What to Think About When Playing

In a word…nothing. At least nothing in the sense of the voice in your head. When you’re standing over the ball, the last thing you want in your brain is a mad scramble of words, trying to remind yourself what to do. Your muscles do not understand language. There isn’t enough time in a golf swing to mentally process a tip. Sport science has repeatedly told us that the best performances don’t come from conscious thinking. So why, as golfers, do we still do it?

Internal Factors: Body thinking, i.e. thinking about your arms swinging, wrist cock, body rotation, weight shift, etc.

External Factors: Out-of-body thinking, i.e. thinking about the club, watching a spot on the ball,  picturing the target, visualizing ball flight, etc.

At a certain point (pretty much after we’re not worried about whiffing on the ball anymore), we need to let go of mechanics and focus on external factors while we play.

In a study conducted by Dr. Gabriele Wulf, novice golfers were given detailed instructions on stance and grip. One group was then asked to focus on their arms swinging, while the other was asked to focus on swinging the club. The group focusing on the club was considerably better, both that day and the next. Dr. Wulf then conducted the same study with members of the UNLV golf team, a perennial power in college golf. Even extremely talented players who’ve been playing from early ages benefited from an external focus.

“Any reference to body parts has been shown to be detrimental to performance and learning, it’s as simple as that.”

-Dr. Gabriele Wulf

So, how do we balance learning and playing? Obviously, technique is important. If you’re extremely over the top, not making good contact and the ball is missing both right and left, you need to improve your technique if you want to get better. This is what lessons, practice swings and the range are for. From this point forward, unless you’re playing a practice round, do not focus on your swing (especially your body) while playing.

I’ve been guilty on this very blog of writing about complicated body motions. Not to confuse everyone, but those are meant to give you a concept of what should happen, not something you want to think about while playing. Save working on those things at home or on the range. Eventually, you’re going to have to trust what you’re working on will naturally transfer. Here are some mental tricks to work with on the course:

Picture the Target: Good players look at the target more than the ball. This may sound simple, but you’ll see a lot of amateurs stand over the ball for a long time, staring down and completely frozen. This is a sure sign of overthinking. Instead, get a good image of the target in your head (almost like taking a mental photo), look down at the ball for no more than a couple seconds and make a decisive, committed swing. You’re not thinking about what you’re body is doing, but rather allowing it to intuitively hit the ball to the target. You’ll be amazed how your body will naturally respond. Images are more powerful in sports than words. Use them.

Hit the Sweet Spot: I don’t always like focusing on the club, as it can sometimes be felt as an extension of the body. Some people, however, benefit from being club conscious. Try to hit the sweet spot on every single shot, from two-foot putts to downhill driver swings.

Visualize Ball Flight: This is a personal favorite. Imagine watching your favorite player on TV with the Pro Tracer. You can visualize the ball the same way, and have that image in your head while you swing. This is especially helpful when you’re trying to bend the ball one way or the other.

See a Spot When Putting: When putting, have an image of the ball rolling into the hole, or pick out a spot on the cup where the ball will fall. Basically, you’re aiming small to miss small. There’s been an increase recently in players actually looking at the cup while putting as well. This frees up your stroke greatly.. If you feel comfortable with it, don’t be afraid to try.

Practice these, see what works best for you, and watch your scores drop quickly. Good luck!