Swing Thought Vs Swing Cue

Are swing thoughts dangerous? If you pick up most golf psychology books, you’ll find a strong rhetoric that to become elite you must only think about your target – thinking about your swing will result in your demise as a player and you will likely crumble under pressure.

Interestingly, if you speak to elite players, you’ll find most do think about their swing when playing – so what is going on?

I had one such conversation recently with two exceptional players, players who represented their countries as amateurs and won some of the world’s biggest junior events. They are now both journeying towards the main professional tours, but both almost felt guilty to admit they play their best when thinking about their golf swing.

We had a great chat which got to a really important point – the difference between a swing thought and a swing cue.

There are many different words you could use to explain these concepts, I’ll stick to these two terms for clarity and explain them below. One will likely result in worsening performance whilst the other may enhance your ability to perform under pressure.

Swing thought – In this article we’ll refer to a swing thought as thinking about a particular part or action of your golf swing and actively trying to control or change it.

Swing cue – We’ll use swing cue to mean having a focus or awareness of a particular part or action of your golf swing but without trying to actively control or change it.

The differences between these two concepts are small, but very important. Swing thoughts – active control / trying to change movement. Swing cues – awareness / focus but no active control.

In my mind many great golfers use swing cues when playing, and for good reason. Whereas, having a swing thought will likely result in worsening performance. Below we’ll look at how this fits in with sport psychology and motor control research, before giving you some top tips for your own game.

Sport Psychology & Motor Control – Focus of attention

The past 20 years has seen scientists research a very interesting phenomena. If you split beginners into two group and ask one group to focus on their movement and the second group to focus on their target you see the second group learn quicker, retain more skill and perform better under pressure.

I feel this research has been a big driver in the sport psych advice given out. However, these studies are all carried out with novices. There is now growing scientific support to show that this is not how elite performers think. A 2010 study in elite track and field found 69% of athletes focus attention toward their movement. I think a similar figure would be found in elite golfers.

How we control movement

When we look at the parts of the brain that control movement, we realise our movements are predominantly controlled by subconscious processes. When it comes to performing movement our subconscious mind is like a fighter jet pilot – exceptionally skilful, alert and instinctive. Whereas our conscious brain is like a 3-year-old throwing a tantrum.

Giving this 3-year-old active control of movement is a very dangerous idea. Subsequently, lot of sport psychology techniques are focused on how we can occupy this 3-year-old (our conscious) so we can let our subconscious get on with what it does best.

Let’s see how this ties into our two concepts above.

Swing thought – Asking your three-year-old to take control your golf swing.

Swing cue – Distracting your three-year-old with a colouring book, while your subconscious performs your golf swing.

From this perceptive paying attention to an action within your swing, but not trying to control or change it can be a very useful strategy. Swing cues direct attention towards one component of your movement and allow the golf swing to be performed with little interruption.

It is also worth noting that from this perspective there is very little difference between a swing cue and thinking about your target. Both are occupying your conscious mind with a useful thought. Albeit focus of attention researchers would argue for the external focus.

How can you build useful swing cues?

Swing cues are personalised, useful thoughts, feelings or images that help you perform. They may include picturing a great impact position, feeling a stretch in your right hip, the thought of extending your arms towards your target.

The key point is that they mean something to you, and through practice, you have confidence that these swing cues help you perform. Once developed you can keep these same cues in place for when you play and perform under pressure.

You may also develop different swing cues for your drives, iron play and short game. Each should be personalised to help you perform optimally.

Should I ever actively try to control my golf swing?

Golf performance is derived from a deterministic set of kinematic principles at impact – sometimes we need to change our golf swing to improve the way we hit a golf ball. When you have good reason to change your golf swing conscious control may be necessary for a short time period.

With practice and play try to work towards less active control, as trying to control your swing mechanics longer term will likely lead to reduced performance.

Before any round of golf it is useful to ask yourself – Am I playing to work on my swing mechanics, or am I here to max out my performance? The former should be paired with a swing thought and accepting less than perfect performance. The latter should be paired with a swing cue and your round should be spent honing your swing cue to optimise your performance.

Swing thoughts vs swing cues – Summary

In my humble opinion, it is perfectly fine to focus on your golf swing during competition, as long as you are not actively trying to control or change your swing (a swing cue). Swing cues can be a very useful part of a golfer’s performance toolbox.

Some days your swing cues will work well, other days they won’t. This doesn’t mean they are broken or worn out. It simply means you may need to head back to the practice ground to re-calibrate your swing cue and golfing mechanics.

One final point – you are also fine to think about the target if that works best for you. For me, swing cues and focusing on your target are both doing a very similar job – keeping your conscious mind focused on something useful to allow your subconscious to perform without interference.

I hope this gives you something useful to keep developing your own golf game.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK

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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.

7 thoughts on “Swing Thought Vs Swing Cue”

  1. Great article Will. Almost takes the pressure off feeling forced to push out ideas and swing thoughts as so many psych books intimate.

    I like to have a handful of feels to choose from depending on what the swing presents like on any given day. Feeling the club head with a light grip pressure is an old reliable favourite and often brings a nice feeling for the day. Keep up the great work.

    Jonny B

    Barnsley

    Reply
    • Thanks Jonny,

      Glad it is of use. It’s the kind of article not everyone will agree with, but this is my best understanding of the topic right now and as long as it helps a few golfers I’ll be delighted.

      I hope the golf is going well.

      Will

      Reply
  2. Thought provoking article Will. Makes me realise it’s ok to try swing changes out when not playing but to concentrate on 1 or 2 thoughts per drive, iron put when you want to score. I have tendency to overcomplicate things! Thanks for all your work Will. Brian 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks Brian,

      Yes, maybe I should update with a little detail. One swing cue is likely ideal per shot, two should be the maximum. When you have more than one swing cue it can be handy to try to blend them into one simple feel during practice that you can take onto the golf course.

      All the best.

      Will

      Reply
  3. Thanks for the read Will. I have been going through your whole website getting nuggets of golden information, as I am trying for Q-School in August 2021! I think this article is great because too many times do I step onto a range or to the first tee and immediately begin forcing my swing to do what I think it should be doing. I’ve played my best rounds when my conscious mind is out of the way, I have only one swing key, and I have fun. I loved this read and I appreciate the time you’ve taken to write all of these articles. I get so much from them. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Jenn,

      Thanks for getting in touch and your kind words. I’m delighted you’ve found the site of use! I’m always surprised how many people it has reached.

      Best of luck with this year’s prep and enjoy – sounds like it’s going to be a fun year.

      Best wishes,

      Will

      Reply
  4. Yes, I use a cue. My target is in front of the ball on all swings but the driver, and back of the ball with driver. Honestly setup is most important, when I feel really good in my setup I hit my best shots

    Reply

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