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Don’t be so critical! Research shows it pays to be positive



A lot of golfers spend their time focused on what’s wrong.

My club should be over here, my head should have stayed just a little stiller, my back swing is a little too steep. The list goes on and on.

Honestly, it’s really easy to do. In golf, the default status is to focus on what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed.

However, there is a lot of research happening (and plenty already out there) on motivational learning, which looks at the factors of motivation that have an impact on how effective an individual’s learning can be.

Let’s look at the research and to see if there’s a better way to approach learning and practice.

Let’s kick this off with a quick story

We’re going to talk about a study that was released just this year (if you’re interested, you can read the paper here).

The study involved two groups of golfers asked to complete a putting task. Researchers created circles around a golf hole — a large circle (14 centimeters in diameter) for one group and a smaller circle (7 centimeters in diamter) for the other group.

golf putting task

Each group was told that their putt would be considered a success if the ball made it into the circle around the hole.

Interestingly enough, it was the group putting to the large circle that outperformed the small circle group, even though both groups were actually putting to ultimately the same target (a regular sized hole).

studygraphNot only did the group that putted to the large circle perform better in the initial test, but also in retention tests when they were retested the following day.

So what’s the point?

What this study shows is that how success is defined has an impact on how we learn and how we perform.

This concept has major implications, because viewing a performance in a positive light fosters learning, while being overly critical dampens the learning effect.

In other words, it pays to accentuate the positive. Taking this idea and extending it even further, coaches and instructors can help their students by creating and fostering positive motivation.

how success is defined has an impact on how we learn and how we perform.

We used to think that motivation had a temporary influence on performance. It was something we believed energized players to perform better, but now we think that pairing positive motivational factors with early learning actually enhances the learning.

Creating positive motivation

There are a few ways to create a positive motivational opportunity: One is to enhance the sense that a player been successful as they go forward. The other is to provide them with opportunities to choose or have autonomy over their actions.

In a recent interview, Dr. Rebecca Lewthwaite shared her suggestions on how to best go about this.

There are really several ways you can go about creating this positive motivational opportunity.

One is to enhance the sense that one has been successful as you go forward, and the other is to provide people with opportunities to choose or to have autonomy in their actions.

So, one way you could pair these things is tell people early on, it’s quite good if you can hit this target or be close to it in this way, provide them with positive feedback, you know, “For that early trial, it was excellent.”

And then the next thing you said is, “Let me know when you would like to get some more specific feedback.” So it’s an invitation to have to take a little charge of when you get further detail or when you dive into it more deeply.

You can hear more from her on motivational learning here.

Set better expectations

Another problem that a lot of golfers face is being in a constant state of inadequacy.

Most amateurs look to the professional ranks as the goal they should be chasing. So when looking at stats, whether it’s driving distance or scrambling percentages, there is always a negative reaction.

It’s time to compare apples to apples and not look at the PGA Tour as the goal for you game (unless you are a competitive professional).

For more reading on this check out Monte Scheinblum’s GolfWRX story, Golfers have ridiculous expectations

It’s really the long-term that matters

One of the aspects of this study was learning retention, which is important for golfers because one of the biggest problems most of them have is taking their best game to the course.

So let’s assume there are two groups of people and each group is asked to perform a motor task. One group is told their score after the task, while the other group is told their score in addition to some positive feedback such as “you have performed well relative to others.”

The second group — the one that received a second form of positive feedback — will do better, as it appears that this additional sense of success is what potentiates learning. Returning to the scenario a day later, the second group will also retain more of what they learned the first day when asked to perform a similar or somewhat related task. Not only that, but they will once again outperform the group that did not receive the additional sense of success.

In terms of practical applications for improving your game, it looks as though positive thinking is a key player. We all know that a strong mental game is a major component of success in sports, but the glass-half-full mentality really does seem to make a difference in performance and learning retention.

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Cordie has spent the last four years working with golf instructors, helping inform thousands on business and teaching best practices (if you're a coach or instructor check out Through that he's realized that it's time for the way golf is taught to be changed. When looking at research and talking with coaches and academics, he's launched the Golf Science Golf Science Lab , a website and audio documentary-style podcast focused on documenting what's really going on in learning and playing better golf.



  1. Matthew Cooke

    Nov 27, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    Great article Cordie, well rounded insights with scientific support. I love that it supports the deliberate practice framework! Working on the things you have less skill at rather than more skill, but intelligently reframing the perception to be more appropriate for the individual (hence positive motivation). Bravo!

