Category Archives: mental game

Applying External Focus to the Golf Swing

Making external focus the basis of your golf swing means to transfer the basis of swing movements from the body to the golf club, and from there to the mind. You need to know what you want the club to do and then create a simple, precise, and easily understood image of the club doing just that. Then you use the image to place your unconscious mind in control of the stroke, which directs your body to move the club the way you want it to, automatically.

What we want the club, or more importantly, the clubface to do, is to face the target at the start, move away and back again, and at its return still be facing the target squarely and traveling directly at it. The clubface is the important thing because that is the part that actually strikes the ball. The rest of the club is irrelevant.

You will make a normal golf swing, nothing different there, but you will have an image of something else.

Take the clubface back square and along the ball-target line. As the backswing progresses, imagine in your mind that the clubface as it rises up stays directly over that line and is still aimed square to the target. This will not be so in reality, but imagine that it is, and it will feel like it is.

To get the clubface back to the ball, imagine in your mind you are swinging it along the ball-target line, and the clubface is square to the target, the entire time. Again, this is not reality, but your imagination will make you feel like this is what you are doing.

I know the body cannot move the clubface according to that imagination, but it does not have to. The physical swing does not need to mirror the mental image. The mind and body have different rules and operate in different ways to accomplish the same task.

We all know that feel is not real. You’ve heard that so many times. The physical swing creates a physical feeling that interprets into your mind as … something.

With external focus we do that same thing but in the opposite direction. We start with an image in mind that creates a feeling that is interpreted into your body. The strength of this approach to the problem of swinging a golf club correctly is that it follows an order of events that conforms to how human beings “work.” The mind leads the body.

When we base the swing on a physical movement (internal focus), one swing is seldom the same as the last one, and we can frequently be unsure. But if we have an image of what something outside ourselves is doing (external focus), in this case, the clubface, the image can be identical every time. That leads to much more accurate and consistent physical movement.

All this is not to say, get the right mental image and you’re done. You still need a good grip. You still need good tempo. The handle still leads the clubhead. Etc. Without good technique your mind can’t lead you in the right direction.

In a nutshell, with technique alone, we often swing with the hope that all the separate parts will add up to a well-struck shot. That way works sometimes. The function of the external focus process is to create a unity of technique that produces a swing that works all the time.

The Hardest Thing to Do in Golf

Golf is hard. Not because the technique is hard to learn, though that does take some work.

It’s that even after you have learned the technique and gotten pretty good at it, you still have something left over to deal with.

The ball.

The ball just sits there, waiting for you to hit it, mocking your technique because technique is one thing, but can you do it when it counts is another.

And the ball makes you think you can’t do it.

Not letting the ball make you lose confidence in your ability is the hardest thing to do golf.

We all have very good air swings. We do. Put that swing on a ball and away it goes. But when there really is a ball in front of you, it gets tricky.

You can relate to the ball that way, and a lot of golfers do.

I read a long time ago about a teaching pro who would glue a piece of string to a golf ball. He would get down on the ground, and ask his student to hit the ball.

Every now and then the pro would pull on the string at just the right moment, when the student’s swing was committed to hitting the ball, to yank the ball away.

This was his way of teaching his students not to get caught up in hitting the ball, but rather to just swing the club, because they never knew when there was going to be ball there or not, and when the ball did get yanked away it didn’t make any difference because the job was to swing the club, not hit the ball.

Great for the range, but that wouldn’t make sense on the course. The solution is to find a way to turn a negative into a positive.

Hitting a golf ball isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. Life throws you much bigger problems and if you have been around the block a few times you know what I mean.

The way you get through those times is to find a way to live through that negative time without having that negativity affect the way you think and speak and act.

Not easy.

So let’s start small. With a golf ball. Find a way to turn doubt and worry into confidence.

My way is to think of the club and the ball as my partners and the three of us are going to hit the ball where it needs to go this time.

Sound silly? Yes, but it’s easier said than done. It requires changing a mental habit and that takes honest work.

