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Finding the right focus for your game

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Most golfers work week in, week out on their swing techniques. They search for the perfect mechanics in the hope that, one day, things will fall into place and they will never miss a fairway again.

If you haven’t noticed already, this can’t and won’t happen. There are simply too many variables at play creating optimal performance — and one of the most overlooked areas is where you place your attention.

Example time

To understand this, I will use a relatable example. Imagine you are playing a round of golf, and you are going along pretty well. You are not really thinking of much, and the majority of shots are pretty decent. Then, out of the blue, you hit a stinker.

“You bent your left arm,” shouts your playing partner.

He’s a slightly lower-handicapper than you, so his expertise is obviously warranted (sarcasm). For the next few shots, you become highly aware of your left arm, and your game goes completely down the pan. What happened exactly? Your focus of attention changed.

Loci

While there are many subcategories of these, I will discuss five different types of attention that we could have. Each type of attention has been studied (motor learning science), and has been shown to have variable effects on both learning and performance.

Internal: An internal focus is one that deals with body parts.

  • Turn shoulders
  • Keep head still
  • Shift weight
  • Swing my hands to X

While the vast majority of studies show that these types of focus tend to decrease coordination, performance (and slow down learning), they can be of value when we desire a more direct technical change. So, at the right times, these can help to further our techniques — even if it is at the cost of our ability to coordinate movement fluidly.

Focusing on the body movement is more of an internal focus.

Focusing on the body movement is more of an internal focus.

External Process: The next type of focus is one that is outside of our body, but one which deals with the process of creating a good shot, or a task focus. More what to do than how to do it.

  • Making a divot in the right place
  • Striking the center of the club face
  • Creating a desired swing path/face angle

These focuses tend to be better at coordinating movement to a singular goal, which can dramatically improve shot performance. If a player is suffering from poor distance control, for example, an increased awareness/focus of ground strike quality can create dramatic improvements in results.

Just like focusing on picking up a glass of water (the task) as opposed to the hand/arm movement required), we can also focus on tasks such as divot position etc.

Just like focusing on picking up a glass of water (the task) as opposed to the hand/arm movement required, we can also focus on tasks such as divot position, etc.

These focuses tend to be better for handicap golfers and, in my experience, increase long-term skill development. In fact, world-renowned researcher Gabriel Wulf had this to say:

“Over the past 15 years, research on focus of attention has consistently demonstrated that an external focus (i.e., on the movement effect) enhances motor performance and learning relative to an internal focus (i.e., on body movements)”

External result: This focus is, once more, outside of the body. However, it differs from the previous focus in that it deals predominantly with the result.

  • Focusing on the shape of shot
  • Focusing on the target
  • Focusing on the trajectory of the ball
  • Focusing on the landing spot
We can also place more of our attention on the target/result itself

We can also place more of our attention on the target/result itself.

Again, the science shows that these seem to improve our coordination — as if our brains jostle all the moving body parts toward one collective goal. In fact, the research shows that external-result foci can coordinate the body parts in many subtly different ways to achieve the same goal.

However, this effect is normally only seen in tasks which are simple, or tasks which have already been learned. So, for better or elite golfers, focusing on the target may improve performance. However, for a lesser golfer who hasn’t yet ingrained vital impact skills (such as a centered-face strike), it may cause poorer performance.

Neutral: Neutral focuses are very strange, but they are something which doesn’t particularly relate to the task in hand.

  • Counting
  • Singing in your head
  • Humming
  • Relaxing your mouth

These act as a conscious distraction, leaving the movement to flow from the subconscious mind. Science has shown that these types of focus can be beneficial for players who have good learned/ingrained skills, yet seem to be unable to bring them out.

So, if you seem to hit the ball really well normally, but crack under pressure, learning to play with a neutral focus may be the key to bringing out your best game. Now, this type of focus may not make you play better than you are capable of doing (this may require one of the previous foci), but it may help you become more pressure resistant and even more consistent if you have good habits ingrained.

For higher handicap players, this type of focus may be detrimental, as they may need to have a higher level of focus on their swing due to it being more of an unlearned skill. However, I have seen neutral foci be beneficial even for complete beginners.

Transcendental: We have all experienced this in one way or another — perhaps not in golf, but in another activity. This is what most label “The Zone.”

Perhaps you were hung-over. Maybe you were short of sleep. But, for whatever reason, you might have played your best ever golf when there was very little thought/focus on the task at hand. Many of the best players report playing their best and unable to recall being “there” during the performance. This is much harder to achieve in golf, as we have too much time to control the entire process. We are much more likely to get into this mind-set during faster-paced, rhythmical activities (such as tennis).

