Being a golf coach goes further than the golf swing. That’s why golf coaches call themselves “coaches” and not “swing instructors.” Their role is to help golfers perform better on the course, and perhaps even off of it, which takes a lot more than a perfect golf swing. For that reason, the mental game has become a key part of golf coaching, as it should be; I think we’re often approaching the mental game the wrong way, though.

Golfers are told to read golf psychology books for all their tips on how to think more positive. Why? Most golfers are better on the range than they are on the course, and they want to reach their on-course potential. But have you performed better on the course practicing these self-help tools? Did it help your thoughts… or even your first-tee jitters? For most golfers, the answer is no.

We will start with swing thoughts. Many golfers ask me if they should have a swing thought, or if they should “just focus on the target.” What they often don’t realize is that picturing the target is a thought. A mental image is a thought, too.

A swing thought, like a normal thought, is simply energy. When a thought pops into your mind it’s considered neutral; it does not have a negative or positive effect on your feelings. Only when we begin to “think about a thought” will it determine both emotions and feelings. It’s important to understand feeling and emotion are a product of your thinking, not the other way around.

Thoughts can be completely random. They can come from outside our conscious control, as the vast majority of our thinking occurs subconsciously. Think about how many random thoughts you have per day and how random they were when they suddenly popped in your mind. You may be walking down the street when a negative thought pops in your mind. What if I lose my job? What if this or that happens? One can dismiss these thoughts and carry on, or they can think about them and enhance the thoughts, which will further effect their emotions.

The same is true on the golf course. When you approach that hole with out-of-bounds on the right that’s been giving you trouble, it’s natural to think about it. It’s only when we intentionally try to do something to that thought that we get in trouble. Don’t immediately go through your rolodex of self-help tools or try hard and ignore a thought; that’s where we get in our own way. In other words, don’t add fuel to the fire by thinking more. You will have positive and negative thoughts throughout a round on the golf course; none should be attempted to be controlled.

“How stupid I really was trying to fight against something that you really can’t fight,” said Masters Champion Sergio Garcia. “I needed to just accept things.”

The mantra of just picturing the target may work for some golfers, but not for others, and every player can be different. That’s why it’s absolutely OK for golfers to have swing thoughts or swing feels that are related to what they’re working on in their swing. So when are swing thoughts beneficial or harmful? When they’re paralyzing your natural talent or getting in the way of making solid contact. To quote author Garret Kramer, “Anything that obstructs your instincts, toss it out.”

It’s up to golfers to figure out what their body and mind can handle, as well as when a swing thought is needed. This can be the feel of a drill they have been working on or an external focus, like a body part moving a certain direction. If they’re driving the ball poorly that day, the thought can simply be the player’s go-to shot — maybe a low cut off the tee.

That’s why it’s important that you take note of what works and what doesn’t for you on the golf course. Keeping a record provides an arsenal of thoughts or feels that you can go to when you’re struggling. Note the dispersion of your misses and what you may or may not of been thinking about when they occurred. If your misses were wide, that could be a sign of too much thought.

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Kelvin is a Class A PGA golf professional in San Francisco, California. He teaches and has taught at some of the top golf clubs in the Bay Area, including the Olympic Club and Sonoma Golf Club. He is TPI certified, and a certified Callaway and Titleist club fitter. Kelvin has sought advice and learned under several of the top instructors in the game, including Alex Murray and Scott Hamilton.

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  1. A thought can be politically incorrect while a swing thought is quite athletically incorrect if it is intended to compensate movement during the golf swing.
    If the golf swing involves re-positioning during address position, fine, but if you are thinking you must bring your right elbow closer to your body during the down swing you are likely to de-synchronize other movements in your swing sequence.
    Don’t mess with your golf swing with thought fixes because it doesn’t work, particularly when you are under stress because under game conditions stress will cause you to revert to old swing faults.
    Here’s a thought, think about your swing thought when you are away from address and perhaps waiting for your turn to hit, and then step up to your shot and just visualize your target, be it the ball or the green…. but no swing thought during the swing.

    • No… you’re ‘cheating’ yourself if you must depend on a conscious swing thought to control your golfswing. Of course if you have your thought at address and then ignore it as you get into your golfswing you are eliminating a conscious state that will sabotage the rest of your swing. Get the idea … it’s scientific reality. Think all you want when you are stationary but don’t dare to start thinking during the swing because that is a ‘death move’… believe it.