The process you go though to not be intimidated by the ball, and actually welcome the chance to hit it straight and far, is the same process that you need to go through when something really important comes your way and you have to find a way to perform.

I’ll bet when you started reading this post you didn’t think it was going to turn in to a life lesson. But, take ’em where you get ’em.

And along the way you’ll become a better golfer. Can’t say no to that!

your target is the ball

Hitting a successful shot demands that you focus on your target. But what it your target?

It is the ball. It is the object you are trying to hit with the club you are about to swing.

The destination of the shot is the ball’s target, not yours.

You have figured out where that is and how you are doing to get the ball there–exactly how you are going to use the club to execute your plan.

Once you have done that, the plan is dialed in to your unconscious mind. From there your task is to have the clubface meet the ball as you intended.

The odds of that happening are much greater when you define your target as, and focus on, the ball.

Do not misinterpret this. I am not saying you should hit at the ball. You still swing through it.

Slow It Down and Hit It Farther

The first week in January in the cold, rainy Northwest is probably the worst time of year to be writing posts for a golf blog. You can’t play, and it’s almost too cold sometimes even to go the range. But I always know if I do something golfy, I’ll get an idea.

So a few days ago the temperature was mild and it wasn’t raining, so I went to the field that is just a block away from my house. It’s the parking lot for the Oregon State Fairgrounds, which is out of view above the picture. My house is out of view about one block below.

I always go there with one ball and one club, hit the ball, go find it, and hit it back again, over and over. It focuses my mind, because if I make mistake and hit a bad shot, it’s a long walk to the ball to have a chance to get it right. So I try very hard not to make mistakes.

The yellow dot on the left is where I start hitting from. The yellow dot on the right is beside a telephone pole which you can see fairly clearly if you enlarge the picture. The pole is 139 yards from the opening spot.

I took my 6-iron that day. My first shot was up in the air, very straight, but got to about the pole. That’s not a long way for a 6-iron, but it happened because I hit the ball about a quarter-inch toward the toe. I did the same thing coming back, and the ball just barely got to the starting spot.

Another shot downrange ended up in about the same place, but this time had I hit it slightly toward the heel.

Fortunately, after three shots, all of them very nice looking and going right where I had aimed them, but all of them way short of where they should have ended up, my mind finally warmed up.

I realized I was swinging too fast, so I thought to myself, “Relax. Slow down your swing to a speed you can control.”

And what do you think happened? Of course! I hit the ball dead on the center of the clubface and it went to the green dot, 14 yards past the starting point.

By doing just those two things, which have nothing to do with swing technique, but everything to do with how you use your mind, I changed my 6-iron from a ~140-yard club to a mid-150s club.

(Want to get 15 more yards with your driver? Hint, hint.)

What I’m saying is the center of the clubface is your best friend. If you overpower your swing you’ll never make its acquaintance.

What I’m not saying is you should slow down your swing to the point of somnambulance. But if slow your swing down to control, or to comfort, or however you want to say want to it, you’ll be getting easy power and easy distance.

The Link Between Relaxation and Tempo

I have written frequently in this space about tempo. Tempo is the foundation of the golf swing. Once you understand tempo, and have established for yourself the tempo that works for you, everything else can proceed.

The problem is how to apply that tempo consistently swing after swing after swing. We tend to get excited when we play golf. We like to hit the ball along way. Straight would be good, but too often that takes a back seat to the distance we want the ball to go, and because of that our ball striking gets compromised.

There is a way to swing with the same tempo from shot to shot, from the first swing to last. It’s a very neat trick and it’s a simple trick. The trick is to relax.

Relaxation is a mental activity. True you can relax the body, but you’ll only get so far by doing that. Relaxation begins in the mind. If you relax your mind first, then the body will relax to its fullest.

I know you’re relaxed when you stand at address. And I know you take the club back in a very relaxed manner. The key moment occurs when you start the club forward to lead the club into the ball.

That is the moment when you can think “hit” or something forceful like that and any relaxation you once had goes right out the window.

Let me give you suggestion. The next time you go to the range, tell yourself you’re going to make easy swings at the ball, say with a 7-iron. Take the club back and just before the backswing is completed, just a split second before, say to yourself out loud “relax.” Then swing the club forward.

