Category Archives: mental game

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. This the basis of research being conducted at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf.

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.)

Listen to this podcast.

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.

Fear of the Ground

I don’t think many recreational golfers ever get over the hardest thing they had to do when they first took up the game — being able to hit the ball and only the ball.

The ball is so small, as is the tool you use to hit it. If the club meets the ball just a bit too high, you risk blading it. A bit too low and you hit the ground first.

It is this second miss that haunts us and stays with us for years. The ground is in the way and we’re afraid of hitting down there instead of the ball.

Unrecognized and unaddressed, this fear is what does the most to prevent recreational golfers from playing the good golf they are otherwise capable of.

Take this self test. At the range, take out your 6-iron and hit a ball that is sitting on a tee, maybe just a quarter inch above the mat. You’re likely thinking about how easy the ball will be to hit and how good the shot is going to be.

Now put a ball on the mat. If, when you address the ball, your thinking changes, if you think you have to hit the ball precisely right to get a good shot, you have the fear.

You’ve changed your thinking from, “Oh, boy, this is going to be a good shot,” to, “Oh, brother, I hope this works.”

To get over fear of the ground, practice without it. Tee up every ball when you practice full swings and pitches.

Don’t worry, this is not cheating. It’s teaching your unconscious mind that the ground isn’t there. Over time, you come to believe that, freeing yourself to take unfettered swings at the ball.

Swing Thoughts

When you’re standing over the ball, ready to take the club away, there’s something going through your head. What that is will either make your shot easier, or harder.

Imagine a playing partner standing beside you as you’re addressing the ball, giving you all sorts of little reminders. Swing smoothly. Let your weight shift. Swing through the ball. Nice finish.

How long would you put up with that? One time, tops. So there’s no reason to do that to yourself. The reminders you give yourself as you’re about to swing, or during your swing, are destructive. They divide your swing into parts, when it should be thought of as one whole movement.

Sometimes a technical swing thought can pay off, but unless you spend hours on the practice tee and play frequently they can be risky. Besides, that’s just not how the game is played. Cary Middlecoff quotes Ben Hogan:

Hogan was recently asked what specific thought went through his mind just before he started his swing. “All I think about is trying to knock the damn ball in the hole,” said Hogan.

“Oh,” said his questioner. “I thought maybe you used some sort of mental gimmick like starting the club back with your hands, or staying in the backswing plane, or something like that.”

“No,” said Hogan. “You have to work all that stuff out on the practice tee.”

So what do you think about? What should be going through your mind? It is the feeling of what you are about to do. Not what the technical points are, but what the swing feels like as a unified whole when all the technical points are performed correctly. That’s what to teach yourself on the practice tee.

When it’s time to play, take a practice swing that is rhythmic, graceful, flowing, and ends with a firm, stable finish, concentrating on what your swing as one movment feels like in its entirety. Then step up to the ball and duplicate that swing before your mind has a chance to go wandering off in another direction.

Your conscious mind is always looking for something to do. Make sure you give it the right task when it’s time to hit your golf ball.

Trust the Golf Swing

There are several reasons why golf is so difficult. One is that the ball being on the ground, and not in the air, means the club has to brush the ground at a precise spot to achieve good contact.

Then there is the tilt of the body. A baseball swing is pretty easy, because the shoulders and hips rotate in parallel planes. In the golf swing, the planes are not parallel, and swing theory is born.

Let’s not forget the ball itself, which is pretty small. Hitting it with a small clubhead at high speed is no mean feat.

But there’s one other thing about the golf swing that can linger even when these physical problems have been conquered. The notion of trust.

As long as I’ve been playing golf, it’s still hard for me to believe that if I do just a few simple movements correctly, and rely on then to work, they do.

Let me describe the swing in such a way that no one deciding whether to take up the game would even want to try.

You set the clubhead behind the ball. Then you swing it away so the the club goes way over your head. The clubface is now upside down, and facing in a completely different direction. Your body is all wound up, too.

Now you unwind all this, swing the club back down at an accelerating speed, so the clubhead sweeps through the ball at just the right height, makes contact on just the right place on the clubhead, which will be square to the direction you want the ball to go, like it was when you started.

When you consider it for a moment, you might wonder how that can possibly work.

But it does.

There’s really only one thing to do after your mechanics have been ironed out — trust that the swing will work.

By “the swing” I mean THE golf swing, not your particular one.

You have to trust that if you stand to the side of the ball, wind up then unwind, it will work.

So many errors arise in our swing because we don’t believe that will work, and we think we have to DO something — we have to add something to that technique — just to be able to hit the ball.