  2. gvogel

    Nov 25, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    Give me a guy with a lousy swing and a lot of confidence over a guy with a good swing and no confidence.

  3. g

    Nov 25, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    “Be the ball”…..where did it go? “Right in the Lumberyard”

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Davies: The pitfalls of trying to generate lag in your golf swing



Alistair Davies shares with you how to get lag in the golf swing the right way. Many players go about it the wrong way causing other issues in the golf swing. All will be explained in the video.

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What should your hips do in the golf swing?



If you want to become more consistent, a better ball striker and hit longer golf shots then this is the video for you. This video will show you exactly what your hips pelvis should be doing during your backswing, downswing and through impact. Having great control of your pelvis and it’s movement will help you have greater control over your golf swing.

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Playing in your mind vs. playing out of your mind



Comparing the recreational beginner to the elite player

As a player, I know there are rounds of golf where I feel like I worked extremely hard to achieve the results and there are also rounds that are effortless and just plain easy. Why do we go through these peaks and valleys in golf?

As an instructor and player, I want to explore a deeper understanding of what it means to be playing out of your mind vs. playing in your mind.

I want to address both beginners and elite players on their quest for better play. All beginners and elite players must understand that, as players, we are all experiencing ups and downs. The bottom line is that some handle them better than others.

Why is this a feeling golfers have: “playing out of your mind”?

Well, it is pure relaxation. It is fluid, seamless, continuous motion. No hang-ups. No hiccups.

The next big question, how do we achieve this regularly?

We get to this without forcing it, by believing in our makeup. It is locked in our subconscious. It is a controllable, uncontrollable. Subconsciously, your nervous system is in the green light. You are just doing. This is peak performance. This is the zone. This is playing autonomously, out of your mind.

I believe that over time, a golfer’s game is compiled in his/her built-up expectations of the player they truly believe they are. Expecting to make a putt vs. just so happening to make it feeds two different minds. When you place an expectation on an action tension is created. Tension creeps into our nervous system and our brains either respond or they don’t. This is called pressure. This is what I call playing in your mind. You are in your head, your thoughts are far too many and there is just a whole lot floating around up there.

The more players play/practice, the more they will expect out of themselves, and in result, create that pressure. (ie. Why progress is difficult to achieve the closer you get to shooting par or better). The best players are better at responding to that pressure. Their systems are auto-immune to pressure. (ie. Think of practice like medicine and think of a pre-shot routine like the Advil to help calm the spiking nerves.)

  • Playing in your mind = high tension golf… you might need an Advil.
  • Playing out of your mind = low tension golf… you are in a good headspace and are doing all the right things before your round even started.

The key to understanding here is that we can play in both minds and achieve success in either situation. It is all about managing yourself and your re-act game.

Subconscious playing is beyond enjoyable. It is more recreational in style. I believe beginners are playing more subconsciously, more recreationally. I believe elite players can learn from the beginner because they are achieving superior moments and sensations more subconsciously, more often. All players at all levels have off days. It is important to remember we all have this in common.

The goal is always to play your best. When I play my best, there are no preconceived thoughts of action. It’s simply action. Playing out of your mind is an unwritten script, unrehearsed, and unrepeatable on a day to day basis, you’re living it.

Say you have that one round, that out of your mind, crazy good day. The next few days, what do you do? Do you try to mimic everything you did to achieve that low number? As good players, we take these great days and try to piece it together into a script of playing. We know we can get it down to almost damn near perfect. The more a player rehearses the better they get. Edits are made…knowing that things are always shifting. Visualization is key.

No doubt, it’s a huge cycle. Players are in a continuous race to achieve results in numbers. Players looking to reach great success should generate a journal/log and compile a record and playback method and revisit it repeatedly.

There is no secret or magic…it takes mastering the minds to achieve the best results more often. Most important, as players, we must recognize that during our amazing rounds…

  1. We are relaxed
  2. We are having fun
  3. We are just doing

In this game, the deeper we go, the more we propose to be there. It will always bring us back to the basics. One complete full circle, back to the beginner in all of us. So, the next time an experienced player sees a beginner on the first tee…take a moment and appreciate that player!

Remember to enjoy the walk and believe that hard work always works!

Please reach out to me at to learn more about the zone and how to become accustomed to playing autonomously.


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