This state of mind is also quite paradoxical, in that the more you try to get into it, the less likely you are to find it. However, I have personally found (with myself and my pupils) that they are better able to get into this high-performing, low-thinking state via training with neutral focuses. When we are able to trust our ability to perform without conscious control, we seem to be able to “let-go” much easier.

Summary

This was a brief look at how where we place our attention can have an effect on our performance, learning and transference of learning (from the range/non-pressured situations to competitions). It is also a look at how players at different levels and with different issues may benefit from a change of mindset.

I use my knowledge of the science, as well as my experience in teaching more than 10,000 hours of lessons, in order to guide players to better focuses for them so they can achieve their best performances, or speed up change (depending on the goal). My online practice programs also go through a testing procedure to hone in on the right focus for the player (CLICK HERE to learn more).

I also discuss these topics and much more in The Practice Manual: The Ultimate Guide for Golfers. The book has been a No. 1 best-seller on Amazon in the U.S., UK, Canada, France and Germany.

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Adam is a golf coach and author of the bestselling book, "The Practice Manual: The Ultimate Guide for Golfers." He currently teaches at Twin Lakes in Santa Barbara, California. Adam has spent many years researching motor learning theory, technique, psychology and skill acquisition. He aims to combine this knowledge he has acquired in order to improve the way golf is learned and potential is achieved. Adam's website is www.adamyounggolf.com Visit his website www.adamyounggolf.com for more information on how to take your game to the next level with the latest research.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Locatelli Rao

    Jul 5, 2016 at 11:07 pm

    Hi there,

    In your description under “External Process”, it reads:

    “These focuses tend to be better for handicap golfers and, in my experience, increase long-term skill development. In fact, world-renowned researcher Gabriel Wulf had this to say:”

    should it read:

    “better for (high) handicap golfers”?

    Thanks!

  2. Steven

    Jul 5, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Great article. These are instruction articles, and since high handicappers need the most instruction, that is probably why more articles are aimed at them. Also, research into learning has developed significantly over the past few years. Helping someone figure out how to learn, or how to focus, can have a large impact on scores. Learning theory is starting to show that what may seem intuitive doesn’t quite work. For example, many people, even in academia, believe individuals have a dominant learning style, so teaching to that style helps them the most. However, recent studies are showing having students use non-dominant learning styles leads to deep learning because it takes more work. I hope golf instructors keep passing on the new cognitive theories to help every day golfers.

    • Adam Young

      Jul 9, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      Good points Steven. I have found similar things to what you suggest. I will be doing future articles on how to find the best focus for yourself depending upon your goal (maximizing learning or performance).

  3. tlmck

    Jul 4, 2016 at 5:16 pm

    I step up to the ball, hit it, go find it, hit it again… Shoot even par. Go home and have a nice glass of iced tea.

    • Adam Young

      Jul 9, 2016 at 3:45 pm

      Sounds like a transcendental focus to me. More people play better with that style of focus than you would imagine. Many golfers pull themselves out of it by a belief that they need to control their movement consciously.

  4. Jack

    Jul 3, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    The good players that I know get new clubs too, but definitely not needing the latest and greatest since it’s more important to know your clubs and there really hasn’t been much improvement since 2012 for better player irons (like the AP2). Drivers meh. It’s more personal preference. Same thing just find the right driver for you doesn’t have to be a M2 or M1. High handicappers waste money because they don’t practice enough and those clubs just sit there.

  5. Anti-M Smuzzle

    Jul 3, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    Need more articles targeting 16+ handicappers.

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Instruction

The Wedge Guy: Short game tempo

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One of my favorite things to do is observe golfers closely, watching how they go about things from well before the shot to the execution of the swing or stroke. Guess the golf course has become kind of like going to the lab, in a way.

One thing I notice much too often is how “quick” most golfers are around the greens. It starts with grabbing a club or two from the cart and quickly getting to their ball. Then a few short jabs at a practice swing and usually a less-than-stellar result at a recovery.

Why?

If you are going to spend a morning or afternoon on the course, why hurry around the greens? I tend to be a fast player and despise five-hour rounds, but don’t fault anyone for taking a few seconds extra to get “right” with their recovery shot. You can still play “ready golf” and not short yourself in the close attention to execution. But let me get back to the specific topic.