Even though you don’t.

There are three stages to go through.

Stage 1 – you consciously have to apply technique to be able to hit the ball. I’m there some of the time.

Stage 2 – you don’t worry about your technique, but are still getting comfortable with the idea that swinging back and through actually works. I’m there most of the time.

Stage 3 – the swing is just the means of getting the ball to go where you want it to go. I’m there maybe one time per round.

The Relaxed Golf Swing

If someone were to bump you while you were swinging a golf club, that would throw off your swing and you’d hit a poor shot. You accomplish the same thing by putting tension anywhere in your body when you swing.

Tension forces movements to go in unintended directions, or prevents certain movements from happening at all. The solution is to stay as relaxed as possible during the stroke.

But just what does it mean to be relaxed? Many people think that relaxation is a limp, lifeless state. Nothing directed or powerful can come of that.

There is another kind of relaxation, though, and it is more than the absence of tension. It comes from the mind and is the source of a person’s maximum speed and power in movement.

How do you get it? Essentially, when the mind is feeling an infinitely rapid motion, it becomes relaxed and the body follows naturally.

I go into great detail about this in my book, The Golfing Self.

Once you have that feeling of infinitely rapid movement, swing the golf club, not at a ball, but just swing.

Monitor your body and if you felt muscular force anywhere, then think “relax more” and swing again. Remember it is your mind that you are relaxing.

If you still feel tension somewhere, think “relax more” and swing again. Pay attention to your hands. That is the first place we put tension into our swing, and the last place from where we remove it.

Remember, we’re not lifting weights here. We’re swinging a golf club that weighs less than a pound. Keep going until any feeling of physical force and muscular tension has been eliminated from your swing.

At this point, your muscles are moving freely and efficiently. The club will contact the ball with all the force and speed you can supply.

Now go hit some balls with that swing and see what you think.

The Only Swing Thought You Need

I haven’t said much about this recently, but those of you who have read my books and followed my blog for enough time know that I am not at all a fan of swing thoughts. Instead of helping us, they cause us to doubt ourselves at a time when the completest confidence is needed.

But still, your mind is awake and has to be thinking about something. You can’t turn it off.

There is one, and only one, thing that should be on your mind while you’re hitting a golf ball, from drive to putt. I go into length about it in my book, The Golfing Self, but I’ll give you its flavor in this post.

When your mind is calm, it is moving very rapidly. A spinning top or a gyroscope achieve their stability by the speed they rotate. When they slow down and stop, their stability vanishes.

Our mind is the same. The faster our mind moves, the more stable it is. This should not be confused with the mind jumping from this to that at breakneck speed. That state of mind is definitely unstable.

What I mean is the mind is stable when it is dynamic and has a sense of movment so rapid that the feeling of movement turns into one of great calm, but with this solid foundation.

Before your shot, you evaluate your options, pick one, pull a club, take a practice swing, and step into your stance. At this point, everything you need to know for the shot has been dialed in. You don’t have to think about it any more.

What you do need to think about is the feeling of calmness based on the infinitely rapid movment of your mind. Feel that and maintain that feeling without interruption from before takeaway all the way through the finish.

If you can learn to do that, I guarantee your shotmaking will be the best it can be because doubt has no room to enter your mind and do its damage.

Work on hitting different shots. You need them to get the ball around the course, obviously.

But work on your mental game, as well. Work on this one thing. Whenever you hit a ball, using any kind of stroke, get your mind moving before you take the club away and maintain that feeling all the way to the completion of the stroke.

My Approach to the Golf Swing

This is how I go about swinging a golf club. There might be a something in here that will help you.

I take the approach that I am going to swing the club as gracefully and smoothly as I can. I eliminate any desire to hit the ball. The ball is just an object in the way of the swing, and quite honestly, I forget about it while I’m swinging. There’s room for only one thing in your mind at a time, and if it’s the ball, you can’t be feeling your swing.

After I have picked my target and feel how I want to swing, I walk up beside the ball and begin setting up. From the time I start walking up to the ball until the finish of my swing, there is a feeling of movement in my mind, and actual movement in my body, both of which never stop. Never let anything, especially the movement in your mind, come to a stop. This is very important.

I also eliminate the concept of “distance” from my thinking. The merest hint of “distance” makes you force your swing instead of relying on it. All I want to do is to swing the club. It’s the club’s job, not mine, to take care of where the ball goes.

I put my club down behind the ball and line up my stance. I take the club back in a brief waggle and set it down so very slowly behind the ball, so there is still movement. If you watched, you would say I set the club down and stopped moving, but there is still an imperceptible movement going on. At that point, I gently take the club away to begin my swing.

