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When most golfers are introduced to the game, it's all about their golf swing. Keep your head still, put your hands here on your backswing, don't forget to turn! We are programmed to always consciously think about what our body is doing. It doesn't stop either. Regardless of the player's level, the dominant form of educational content focuses on the movement of the golf swing.
We collectively assume (and are taught) that we should think about these things before, during and after swinging. Often this leads golfers to 'golf swing' play and not the game itself.
But what if there were more productive thoughts that had nothing to do with the golf swing? In this article (and accompanying podcast), I'd like to point out a concept called Locus of Attention. It's a unique, powerful concept that can help just about any golfer improve their hitting the ball.
While we can't fully control our minds on the golf course, I highly recommend trying some of these concepts. I think they will really make a difference.
The three loci
In general, there are three different areas of focus when it comes to golf (or just about any other sport):
Internal focus: Concentrate on the movement itself, your actual golf swing. For example, what your arms or wrists do during the swing.
External focus: thinking outside your body. This can focus on hitting a particular area of the clubface, brushing a blade of grass for the ball, or visualizing a particular trajectory or stroke shape.
Neutral focus: Not related to the movement or process of the shot. A simple example is focusing on the breath. Another can hum a song.
These can be broken down further, especially external focuses, but it is best to consider them in these three buckets for the sake of simplicity.
Before I get into the merits and potential drawbacks of each category, I encourage you to listen to our full podcast episode on the subject. My co-host of the Sweet Spot, Adam Young, has done a lot of research on Locus of Attention and shares many of his insights from his book The Practice Manual. You can listen here.
There are many nuances, and while I'm painting some broad strokes in this post, I think you'll be best served if you listen to the entire episode (yes, that's a strong plug for our growing show).
Internal focus – the default
Although this drawing has become satirical, there is much truth in it:
For the most part, golfers play the game thinking about all the internal movements of the golf swing. While internal thoughts can be productive and better suited to certain players, they can keep many players from reaching their potential.
For example, if you were catching with a friend, would you think about what your arm and wrist need to do to get the ball right at the target? Probably not. If you were thinking about those things, you would probably struggle to complete the task and miss your target.
In general, in other sports we are not as obsessed with form and mechanics as we are in golf. So why would golf be any different?
I believe that as golfers begin to move away from internal swing thoughts, especially on the golf course, and turn their attention elsewhere, they will free up their bodies to perform athletically. Most players can get the kind of shot they want; sometimes they have to go their own way!
One of the best examples I can think of comes from Dave Stockton's book, Unconscious Putting. He tells an anecdote about someone driving on a highway. When you're driving, you don't think about where your hands are on the wheel or how hard you have to press the accelerator. However, if you suddenly see a police car in their rearview mirror, your body will probably tense up and you will start thinking about what your hands, arms and legs are doing. Instead of driving the car, you drive the car.
Stockton found that most golfers putt as if they had a police car in their rearview mirror. I will take his example even further; I think most golfers swing like that too!
This is why an external focus on the golf course can be so helpful for many golfers. It can take you out of "swing prison", where you constantly think about what your body is doing and move more towards creating the result you want.
The power of external thoughts
Many golfers can achieve breakthroughs in their game when they begin to shift their focus outside of their bodies and more on a task. I have seen the power in my own game and many of Adam Young's lessons are aimed at golfers who perform outside tasks.
While there are many forms of external focuses, I have written on this site about various practice methods that are external in nature. In my article on how to practice the opposite of your mistakes, I give a few examples:
If you hit too close to the heel of the club, try to consciously hit the toe (measure with foot spray)
Are you struggling with a bad slice? Try to hit the biggest hook imaginable
Are you hitting your iron shots "thick?" Try to consciously touch the ground a few centimeters in front of the ball during training
When you notice it, none of these things tell you to turn your shoulder out more or put your hands higher in your backswing. That's because I truly believe that if you organize yourself around a task like trying to hit the toe off your clubface, your body will make the required movements without having to consciously think about it . In my opinion, this is where you want your game to go, especially on the golf course.
When I play my best golf, I don't worry about what my arms, legs and hands are doing during my swing. I'm just focused on hitting the turf for the ball with my irons. Or maybe I'm imagining playing a fade with my driver as a way to counter an excessive hook I'm battling that day.
It's not to say that golfers can't have success with internal swing thoughts on the course. There are plenty of examples of how that works. Internal thoughts have their time and place – perhaps when changing the swing or on the range. However, if I had to place a bet, I would say that more golfers struggle because of internal thoughts than they are helped by them .
I'd rather players unlock their inner athlete by taking their attention away from the swing (hard though that may be).
Neutral rocking thoughts
There is a third category of attention that does not involve golf at all. These are neutral thoughts like humming the beat of a song or focusing on deep breathing during times of stress.
Many athletes call these thoughts 'in the zone' to be. In my own game, I've had great success in tournaments by humming songs to myself (sometimes songs my kids listen to), or if I feel a lot of pressure, I'll consciously slow down my body and focus on slowing my breath in a almost meditative state.
Neutral thoughts are not for all golfers. Overall, they are probably better suited to more experienced players. Thinking about something completely different from golf can help certain players get out of the way and let their bodies do what it can. Either way, they can be just as impactful as an outside focus for a novice or intermediate player.
Experiment on your own
Now that you (hopefully) know that there are other things to think about besides the movement of your body, it's time to experiment. Since all our brains work differently, it's best to experiment with what kinds of thoughts can help you get better results.
Overall, I think most of you will see increasing success moving from internal to external thoughts. And for those of you who are a little more experienced with the game, neutral thoughts might help as well.
I will give one last plug here to listen to our full podcast on Locus of Attention. The Sweet Spot has quickly become one of the most popular podcasts for golfers, with thousands of golfers around the world every week. You can check out our full library of episodes here, or find us on a popular podcast platform.