When I turn on the golf channel, I frequently see some guy screaming at the camera telling me that I need to feel or think about this or that when I am swinging. The question then is, what exactly should you be focused on when you swing? Is there one thing that is better than another? Over the course of 20 years of golf, I’ve tried a myriad of things: feeling the ‘lag’, thinking right hand-down, and turn the left shoulder–just to name a few. I’ve tried being “aware”, but got a really bad case of the shanks doing that in a tournament once. I’ve tried just focusing on the flag, but have had very mixed results. The flag, it seemed, wasn’t really related to what I was doing with my club and ball, it was just a marker in space. What if I hit it? (see Hunter Mahan, 2009 US Open). Recent research has shed light on this question, and has relevance for playing at our peak; it all has to do with what we put our “attentional focus” on. In other-words, it’s all about what are we focused on when we swing. When I stumbled upon the initial waves of this research a few years ago, the way I played and taught the game dramatically changed for the better. The answer, as to what is the most beneficial thing to focus on for optimal performance in golf, may pleasantly surprise you.
Essentially, we can boil down where we put our attention into three categories, Internal (how are body is moving when we swing), External nearby, (i.e., the club face at impact), and External far away (i.e., the flight of the ball). According to the latest study in this area of research, referred to as action effect hypothesis, James Bell and James Hardy, scholars at Bangor University, in Wales, UK, decided to explore these areas of attention, with an historically understudied population of golfers: experts. Those with an average handicap of 5. In the past, most research on this subject has been conducted on novice golfers (They are easier to find and study). Bell and Hardy had three groups of golfers, all with with an average handicap of 5.5, hit chip shots to a target about 22 yards away. The first group, had an internal focus: wrist hinge. The second group had an external nearby focus: square club face. The third group had an external far away focus: straight flight. The results were unequivocal. Performance from the third group was significantly more accurate using the far away external focus in comparison to both the external nearby and internal focus groups. Furthermore, when the researchers introduced anxiety heightened conditions (offering $$$$ for accuracy), the results duplicated themselves.
So, why doesn’t awareness work? Awareness itself is not bad. In fact, it may be helpful in learning a movement pattern. However, awareness of how the body is moving brings about an internal focus of attention, and as the research has shown over and over again, an internal focus in performance settings is less helpful. Bell and Hardy even go as far as saying that performance is impaired with internal focus, and enhancedwith external far away focus. Shanks? Say hello to the cause: internal focus. It’s all about letting the mind respond withautomaticity. When you go internal, you don’t allow this process to take place.
Why is the flag-stick or a target irrelevant? An external focus of attention is one that is directed toward the effect that our body movements have on the environment. I’m not affecting the flag, where as I am affecting how the ball flies, and where it lands on the the green. What you choose to focus on may seem subtle, yet it holds a significant difference in the way things may turn out. I credit this body of research as the biggest influence of improvement in my personal game and teaching, and I’m confident, that when employed correctly, it will benefit your game too.