I take the club back at a leisurely pace, not slow, but not rushing. The end of the backswing and the start of the downswing is one motion, not two.

The crux of the swing is what happens during impact. The setup, backswing, and the first part of the downswing are all designed to put me in a place to swing through the ball with a square clubface, on line to the target, and with as much speed as my swing can generate on its own.

Starting the swing down, it is vital that I continue to stay slow, turning in one piece to where momentum can take over. When my swing approaches impact, I feel my hands ahead of the clubhead, pulling the clubhead through the bottom of the swing arc on a straight line toward the target, and keeping the clubhead low to the ground as it continues past the ball, relying on the loft of the club to get the ball in the air.

The less physical effort I put into the swing the more accurately I strike the ball and the farther and straighter it goes.

One Swing Tip, One Mental Tip

Between clubs?

Rule: When between clubs, take the longer club and grip down. Then make your normal swing.

Don’t try to hit the ball harder, because you don’t have to, and for sure don’t ease up, because that’s like hitting the shorter club.


One of the things that made me be a better golfer is that I don’t care where the ball goes after I hit it. If it goes here, or goes there, I just get to my ball and play the next shot, whatever it is. If you want to put your best swing on the ball, let a graceful swing flow through the ball, and leave it at that.

Consider this point well.

Don’t Let the Golf Ball Distract You

We all have a practice swing that is sheer poetry, but put a golf ball in front of us and we become our old selves again. How do we stop doing that?

First of all, why do we do it? It’s because we get too caught up in results instead of process. If we do the right things, and the ball is in the way, it will go where we want it to go.

We just can’t resist adding a little extra, trying to make the ball go where we want it to, just to be sure. We can’t believe it is as simple as just swinging the club correctly.

But it is.

So here’s my advice on how to re-train your brain not to get distracted by the ball — how to see your swing at a ball in the same way as you take your practice swing.

Put a ball on the ground in front of you, and address it. Now back away from it about six inches so when you swing you won’t hit it.
Make some swings, five or so, heck, ten, but as you swing, look at the ball. Don’t ignore it as you do with a practice swing. Look at that ball head on.

After a time, your mind will start associating the ball in front of you with a smooth swing that does not contact the ball in funny ways. Funny peculiar, not funny ha ha.

Because there is no result with this swing, your mind stops thinking about results, and focuses just on swinging.

Your conscious mind is in on the deception, but your unconscious mind is not at all this subtle. All it knows is that when you swing at the ball, nothing happens. There’s nothing to worry about. Your fears never arise, and it’s from the unconscious mind where they originate.

Since you’re re-training your brain, you have to practice this exercise a lot. You can’t just give yourself a suggestion. That’s working with your conscious mind. Habits are formed in the unconscious mind.

Doing this drill over and over is how you build a new habit, one that leaves you feeling like hitting the ball is doesn’t add anything to what you’re already doing. That’s how you keep the ball from distracting you.

Relax Your Upper Body at Address

Before we hit a shot, our mind must be relaxed and at peace with what we are about to do.

Now it might sound odd to think about being at peace with something as minor as hitting a golf ball, compared to the truly big things in life that deserve that frame of mind.

Yet, whenever we are challenged and have to perform our best, we are challenged in the same way, and we respond in the same way, regardless of the nature of the challenge. That’s the way our mind works.

Since this is a blog post, and not a book, I can’t address all the issues that arise from this simple beginning. I’ll just pick out one, and hope it helps you in some small way.

The mind leads the body. What you feel in your body is a reflection of what you feel in your mind.

When there is tension in your mind, you will feel it somewhere in your body, guaranteed. You might have become so used to it that you do not notice it, but it’s there. I promise you.

In golf, mental tension is often felt in the upper body, in the shoulders and across the upper chest at shoulder level. That tension radiates down to your arms and hands. They all feel tight, like force is being applied, but not against anything. It’s just there, and it’s an indicator that you’re not ready to hit the shot.

When address the ball, check yourself for this tension. If it’s there, get rid of it. It won’t help you swing the way you have trained yourself to. Remember the tension there because of what’s in your mind, so you get rid of it by relaxing your mind.

Ask yourself. How much tension do you have in your mind when you make a practice swing? None at all, I would imagine. Then step up to the ball with that same feeling in your mind and swing away.

I’m not promising you that you’ll hit a stellar shot, but I am promising you the odds of hitting shots like you expect to hit will be much greater with a relaxed mind than with a tense mind.

If you think about it, many of your bad shots were caused by mental tension in the moment rather than bad technique. This is one way to solve the problem.