefinitely over the hazard.

pitch

What would/should you think about here? The target? Turf contact? Breathing?

In this case, it would be better if the player devoted all of their conscious effort into purely hitting the ground in the right place to the exclusion of all else, as a focus on the ball flight is in direct conflict with this. I would even go so far as making a beginner do practice swings next to the ball, then hit the shot without even taking a look at the target, as a single look could be enough to dramatically reduce their ability to hit the ground correctly.

 

 

Pro Level

The same 30 yard shot over a bunker can be a completely different experience for a professional. They already possess the skill and ability to hit the ground in the correct place (although this can always be refined), so directing their attention to this skill may not be the most efficient way to improve performance.

For a skilled golfer, visualizing the target, landing zone, trajectory, spin and bounce are often more appropriate goals. In fact, bringing in an internal swing thought (such as a technique thought) will usually detract from their ability to get the ball to the hole.

 

 

Neutral Focus

As a side note, if a good player has the ability to hit great shots, yet can’t reproduce them in a tournament situation, a fourth type of thought can be brought in – a neutral thought. In this situation, the player may be suffering from fear, or is just unable to get out of the way of themselves.

get out of the way

A neutral thought, such as breathing out during the swing, can help the player produce the shots they know they are capable of producing without the interference that was causing the problems on the course.  This type of thought is not generally golf swing related.

 

 

Variances

This internal/external/neutral focus idea can also vary across the board from shot to shot. For example, I (personally) prefer an external target focus (target oriented) for putting, and external process (thoughts of brushing the ground correctly) for pitching.

For long game, it can vary depending upon whether we are going through a technique change, or we are making their current swing work better. The main way that this idea varies, is whether or not the vital components of the technique have been learned and ingrained.

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For example, in chipping and pitch shots, hitting the ground as close to the ball as possible and the correct depth are vital skills (not techniques – the procedures that people use to carry out this task). Striking the centre of the clubface is one of what I consider the vital skills of the full game also.

Generally, the more learned and ingrained the vital skills are, the more external/neutral the thought should be.

 

 

Learning and Performance

This idea, as a result of the above, should vary depending upon what mode you are in also – learning or performing.

If you are learning something new, you should have as much of your conscious mind on your new move. Any external thoughts will be like directing computer processing power to another application. Thusly, your swing move will be much harder to ingrain, and you will be slower to learn it. The best learners I see have the ability to focus purely on what they are trying to do to the exclusion of all else. The worst learners are so concerned with the result that they cannot change their movement even the slightest.

On the other hand, a player that has learned something to a good degree would be wise to limit thoughts of ‘how to do it’ and focus more on ‘what to do’. For example, have you ever tried to explain to someone how to drive a stick shift car whilst driving yourself; our performance becomes poor because our conscious mind is now interfering with what it can do perfectly well subconsciously.

 

 

Outliers

As with all things, there are always exceptions to the rule, and places where you may need to change your strategy. I certainly become more inwardly focused when faced with a trouble shot that I have not come across too often, and even prefer to be inwardly focussed on a chip shot even though I have the skills to produce the correct technique.

 

golfer thinking thoughts

The only way to really find out for yourself is through experimentation. Drop 10 balls down and try to go with an internal thought, marking down your results scientifically (such as average distance from the pin). Do the same for an external process thought (such as ground strike), and then repeat the process for a result focus (target) with a whole bunch of different shots. But by getting the correct thought (for you) over the golf ball, we can shave quite a few shots off our games without even (consciously) changing our techniques.

 

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Cliff Notes

  • We can have many different types of thoughts
  • Internal – thoughts of body/movement
  • External process – thoughts of the process task
  • External result – thioughts of the target
  • Neutral – thoughts of something neutral to golf, such as breathing
  • We need to find which thoughts help us play our best
  • These thoughts may change depending on the type of shot, and the situation
  • Testing and being aware of this will enable you to hone in on desired variables

5 Comments

  • Russell Evans

    Nice article

    However, I don't agree completley with your external and internal definitions.

    Read this Gabriele Wulf – Attention and Motor skill Learning

    Hope your Well Adam

  • admin

    I can understand how defining 'hitting the ground in the right place' as an internal thought can be confusing as effectively it is external (in terms of Wulf's definition). But I prefer to define internal as something 'We' do (including club) and external as something 'the ball' does. But yeah, internal could be further subdivided into internal body, and internal club. Maybe my next article I can try and write about club focus vs body focus 🙂

  • Doctyphoon

    …for me when I’m playing well, it’s a general feeling of orienting to the target & then one key swing feel, always a “clumping” one… : )

  • Trevor

    Thanks! I am playing some of the worst golf of my life this year. Went from shooting 70’s and low 80’s to low 90’s. I am in my own head but it’s because I know I can do better, much better. It’s very frustrating.

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