There’s no physical hesitation here. You don’t have to interrupt your swing when you say the word relax. Say it while you’re in motion. Feel any tension releasing itself from your body, and feel the flow of swinging rather than the urge to hit. That is how you maintain your tempo.

One thing that is quite fortunate about the golf swing is that doesn’t take very much time. Your mind, once you give it a suggestion, doesn’t have a lot of time to go wandering off somewhere else.

It does have some time though, so you can still, how shall I say this politely, screw it up by thinking afterward about hitting or swinging hard or the like.

Thinking “relax” is not a guarantee. You have to acquire the mental discipline to follow it through. When you do, I think you will see your ball striking change dramatically for the better.

When you practice, go ahead and say the word “relax” right out loud. Maybe not loud enough that everybody in the range can hear you, but loud enough so you hear yourself give yourself the command.

Saying it out loud also helps plant in your unconscious mind the association between relaxing and starting the club forward. After all we play golf with our unconscious mind. Whatever is in there is what our swing will express, so let’s replace the wrong things with the right things.

After you start getting it you can say “relax” silently to yourself, but eventually you want to make this your habit and you don’t need to say it all. That takes lots of practice and reinforcement because this is a new habit you are trying to lodge deep inside your little hit-it-as-hard-as-I can brain.

I know you’re aware that the transition from the backswing to the forward swing is a great place to ruin your swing. What I have explained to you is a way to solve that problem. Your move.

The Ground-Fearing Golfer

This is the third of a three-part series on matters that make golf more difficult than it should be. Two weeks ago I talked about being ball-bound: thinking that you have to hit the ball instead of swing the club.

Last week I talked about how the pursuit of distance prevents us from doing our best. This week I’ll talk about the ground.

Golf would be a lot easier if the ground wasn’t in the way of the strike. We can survive errors of hitting the ball more toward the toe or heel than we can hitting thin or fat.

A thin shot still gets you something, but a fat shot gets you nothing much but a bad memory. And the anxiety about the ground is really about hitting fat, isn’t it?

Now there are technical fixes that prevent fat shots, and if you have this habit, by all means look them up, or get a lesson.

Technical fixes alone won’t solve the problem, though. Even flawless technique depends on your frame of mind in two key moments.

At takeaway, the wrong things to be thinking are making good contact, hitting the ball straight, hitting the ball to our target, and the like. We want those results, but we get them by sticking to the process.

The process is setting up to make a good stroke, paying attention to the club moving properly and your body following it. “Follow the process” is what to have in mind, if anything, when you take the club away. This process is the same for any shot.

Our mind can flinch at the last moment before impact. Actually, since the downswing is so fast, the club will still be a significant distance from the ball when we think it is just about to make contact with it.

That’s enough time to make a little adjustment that has nothing to do with hitting a better shot, but reflects only the lack of confidence in what we have been doing up to this point. So we do something, but it can never be the right thing.

You can’t turn off your mind when you swing. All you can do is, again, give it the right thing to think about, and that right thing is to follow the movement of the golf club forward through the ball.

Develop the strength of mind that allows you to do this, so it doesn’t work just occasionally, but all the time. The mental exercises explained in The Golfing Self develop that mind.

By being able to keep your mind on the right things, the worries and anxieties about not being able to hit the ball cleanly never find a way in. And when they don’t, there is nothing left for you but to sweep the ball away cleanly.

The Distance-Bound Golfer

Last week I wrote about the ball-bound golfer.

This week I want to write about another tendency that haunts us all–hitting the ball a long way.

We all want to hit the ball a long way. It impresses our friends and makes us feel supreme. But if distance is on your mind when you’re swinging, your “swing the club” thought will get overridden.

You have to realize that any golf club can only hit the ball so far. You’re definitely not going to hit your eight iron as far as your driver. They’re different clubs designed to hit the ball a different distance.

Similarly, your eight iron is not designed to hit the ball as far as your seven iron. If you really do need to hit the ball farther, put away the eight and take out the seven.

