Category Archives: mental game

The Whole Swing Feeling

We practice our swing to learn the parts and how to put them together into one swing. During that practice, we might come to believe that one of those parts is the key to making the entire swing work, and get stuck on referring back to that one feeling when we play.

While the swing is composed of identifiable parts, the feeling of the whole swing is not of each of these parts as they parade by in succession from takeaway to finish. The whole swing has a feeling of its own, one feeling in itself.

The whole swing feeling is bigger than any of the smaller parts, but it is the same in that like the parts, it too is one thing with its own one feel. That whole swing feeing is the feeling you play golf with.

Every touring professional, or any high-performing athlete in any sport, is a technical player in practice, but a feel player in performance. They practice their technique, but then trust what they have practiced when they play, and just perform.

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!

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.

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.

One More Hole and You Break 90 (or 100, or 80)

When there is one more hole to go and you can break a milestone score, 90, or 100, or 80, think this way, and ONLY this way. No more, no less.

Think, “All I need to do is get the ball in the fairway and it’s over. I’ve done it.”

From the fairway now, think. “All I need to do is get the ball up to the green and it’s over. I’ve done it.”

From greenside or on the green, think, “All I need to do is lay the ball up close and it’s over. I’ve done it.”

From next to the hole, think, “All I need to do is sink this little putt and it’s all over. I’ve done it.”

That’s four shots, but it’s just an example. Maybe five shots will do. So play five shots, one at a time. However many, let go of the last shot, focus on the next one, never get ahead of yourself.

For each shot, but only one of them at a time, think, “All I need to do . . .” When that shot is over, begin thinking that thought again, and only that thought, for the next one. Be thinking that thought all the way up to the ball for that one shot. Just one.

Keep the task manageable. You don’t need to hit four good shots in a row (or five, or six). Just one. You only need to hit one good shot in a row.

When you have done that, start again. One good shot in a row. Not getting ahead of yourself. Just this shot. This one.

This is not logical thinking, but now is not the time to be logical. Now is the time to make it easy on yourself.

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. That will guide your body to do the right thing. (The ghost of Ernest Jones is nodding his head.)

Listen to this podcast. It’s only 13 minutes long.

In Wulf’s study involving golf, 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 EFG 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 all that much), 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.