Maybe it’s aggravated by this rush, but most golfers I observe have a short game tempo that is too quick. Chips, pitches and recoveries are precision swings at less than full power, so they require a tempo that is slower than you might think to accommodate that precision. They are outside the “norm” of a golf swing, so give yourself several practice swings to get a feel for the tempo and power that needs to be applied to the shot at hand.

I also think this quick tempo is a result of the old adage “accelerate through the ball.” We’ve all had that pounded into our brains since we started playing, but my contention is that it is darn hard not to accelerate . . . it’s a natural order of the swing. But to mentally focus on that idea tends to produce a short, choppy swing, with no rhythm or precision. So, here’s a practice drill for you.

  1. Go to your practice range, the local ball field, schoolyard or anywhere you can safely hit golf balls 20-30 yards or less.
  2. Pick a target only 30-50 feet away and hit your normal pitch, observing the trajectory.
  3. Then try to hit each successive ball no further, but using a longer, more flowing, fluid swing motion than the one before. That means you’ll make the downswing slower and slower each time, as you are moving the club further and further back each time.

My bet is that somewhere in there you will find a swing length and tempo where that short pitch shot becomes much easier to hit, with better loft and spin, than your normal method.

The key to this is to move the club with the back and through rotation of your body core, not just your arms and hands. This allows you to control tempo and applied power with the big muscles, for more consistency.

Try this and share with all of us if it doesn’t open your eyes to a different way of short game success.

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The Wedge Guy: The core cause of bad shots

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You are cruising through a round of golf, hitting it pretty good and then you somehow just hit an absolutely terrible shot? This isn’t a problem unique to recreational golfers trying to break 80, 90, or 100 — even the best tour professionals occasionally hit a shot that is just amazingly horrible, given their advanced skill levels.

It happens to all of us — some more frequently than others — but I’m convinced the cause is the same. I call it “getting sloppy.”

So, what do I mean by that?

Well, there was a USGA advertising campaign a while back feature Arnold Palmer, with the slogan “Swing Your Swing.” There’s a lot of truth to that advice, as we all have a swing that has — either frequently or occasionally – produced outstanding golf shots. While there is no substitute for solid mechanics and technique, I’ve always believed that if you have ever hit a truly nice golf shot, then your swing has the capacity to repeat that result more frequently than you experience.

The big question is: “Why can’t I do that more often?”

And the answer is: Because you don’t approach every shot with the same care and caution that you exhibit when your best shots are executed.

To strike a golf ball perfectly, the moon and stars have to be aligned, regardless of what your swing looks like. Your set-up position must be right. Your posture and alignment have to be spot-on. Ball position has to be precisely perfect. To get those things correct takes focused attention to each detail. But the good news is that doing so only takes a few seconds of your time before each shot.

But I know from my own experience, the big “disrupter” is not having your mind right before you begin your swing. And that affects all of these pre-shot fundamentals as well as the physical execution of your swing.
Did you begin your pre-shot approach with a vivid picture of the shot you are trying to hit? Is your mind cleared from what might have happened on the last shot or the last hole? Are you free from the stress of this crazy game, where previous bad shots cause us to tighten up and not have our mind free and ready for the next shot? All those things affect your ability to get things right before you start your swing . . . and get in the way of “swinging your swing.”

So, now that I’ve outlined the problem, what’s the solution?

Let me offer you some ideas that you might incorporate into your own routine for every shot, so that you can get more positive results from whatever golf swing skills you might have.

Clear your mind. Whatever has happened in the round of golf to this point is history. Forget it. This next shot is all that matters. So, clear that history of prior shots and sharpen your focus to the shot at hand.

Be precise in your fundamentals. Set-up, posture, alignment and ball position are crucial to delivering your best swing. Pay special attention to all of these basics for EVERY shot you hit, from drives to putts.

Take Dead Aim. That was maybe the most repeated and sage advice from Harvey Penick’s “Little Red Book”. And it may be the most valuable advice ever. Poor alignment and aim sets the stage for bad shots, as “your swing” cannot be executed if you are pointed incorrectly.

See it, feel it, trust it. Another piece of great advice from the book and movie, “Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days In Utopia”, by Dr. David Cook. Your body has to have a clear picture of the shot you want to execute in order to produce the sequence of movements to do that.

Check your grip pressure and GO. The stress of golf too often causes us to grip the club too tightly. And that is a swing killer. Right before you begin your swing, focus your mind on your grip pressure to make sure it isn’t tighter than your normal pressure.

