Fairways column—Figuring out focus vital to your game.

Fairways cover


This is my Mind Game column from the fall issue of Fairways, the Greater Toronto Area golf publication.

Should I focus on my swing? Or forget all the technical mumbo-jumbo and just give it a whack?

It’s a question that perplexes many golfers. But they don’t get clear answers from various sources of instruction.

Swing instructors are generally fixated on positions, angles and movement—the mechanics of the swing. But the mental gurus tend to say forget technique on the course. Just swing.

As an avid player, this dilemma confused me for years. As a performance coach, I have come to a better understanding of the problem that might help you. There are other things at play, but a key component is focus. More specifically, internal vs. external focus.

If you’re focused on how your body moves—say an arm or hip—that’s internal focus. If you’re focused on the ball, the golf club, the ground, or the target, that’s external focus. Generally speaking, with an internal focus, you are consciously directing your body to move in a certain way, and with an external focus, you are not.

An external focus is ideal according to instructor Sean Casey, but it’s not always possible. “I believe you’ve got to be aware of what your body is doing so when you’re playing poorly you can feel what movement is causing the bad shots,” said the Director of Instruction for the ClubLink Academy at Glen Abbey.

I posted my conversation with Casey on Facebook and it sparked a lively debate. Veteran instructor Mark Evershed argued: “It doesn’t matter much if you have a great mental game if you’re hitting the ball sideways… To say great players do not think mechanics is an overstatement.”

Toni Taylor, another Canadian instructor, countered: “Of course, you need solid mechanics but to think this is how you go play golf at an elite level is far from reality. Ranges are littered with great golf swings with solid fundamentals because if there is a breakdown in the mind-body connection there will be no success playing.”

Taylor is among a number of coaches, including Bob Rotella, who say fixating on mechanics causes golfers to get in their own way. They advocate focusing on the target and feeling what the club is doing.

Studies carried out by researchers such as Gabrielle Wulf of the University of Las Vegas have consistently shown that external focus in all kinds of activities is far superior to achieving high-level performance than internal focus.

In one study, Dr. Wulf had beginning golfers chip with a 9-iron to a 15-foot circle. One third were instructed how to move their hands and arms (internal focus), one third were told to swing the club like a pendulum (external), and one third were given no instructions at all. Points were given based on how close each golfer landed balls to a target. Participants relying on external cues increased their learning skills by 33 percent. What’s more, golfers given internal instruction performed roughly equally to those given no instruction.

I agree with Casey there is a balance to be struck between internal and external focus, and that golfers need to look internally when they play poorly so that they can attempt to adjust. However, when golfers start mucking with their mechanics, they tend to lurch from one thing to another. The simple objective of sending the ball to a target is lost, and the game becomes complicated. A great instructor can help you maintain that balance.

Ultimately, I am convinced that an external focus leads to better movement and less self-interference simply because the outward focus of your mind directs your body to move more effectively. Your brain and body can do amazing things when you stay out of the way.

Consider when you drive a car on the highway. Your focus is on the cars in front of you; it’s almost as if the car pilots itself. With an external focus such as the flagstick, your body knows what to do in golf as well.

There are times when no amount of external focus will correct an awkward set-up or an out-of-balance swing, but you will never consistently play your best golf until you move your body with freedom. In other words, until you give the ball a whack.

Tim O’Connor is Performance Coach at the ClubLink Academy at Glen Abbey. For help with your game, contact him at tim@oconnorgolf.ca or 519.835.5939.



About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!