      • Now you’re definitely thinking too much here. I think about what I’m a gonna eat after the round during my downswing. Helps me just pound it and not worry about the other stuff

        • Great swing thought … it’s called “Displacement Thinking” where you cancel out all swing thoughts and depend on intrinsic neuro-muscular reflex … just like when the doctor taps your knee with that rubber hammer and your lower leg kicks out automatically.
          I prefer to think about a helicopter… or a fast woman ….;)

  2. Interesting. I’m a lefty and my first instinct is usually to do something I’m only capable of doing 50% of the time on the course, and now this article tells me to follow my instincts. Every time I read something on swing thoughts I get more confused. lol

  3. I have just ONE swing thought and make sure I do that on that swing. If I do it on a consistent basis I move to something else to focus on. I think people’s problems is they try to do stuff on the course that is meant for the range, so they have too many focus points in their swing thought. Just focus on one, mine is to make sure I finish my turn, and do it. Even if the shot is bad, at least you did what you wanted to do. Over time everything tends to fall into place.

    • Good point…. and I admit that’s what I did for many years while in search for a perfect swing. My problem was that the swing thought I thought was embedded eventually failed and I wasn’t aware of the problem it was supposed to solve. IOW, swing thoughts can only be a temporary fix that must be backed up by intensive conscious practice to ensure the problem is fully eliminated.
      A golf fix thought over time just doesn’t stick because under pressure you revert back to original form and that’s because you didn’t work out the fault with retraining and practice. Your swing thoughts will forever lurk in your unconscious mind, and emerge under stress. A swing thought is only a swing hope because you can’t simply overcome a fault by mind over matter. That’s what the science says … believe it.

  4. “Many conflicting voices are chattering inside the mind of the average golfer. He or she is thinking of the latest “swing tips” … and probably worrying… . The golfer must learn to turn off all these voices. A golf swing happens right now, not in the past nor in the future. Think positively …. “Rear back and hit it”. ”
    Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book – page 72 ….. no truer words ever written or spoken.

  5. In Tom Watson’s book “The Timeless Swing”, he suggests one kind of swing thought. To maintain the pace of the swing: repeat the word “ed-el-weiss” during the swing. He timed his swing to the three syllables. The first syllable took him about halfway to the top, the second to the top, and the third down through impact.
    I make this my mantra before the round, and during each swing. If I adhere to a slow repetition of that mantra, my swing will generally be a good one.

  6. Im a song guy as well. The right song will help with tempo as well. Mine (I blame my mother for embedding it into my brain as a kid) is If I were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the roof. Starts at the practice swings and finishes after the shot.

  7. Probably the single most important article an aspiring golf coach will read on this site. Not to mention the players wanting to see actual scoring improvement!

  8. • Swing thoughts should be done during practice on the range or hitting room… never on the golf course unless you are playing a practice round or your swing has gone wonky!!!
    • Swing thoughts are conscious thoughts and conscious thoughts will destabilize your golfswing dynamics. Consciousness sabotages the neuro-muscular pathways of the golfswing sequencing … snip snip snip.
    • Swing thoughts during a golfswing is an attempt to cheat… just like with golf ‘tips’. Train and practice and get instructor feedback… there is no ‘quickie’ solution.
    • Swing thoughts cannot be a band-aid for a deficient golfswing. You can’t mix thinking and swinging and if try it you will invariably #fail. It only works by accident.
    • Swing thought at static address is totally useless… the brain cannot process a static thought into a dynamic motion that is less than one second. It’s only a wish or a hope … or desperation.
    • Swing thoughts are the cause of ‘stage fright’ when teeing off or putting …. and you freeze as your conscious thoughts pour out in an emotional flood of fright and confusion. Think or thwim….
    • BTW…. there is no ‘subconscious’ mind…. only conscious and unconscious…. the brain is binary… go and no go.

      • People who can only post 140 character twitter blurts avoid complex thinking, because thinking hurts their head.
        Their swing ‘thoughts’ are only hopes, fantasies, desperation…. and a poor excuse to avoid tough practice to permanently eliminate their swing faults. Swing thoughts are just another name for cheating, and avoidance to submit themselves to a qualified golf instructor because they are too ashamed to expose their incompetence to somebody.
        Homemade golfswings plus PXG super clubs is not a solution. Believe it.

    • Yup…. swing ‘thoughts’ are an anathema to a golf swing…. because trying to modify your swing mechanics in mid-swing is a sure recipe for failure. Tiger tried to do it when his fast hip rotation got the club stuck behind and he tries to compensate… resulting in a push/slice.

  9. I have two rules in life. The length of preparing dinner should be less than the time it takes to eat it. And a swing thought should be briefer than the time it takes to swing a club. Oh, and always tip well if your bartender comps you your drink.

  10. Best swing thought I have is when I can sing a rhythmic song in my head. Sometimes I sing out loud when practicing. Focusing on the song frees my brain to make a good swing without me thinking about mechanics. Also tends to slow me down….