External Focus in Golf

A few weeks ago, while cruising around the web, I found out about external vs. internal focus in learning motor skills, especially related to golf. It goes right to the core of what you need to think you’re doing when you are taught something, learning it by yourself, or even practicing something you already know how to do.

The difference between internal and external focus is simple. Internal focus involves instructions for moving body parts–what you need to do. External focus, in golf, revolves around what the club needs to do. Then you do what ever you have to to get that result. (The ghost of Ernest Jones is nodding his head.)

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Subjects who had never hit a golf ball before were taught grip, stance, and posture for a pitch shot. Then the subjects were split into two groups.

The internal focus group (IFG) was taught how their arms move, bend, and straighten at various points in the swing. The external focus group (EFG) was taught how the club swings like a pendulum. When swinging the club they were to “focus on the weight of the clubhead, the straight-line direction of the clubhead path, and the acceleration of the clubhead moving toward the bottom of the arc.”

After practicing what they were taught, all subjects hit blocks of ten golf balls each to a target 50 feet away. Outcomes were measured by how close the ball landed to the center of the target.

The results were that the (EGF) performed significantly better than (IFG). As the trials proceeded, both groups improved, but the IFG never caught up to the EFG. The EFG recorded good scores more frequently, and lower scores less frequently, than the IFG.

Remember a few months ago when I suggested that you you think of the chipping stroke as brushing the ground with the sole of the club? Little did I know that was external focus.

What does this mean for you? Everything. It means you’ll learn faster when you practice like this–working on what the club is supposed to do, not what you’re supposed to do. It means when you play, if there is a swing thought in your head (which I don’t recommend at all), it needs to be about what the club is doing and not about you.

Six Fundamentals

The Six Fundamentals of the Recreational Golf Swing pages (SF Left and SF Right) are now public pages. The password protection has been removed.

Be watching for my next opus, Bob’s Little Golf Book, to be published on this site in June.

Dawdling on the Putting Green

I have to be honest with you. If you have a 20-foot putt, your chances of sinking it are really small. Tiny. PGA pros sink about one out of ten of them. Your results might be half that.

What you should be thinking about is how to get down in two putts from twenty feet (or more), because amateurs are more likely to take three putts from longer distances than one.

So first, stop spending so much time reading the green and getting what you think is the exact line to the hole, which, unless you are very good at reading greens, it isn’t.

Just get a general idea of whether it breaks right or left, and especially of what it does around the hole. You can get all that standing beside your ball and taking a brief look.

Regarding distance, if you practice approach putting every time you go to the range, you will have a good sense of how to cover the distance as soon as you see what it is.

All that shouldn’t take very long at all, maybe fifteen seconds. Then step up to the ball, line up the putter, and go.

No time to worry, no time to second-guess yourself.

You see, the pros on TV aren’t really our model for what to do on the green. They have thousands of dollars riding on sinking every putt they look at, and since they’re good enough to do that just often enough, they take their time.

We, however, are barking up the wrong tree by imitating them. By making a putt less of a production, I believe you actually stand a good chance of putting better, and you will certainly spend less time on the green, which the groups behind you will appreciate.

(Then there’s the endless tweaking to line up the line you drew on your ball with the starting line of the putt. From 30 feet? Please!)

Ranting much this week? Maybe just a little, but not without good reason.

A Few Golf Things

Not a very catchy title, is it? I couldn’t think of what else to call this post and still build in a little SEO. So no great ideas this week, just a few things I’ve been fiddling with, and a story.

1. Practice your putting stroke at home, maybe ten or so strokes a day. Not a lot, just enough to keep the feeling of how you do it from slipping away. Putt a ball to a target while doing this. I use a jar opener for a target. You can get one at a grocery store. It’s a thin sheet of rubber about five inches on a side, with a lot of raised bumps. If you trace out a circle on it using a 24-oz. can of tomatoes as your guide, you can cut out a “hole” just about 4¼” in diameter. You can also take this ersatz hole to the practice green and drop it where you want a hole to be, if the ones already cut out aren’t where you want to putt/chip to.

2. Lately I have taken to swinging a 7-iron in my living room late at night with the lights out. Don’t worry, you won’t hit the ceiling. Just make sure you’re clear of ceiling-mounted light fixtures. Swinging in the dark will improve your balance, since you don’t have the visual cues you normally use to stay in balance. It also slows down your swing so you’re actually swinging, not clobbering.

3. A little thought I’ve been using for a while concerning the driver is a way to make sure the clubhead is moving upward when it contacts the ball. Before I address the ball I think not about hitting it square on the back, but a bit below that, on the underside. Now I know that’s not possible, but it does give the unconscious mind a way to tell the body how to hit the ball with the clubhead on the rise. Make sure as well your hands lead the clubhead. By all means turn off the conscious mind when you swing. Just a smidgen of thinking about hitting under the ball will ruin the effort.