It’s highly advisable to make these five steps central to your pre-shot routine, but especially so if you get into a bad stretch of shots. You can change things when that happens, but it just takes a little work to get back to the basics.

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Stickney: To stack or not to stack at impact?

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As you look at the impact positions of the best players in the world, you will find many different “looks” with respect to their body and club positions. Some of these impact positions might even appear unique, but don’t be fooled. They all have one thing in common: preserving the players’ balance throughout the impact interval! In fact, if you are not in-balance, then you will lose power, consistency, and have trouble controlling your launch dynamics from shot to shot.

This balance is a necessary key to playing well and one area that can be easily understood with a few graphics shown on GEARS 3D. As you examine the photo in the featured image, you can see a few things:

  • The player on the left has “fallen” backwards through impact slightly moving his head out of the circle established at address
  • The player on the right is more stacked at impact — meaning that his chest, zipper and hands are all in the same place at the same time (within reason)
  • The player on the left has reached this same position in the swing with different segments of the body reaching the ball at different times
  • There will be a difference of impact shaft lean between the two players due to one player reaching impact “together” and the other shoving his hands more forward as he falls back
  • The player on the right is more “connected” through impact…won’t be the longest hitter but will be able to find the ball in the fairway more often
  • The player on the left is putting more pressure on the rear portion of the lower back which could have a potential for injury if he’s not careful

Now, obviously there are pro and cons to both positions. Overall, if you want to be consistent and in-balance more often that not, I would suggest you try your best to focus on being “stacked” when you hit the ball.

Let’s dive in a touch deeper to show you what happens physiologically on 3D when you fall back through impact and I think it will really drive the point home.

  • At address notice the Vertical Spine Number 96.2, this is showing us where the spine is positioned at address
  • You can see the head is in the center of the bubble

  • On the way to the top of the swing you can see that the spine has moved “away” from the target laterally a slight bit to 98 degrees
  • The head has dropped downward and has also moved laterally as well- more lean over the right leg to the top

Now here is where the problem comes in…as you work your way to the top, it’s ok of your head moves a touch laterally but in transition if it stays “back” while your hips run out from under you then you will begin to fall backwards on the way to your belt-high delivery position.

  • We can see at the delivery position that the spine has continued to fall backwards as the hips rotate out from under the upperbody
  • When this happens the hands will begin to push forward- dragging the handle into the impact zone
  • Whenever you have too much spin out and fall back the hands move forward to accommodate this motion and this reduces your Angle of Attack and decreases your dynamic loft at impact
  • This will cause balls to be hit on the decent of the club’s arc and reduce loft making shots come out lower than normal with a higher spin rate and that means shorter drives

Now let’s examine impact…

  • The player on the left has reached impact in a more disconnected fashion versus the player on the right as you compare the two
  • The player on the right has a shaft lean at impact that is less than a degree (.75) while the player on the left has a much more noticeable forward lean of the shaft thereby reducing dynamic loft at impact

  • The player on the left’s spine has moved from 96.2 to 112.9, a difference of 16.7 degrees while the player on the right has only moved back a few degrees. We know this because his head has stayed in the bubble we charted at address
  • The hips have run out from under the player on the left in the downswing and this causes the head to fall back more, the hands to push forward more, and the impact alignments of the club to be too much down with very little dynamic loft (as also shown in the photo below)

Whenever the hips turn out from under the upper body then you will tend to have a “falling back effect of the spine and a pushing forward of the hands” through impact.  Notice how the hips are radically more open on the player on the right versus the left- 27.91 versus 42.42 degrees.

So, now that we can see what happens when the hips spin out, you fall back, and you fail to be “stacked” at impact let’s show you a simple way you can do this at home to alleviate this issue.

  

  • A great drill to focus on being more stacked at impact is to make slow motion swings with the feeling that the upper portion of your arms stay glued to your chest
  • These shots will be full swings but only 20% of your total power because the goal here is connection which allows everything to reach impact together and in-balance
  • The second thought as you make these swings is to pay attention to your head, if you can focus on allowing it to stay “over the top of the ball” at impact you will find that it will stay put a touch more so than normal. Now this is not exactly how it works but it’s a good feeling nonetheless
  • Once you get the feeling at 20% speed work your way up to 50% speed and repeat the process. If you can do it here then you are ready to move up to full swings at top speed

Finally, don’t forget that every golfer’s hips will be open at impact and everyone’s head will fall back a touch — this is fine. Just don’t over-do it! Fix this and enjoy finding the ball in the fairway more often than not.

Questions or comments? [email protected]

 

 

 

 

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