Focus of Attention in Golf

If I told you that just by not thinking about your swing when you practice and play you could improve your: practice performance, rate of learning, performance under pressure and force production you would think I’m selling some sort of witchcraft. But you would be wrong.

Over 20 years worth of research and 100+ publications have proven this phenomenon. What we pay attention to whilst swinging a golf club significantly affects all of the above. First of all let us clarify exactly what we are talking about.

What is focus of attention?

Focus of attention describes what we are paying attention to whilst performing a movement. It is not where we are looking. Take the example below.

a picture of a player hitting a flop shot over a bunker

This is me attempting to play a flop shot (this one actually finished pretty close). I’m looking at the ball, but where am I focusing my attention?

I could be thinking about the bunker in front of me, the water over the far side of the green. I could be thinking about where I want the ball to land, or my wrist angle during my down swing. Which one of these is best for me to perform optimally? The first two options are obviously not ideal, but which is best out of the second two?

Well it turns out that the 100+ studies agree that thinking about my landing spot would outperform thinking about my wrist angle. Not only on this very shot, but also to help me perform this shot better in the future. Why?

To answer this question, we first need to understand the difference between the two thoughts. Focus of attention can be broken down into two broad categories:

Internal focus

Instructions that direct attention towards our movements, such as ‘keep my wrists hinged’, ‘keep my head down’, ‘release my hands through impact’.

External focus

Instruction that directs attention to the effects of their movement and environment, such as; ‘focus on the hole’, ‘focus on the landing spot’, ‘start the ball right of my target’.

Having an external focus during play and practice super charges our learning and performance. Furthermore, if we learn a skill with an external focus we are far less likely to choke in pressure situations.

What goes on when I make a swing?

Swinging a golf club is pretty dam complicated. We have to take in a seriously large amount of information from the environment and our own body. Imagine trying to build a robot that can stand on two little feet, whilst swinging a golf club at 100+mph? More so, how would this robot adapt to varying lies, terrains and wind conditions. Seriously complex physics, yet you can do it without a conscious thought.

The following diagram explains what goes on when you and I swing a golf club.

This shows the process that goes on when executing a golf swing.
This shows the process that goes on when executing a golf swing.

To make a swing we take in many pieces of information (left box). As we are taking in this sensory information, we continually compare it to our previous experiences of making golf swings, to check it feels correct (bottom right). This allows us to update and refine our swing (right).

I should note, this is all happing during your swing. Real time updates take 70-120 milliseconds (0.07 – 0.12 of a second) from us first sensing something to updating our movement.

This is probably the first time you’ve ever thought about executing a swing in this way. Which tells you how automatic the above process is. However, central to this whole process is working memory. If you’ve ever tried writing an email, whilst someone is talking at you, you will be aware how limited working memory is. Performing a swing, pitch or chip takes up a considerable bandwidth of this working memory.

Why is thinking about my swing bad?

So why is thinking about your swing a bad thing? Well may studies have indicated that in doing so you use up a good chunk of this working memory.

These studies also suggest that thinking about your swing messes up the body’s wonderful ability to unconsciously update movements (right). This is shown below.

focus of attention golf. Showing how thinking about your golf swing interrupts with golf performance and learning

Now I have a little beef with ‘faffy psychology’ studies. I prefer more tangible evidence. I’m pleased to say I have some here.

This area of research is progressing well. We now have an understanding that this internal focus actually affects your body’s ability to coordinate it’s joints. Thinking about your swing is likely to cause opposing muscle to co-contract, leading to a more rigid, and less fluid swing. These changes lead to less accurate shots, and worse learning over time.

So pretty clear evidence, thinking about our technique is not helpful.

Why do we all think about our swing mechanics?

This begs the question – why do we all think about our golf swing mechanics then?

I can’t answer this question for the whole of the golfing world, but I hope to provide some insight.