4. Once at the range my son asked me to hit a ball as hard as I could. I think I had a 6-iron or so in my hand. So I did, and it went a long way. Then, I said, “Watch this.” I put my normal swing on the ball, which doesn’t have any “hit” in, and the ball went five yards less. How much can you slow down your swing with a particular club and still get the same distance out of it? Try it.

Actually, I didn’t really hit the first ball as hard as I could. I did that another time while playing in a 4-club tournament. I was 170 yards from the green. I had a 7-iron, my 140-yard club, and a 19* hybrid, my 200-yard club, in the bag. I didn’t want to ease up on the hybrid, because you can really hit a terrible shot that way. So I had to clobber the 7. I stood beside the ball for about a minute, psyching myself to swing as hard as I could, yet still control the strike. I swung, connected, and the ball took off and landed on the green. I put the 7-iron back in the bag and promised myself I would never, ever do that again.

Spine Health at the Range

I was browsing through my hard drive a few days ago when I found an article about spine loads during a golf swing. Since I have a delicate lower back, I thought I would read this article again to see if had missed anything when I read it the first time some years ago. Indeed, I had.

While loads on the lumbar (lower) spine are considerable during the swing, especially in the late downswing, they are not damaging. The caveat is that the discs between the vertebra are viscoelastic and time-rate dependent.

This means they deform when stressed (viscoelastic) and need time to get back to their original shape (time rate dependent). The article noted that “accumulated stress due to repeated swings may lead to disc degeneration, and even submaximal exertions may lead to structural deformation of the lumbar spine.”

What they’re telling us not to do is hit one ball after the other like there’s a race going on. Maybe your back doesn’t feel sore after you do that, but you are putting undue stress on it in any event and not letting it recover. It you do hit balls rapid fire and you do feel your back getting a little sore, that’s a big warning sign.

All of us should hit balls slowly. Rest between each shot. Take some time to review in your mind why the ball you just hit did what it did, and what you want to do with your next swing. Or take a few easy partial swings to rehearse a move you’re working on. Then hit another ball.

At the range, when it is possible to take a swing every fifteen seconds, instead of every five minutes, like out on the course, slow down. It can only help to keep your lower back healthy while playing a sport that challenges it.

A New Approach to Approach Putting

A few days ago, I commented to my wife of 34 years, “I tend to think differently than other people do.” She said, “Oh, I hadn’t noticed.”

Well, here’s my newest unique, never-before-heard-of idea. At least I’ve never heard of it. It has to do with approach putting, or even putting in general, but its highest use would be in approach putting.

Right off, I’m going to tell you this idea is based on logic, not experience. I have not spent several years testing out this new idea with hundreds of golfers, as I have with all my other bright ideas, before I share them with you.


But here it is. The problem of approach putting is distance control. That problem breaks down into two parts. One part is developing the sense of how to putt the ball different distances. I have addressed that problem with this video tip, and I still stand by it.

The other part is developing a putting stroke that is consistent, thus removing itself as a variable from part one. You do this by hitting the ball off the same spot of the putterface every time. It can be any spot, as long as it’s always the same one, but the sweet spot is best. The rebound is robust and it thus takes less effort to send the ball a given distance.

So my brilliant idea is (here it comes), vary the distance you hit a putt by making a short same-length stroke faster or slower, and not by making a same-speed stroke longer or shorter. Keeping the stroke short and the same length makes it easier to hit the intended spot on the putterface consistently. Different speeds of stroke will necessarily impart more or less energy to the ball, and the ball will go different distances. It’s that simple.

Be very careful about what I said here. I said to have a faster or slower stroke, which makes putterhead speed the distance generator. I did not say hit the ball harder or softer, which implies doing something with your hands, probably your right hand.

Now. Full disclosure. I have tried this in my back room a few times to learn how long to make the stroke. Twelve to fifteen inches, somewhere around there, will do. I have tried this on the practice green one time to see how it works in in real life. (I came up with this idea only several days ago.) I put a foot-long ruler on the ground beside the ball to ensure the length of the stroke was constant. All I can say is that the method shows promise.

If you want to try it, go ahead. It’s just an attempt at a solution to a difficult problem. Maybe it will work. If so, you heard it here first. If not, well, never mind.

Timing the Whoosh

Last fall I wrote about the whoosh–the sound the clubhead makes when you swing it fast. I want to review that, and add on another comment.

Swing a golf club, maybe a 5-iron or longer, without a ball in front of you. Listen for the whoosh. That’s the sound of your club travelling at its maximum speed.

The whoosh gives you an indication of what your clubhead speed is. While you won’t get a precise measurement, obviously, we can say that the higher the pitch, the faster the club is travelling.