When you know you have enough club in your hand, you can put an unforced swing on the ball without having to worry about how far the ball is going to go because you know it will go as far as it needs to.

Then there’s the driver. Too many golfers think the point of that club is to hit the ball as far as they can. Not really true.

Like all your other clubs, the driver is designed to hit the ball a certain distance. Once you find out what that distance is, which you do by swinging it like your 6-iron, say, and seeing how far that is, plan to hit it that distance and no more.

Whichever club you have in your hand, hit the ball with your swinging stroke, not your hitting stroke, and take the distance you get. If you can be at peace with how much distance you get out of any club, you’ll get more distance out of it than if you TRY to get more, which usually gets you less.

All that said, it might be true that there is something missing from your swing that is not letting you get all the distance you could be getting. You might not be hitting up to your potential. Get lessons to find that out if that is so, and what to do about it.

My overall point is, the people you play with are undoubtedly going to be impressed by anyone who can hit the ball a very long way, but they’ll be more impressed by someone who puts the ball in the fairway and hits greens, regardless of how far they it the ball.

The Ball-Bound Golfer

Raise your hand if you feel relaxed and focused when you take your practice swing.

Keep your hand in the air if you feel the same way when when you’re swinging at the ball.

Hmm. I don’t see anyone’s hand still up.

A few weeks ago I was hitting balls off grass and I noticed that my practice swing divot and my “hit the ball” divot right beside it were not in the same place. All the time.

So I went online, putting “ball bound golf” in the search window. I got two videos by Bobby Clampett about being ball-bound. He said he is, and demonstrated it in the same way. One practice swing, one swing at the ball, two divots.

His practice divot lay about two inches ahead of the ball divot. That’s almost exactly what I was getting when I was checking my own swing.

Both of us, and we’re not the only ones, allow the presence of the ball to change the way we swing the club. In mild cases, you can still hit playable shots. In severe cases, you have no idea what’s going to happen.

I don’t think along the lines of, Well, if a pro does it too, I guess its OK so I won’t worry about it.

It’s not OK for anyone. Instead of accepting* it, there has to be a way to change it–to make the two divots be the same.

My assumption, based on a sample size of two, me and Bobby Clampett, is this is a universal tendency, but not a universal absolute. There IS a way to avoid doing it. We just have to find it.

A few years ago, I brought up the matter tangentially in another post and suggested that instead of looking at the ball when you swing, look at the ground about an inch in front of the ball because that is what you’re trying to hit with the club.

But really, we need to find a better solution. We have to go back to the real origin of the problem.

When you take a practice swing, all you’re thinking about is swinging the club. You get ball-bound because you step up to the ball and the thought becomes, “Hit the ball.” That is the fatal error.

The solution is to address the ball and tell yourself, “Swing the club.” Tell yourself like it’s an order to DO it. Be firm with yourself that that’s what you’re going to do.

Then as soon as you have finished saying the word “club”, the INSTANT you have finished saying it, start your swing. Don’t give yourself a moment of time to insert another thought into your head, because you know what that thought will be.

“Swing the club” is not set in stone, though. It is merely one way of putting a thought into your head that is different than “Hit the ball,” or “Make good contact,” or something else like that.

One method I use with great success is to think of the butt end of the handle moving to the left from the start of the forward swing through contact with the ball. This takes my mind off the ball completely and I hit many good shots that way.

That is another example of something that takes your mind away from the ball.

This is a mental problem, and if you have it, you solve it by training your mind to do something other than what it is doing now. Your conscious mind is always talking to you. You have to give it the right thing to say.

* or, giving in.

What Relaxation In Golf Really Means

You know how to swing the club. Your mind tells your body what to do, but the body will carry out those directions only if it is in a state to accept them. This is possible only if the body is relaxed. And the body can be relaxed only if the mind is relaxed.

If there is any tension in the body, muscles have to fight through that tension to get to the next place where they are supposed to be, but never get there, being locked in place and passing through those positions in the wrong way.

Tension makes the body work against itself and is the ruination of what ever it tries to do in golf or anything else.