Golf is a technical game requiring a mechanically efficient action. As such, golf coaches and players place great emphasis on improving technique. To help change our technique we may benefit from an internal focus. However, this may not be the best focus for performing on the course and in pressure situations.

As we learn to become golf coaches we have teaching technique engrained into us. Only later do some golf professional consider coaching to perform. I would argue, that until the past few years focus of attention is poorly represented in coach education.

This may go someway to explaining why the majority of golfers focus on their technique. It doesn’t mean that it is ideal.

Can we learn technique with an external focus?

We can change our swing with an external focus, so why don’t we? Again, I’m not sure why we don’t attempt this more often. Not every swing change can be done with an external focus. However by making some minor tweaks, we can adapt our attentional focus.

If you wish to improve an out to in swing path, I would advise finding a great pro to give you the correct principles to work on. Once you have some good advice you can tailor your practice to create an external focus.

Rather than thinking about your body movements. Place an object six inches back from your golf ball, which forces an in-to-out swing path. Your swing thought moves from thinking about your body, to making a swing that misses the object.

This simple shift should: improve your practice performance, speed up your learning, and help you perform under pressure.

Why do many elite players have swing thoughts?

Again, this may be a consequence of our technically focused coaches training these players for many years. Just because elite players are technically focused doesn’t mean it is ideal.

As we reach an elite level in sport, our movements become more autonomous. As such, controlling them takes up less of our working memory . A few key researchers suggest that this is potentially why elite golfers are less affected by thinking about their swings. They may have more free working memory, to utilise in other ways.

However, they may perform even more awesome with an external focus. We don’t have 100 elite player who are externally focused to compare them against – unfortunately.

What is the best swing thought?

Based on 20 years playing golf, 12 years coaching golf and seven years researching motor learning; here are my thoughts.

Thinking about your swing is perfectly fine. It sure beats thinking ‘I don’t want to shank this shot’. A key skill for optimising your golfing performance is filling your attentional capacity with something useful during your swing.

The long-term benefits for thinking about your target during your execution, rather than your technique are small. I would suggest an average 1-2% improvement in accuracy over 500 shots. This means some golf shots will be less accurate, but more will be slightly closer to your desired target.

To gain as much success and joy through your golfing career. Aim to find a useful swing thought, that fills your attentional capacity, whilst swinging a golf club.

If you want to develop an external focus during your swing here are some tips:

  1. Changing from internal to external focus may take some work. Expect to be inconsistent with your thinking and play for 2-3 weeks.
  2. Your brain doesn’t process negatives. Saying don’t think about the water down the right, means your attentional capacity is thinking about the water down the right.
  3. Pick small, precise targets. On tree-lined courses I like to pick my target on the fairway, then look up and find a tree on that line. I then find a branch specifically behind that line. If I can, I pick out a leaf or shaded patch on that branch. My one focus during my swing is to: hit the ball towards that tiny target.
  4. Make your targets detailed and full of colour in your mind. This way they should occupy all of your conscious thought.
  5. Be consistent. Over time develop these ideas and stick with them. It is when they become engrained that you will reap the rewards of your work.

Having a great focus of attention during your practice and play may only be worth 1-2% improvement, it may be worth much more. However, in golf we all have 100% control over what we pay attention to. So why would we not use it to perform better.

If you want to learn more about how to think to optimise your thinking. I would still recommend Golf is not a game of perfect by Bob Rotella. It’s an old one, but has many great thoughts and actionable points.

For any golf coaches, or seriously golfing nerds wanting more information around how to optimise learning and performance. You should check out Skill acquisition in sport. It’s not focused purely on golf, but has loads of great research linked to applied coaching.

Thanks for reading, I hope this helps on your quest towards golfing excellent. If this post has been of help I’d appreciate a share on anything social to help this blog grow. Many thanks and happy golfing.

This post includes affiliate links to products used. If you click and purchase the product it does not cost you any extra, but I do earn a small commission. Please feel free not to use the links if you wish. Thanks and happy golfing, Will.

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

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