And more speed is always better. The Internet is full of pages, and YouTube if full of videos, about how to increase your clubhead speed. But many of them fail to make the most important point. Your maximum clubhead speed has to appear at the right moment. Otherwise, it’s no good.

You should hear the whoosh at or just past where a ball would be. If you hear it before the clubhead gets to the ball, you are releasing the club too early and using up your clubhead speed before you really need it.

Most likely, if that is the case, you’re letting go of the angle between your left forearm and the clubshaft too soon on the downswing. Play with holding on to that angle a little bit longer until you hear the whoosh placed directly in front of you.

This shouldn’t be a big adjustment to make. Just be sure you’re only adjusting your release and not trying to force this to happen. Light grip pressure will help, too.

Be careful, though. It is entirely possible to give up your angle too early and still place the whoosh in the right spot. This is a two-part exercise: retaining the angle and placing the whoosh.

And don’t go expecting miracles once you’ve accomplished it. You only hear, “I tried this and now I hit my drives 40 yards longer,” when somebody is trying to sell you something. If you get 7-10 more yards out of this, you’ve done the job.

Melding Rhythm and Tempo

As I search for ways to play better golf, and pass my findings on to you, I never stop looking for ways to integrate rhythm and tempo into my swing.

I have suggested ways to find the 3:1 rhythm, and ways to find your right tempo, which varies from player to player. But these cannot be learned separately and then put together. You could get very good at swinging with a 3:1 rhythm, but if you move to a new tempo, your rhythm can break down. You would have to re-learn 3:1 all over again. Rhythm and tempo must be learned simultaneously as a unified pair by using the same exercise.

About a month ago I found a copy of John Novosel’s book, Tour Tempo, at a used book sale. This book teaches you the 3:1 rhythm at different tempi. (The book should really be titled, Tour Rhythm, by the way.) By swinging along with any one of the audio files, you are learn rhythm and tempo together.

There is on problem with these files, though. Only three discrete tempi are given, and none of them might be suitable for you. The slowest one, 27/9 (3:1 ratio) is too slow for me, and the next fastest one, 24/8, is too fast. These integer-based selections are the result of Novosel playing a video of a swing frame by frame and counting frames. Yet, a tempo of 25.892/8.631 might be just the ticket. And it’s still 3:1.

You can’t solve this problem by getting a feel for the 3:1 rhythm and then modifying it in your head as you swing. It is too easy to adjust your counting to your swing instead of adjusting your swing to the correct count. Musicians practice with a metronome* to prevent that from happening with their instrument.

There is a simple solution, though. If you have Windows Media Player** on your computer, you can adjust the speed settings to almost whatever you want. Then, you could play the TT audio files, say the 27/9 one, and speed it up bit by bit until you find the tempo you like. Or, you could start with 24/8 and slow it down. Either way would work. You can write down the new speed setting that WMP shows you so you can go back to it again.

I strongly recommend you use the TT audio files to get this vital technique built into your swing. Swinging with correct, unified rhythm and tempo is one of the best golfing habits you can have. It forgives many sins.

* A metronome, though, is inadequate for this task. The metronome must be set so there is a tick at the moment you start the club down from the top, and the next tick must be when the ball is struck. This is the 1 part of 3:1. The 27/9 tempo corresponds to a metronome setting of 200. The highest setting on a metronome is 208, which yields a rhythm of 25.95/8.65. If you need to go faster, you’re stuck.

** If you have Mac, you can use VLC, but that only produces discrete, not continuous, speed adjustments.

To Be In Position

I was hitting plastic balls at my backyard driving range earlier today, and just not getting the results I wanted. Everything was a hair fat. So I moved the ball a half inch back in my stance. Bingo.

One of Ken Venturi’s basic teaching precepts is that players do not get out of swing, the get out of position. Put them back into position and the swing comes back. So many times it isn’t the swing that needs correcting, it’s the position.

This means grip, stance, posture, and ball position. Grip: where do the Vs point? How many knuckles do you see? Stance: how far apart are your feet? To where do the toes point? Posture: How much do your knees bend? How much does your back or neck bend? How far apart are your elbows? Ball position: how far from the ball do you stand? Where is the ball from front to back of your stance?

Practice these. Actually practice them. Get in and out of your setup and learn your position well enough so that you never have to find it — you get into it automatically.

This will solve so many problems before they start.

Golf Is a “Next Shot” Game

Many people play golf by hitting the ball, finding it, and figuring out what to do next. They make golf a “this shot” game. Golf is better played by thinking about the shot after this one.

An easy example to make this clear is the second shot on a par-5 hole. You can either hit the ball as far as you can to get on the green with whatever is left over, or you can figure out what shot you want to hit into the green, then play your second shot to set up that one.

The general rule is to play this shot so as to make the next shot as easy and productive as possible.

Little Differences That Make a Big Difference in How Well You Play