Golf is a game of positions, only not as it is normally presented to you in swing sequence photographs. There are not eight or nine positions you have to hit to make a correct golf swing. There are an infinite number of positions, because the golf swing is a flow.

This is why you must play golf with a moving mind. That allows your body to move through the positions that you cannot possibly comprehend yet are needed for your best swing to emerge.

When you are relaxed, your body moves naturally, your joints move freely, and your swing flows.

This is why swing thoughts are so paralyzing. By focusing on one aspect of your swing, you emphasize it to the exclusion of every other position that is just as important, adding tension to your body to ensure that none of it goes right.

Let me give you an example of how relaxation can be made part of your swing. It has to do with rhythm.

I write over and over that the rhythm of the golf swing is 3 up, 1 forward to the ball. 3:1, like clockwork. Only, if you make it like clockwork, it won’t work. The golf swing can become stiff and mechanical.

A golf swing has to be alive. It has to breathe. Your expression of the 3:1 rhythm has to be like that, too, and it will be if the mind, and thus the body are relaxed.

So that’s all good, but just how do you relax? It’s very simple.

As you stand over the ball, take your mind away from whatever it is thinking about, and think, “Relax.” Feel the tension drain from your body, head to toe. Let the air out. Feel your body softening, the tension releasing.

Now you are ready to take the club away.

A Few Thoughts on Pressure

About a month or so ago, I posted on why you should learn to play without pressure rather than building pressure into your game on the practice ground.

Yesterday, a GOLFWRX newsletter presented an article titled, “Here’s why your practice sessions right now are probably worthless.”

Yep, you guessed it.  The writer said they are worthless because there is no pressure involved.

So I wrote a reply which I wish I had saved, because I submitted it but it didn’t get accepted for publication.  It’s not hard at all to get published on a golf forum, and we see comments from trolls getting by the censor, but I guess my comment was too incendiary.

I dared to suggest that controlling the mind is a skill that has nothing to do with golf, but with life, and the reason instructors and touring professionals attempt to find ways to accept pressure rather than eliminate it is they do not know the first thing about how the mind works.

I remember Greg Norman saying during his playing days he would never listen to a golf psychologist because none of them knew what it as like to be hitting into the 15th green at Augusta while in contention Sunday, so who were they to tell him what pressure was.  He also said upon reflection when his career was over that attitude was a big mistake on his part.

So if you have a pro who can teach you how to flush a 5-iron, I would listen.  But I would listen at arm’s length when they start telling you about pressure and how the mind works.  They’re most likely telling you what is in the air without having ever dipped further into it than that.

But I have.  So listen up.

What is pressure?  How does it get created?  It takes three conditions for pressure to arise.  In no particular order,

1. You are in a situation where you need to perform at your highest level.
2. You have only one chance to get it right.
3. You have judged the price of failure to be high.

This list could apply to a five-foot putt.  It could apply just as well to a business presentation of importance to your firm.  It could apply to rock climbing, where one wrong move could cost you severe injury or your life.

To prevent #1 from getting to you, practice to the point that you know what you are doing and have all confidence that you will get it right.  Then just do what you’ve practiced.

We all know that when we hit that five-footer a second time, after we missed it the first time, it goes in.  Why?  Because we did not feel pressure!!!  So learn to have that second feeling when you hit your first putt.  It’s entirely possible.

#3 should be easy to deal with.  In the grand scheme of life, there are things that can happen to you that are truly costly if you fail, but missing a five-foot putt is not one of them.  If the price or chance of failure is to high, then don’t put yourself in that situation.

That’s the theory.  To put it into practice, read my book, The Golfing Self.  It teaches you how to develop a mind that is impervious to pressure.

Remember, pressure is all created within you.  The other three members of your foursome aren’t nervous at all watching you stand over that five-foot putt.  They’re probably thinking.  “Good grief!  It’s a straight putt.  Just hit it!”

You can listen to professional golfers speak from ignorance and build pressure into your game, or you can develop your mind to play a care-free game of golf and do just as well, probably better.

Your choice.