Get results by focusing on what you really can control

windy_golfI wrote this column for the recent issue of Canadian Junior Golf Association magazine, and added a few new bits. I believe that focusing on process rather than results can pay dividends in most everything we do.

During a recent phone call with a 16-year-old client, he said gravely, “Coach, can I ask you something?”

He was bummed out about the qualifying event that he had played that day. He teed off focusing on a low number. But his front nine quickly devolved, one bad hole after another, and anger, frustration eventually led to resignation. Knowing the tournament was out of reach, he just tried to salvage the day—and he shot close to even par for the back nine like he often does.

“Why does that happen?” he asked with a note of desperation.

I told him it’s extremely common. It’s probably happened to you. Once you give up your expectations or hopes, you tend to relax, your swing starts to flow again and you play with more freedom. And you usually play better.

When we try hard to play well, we don’t.

And when we don’t try hard, we play well. (Stupid game!)

Largely, it’s an issue of control. The common mistake is to focus on things that we cannot control—namely score—versus focusing on matters that we can control.

You cannot control score. Don’t believe it? Say you can hit a perfect putt on the perfect line. Does it always go in? Definitely not. Wind, a bug, a grain of sand—anything—can knock it off line. You get bad bounces.

You also cannot control weather and playing conditions. It’s incredible that even on windy and cold days, players still focus on shooting a certain number. An 80 can be a great score for a low handicap player on a brutal day, or 90 for a mid-handicapper. If you judge your success based solely on score, you miss opportunities to learn more about yourself and having fun adapting to the conditions.

Focusing on score is a recipe for frustration. It’s human nature. We crave feeling in control. We feel safer. Consider nervous flyers. Most feel more in control driving a car although statistics prove airplanes are safer than automobiles.

Focusing on score also places your attention in the future; you’re concerned about a result. That can breed anxiousness that leads to tension and tight muscles, which impedes your natural athleticism.

Why not focus on things in which you can have 100 percent control? It doesn’t mean you have to give up on goals such as lowering your handicap, breaking a scoring barrier or winning a flight in your club championship. Actually, this approach helps you get there.

Rather than focus on results, focus on process. More specifically, focus on the elements or steps that you go through in the process of executing a golf shot. Take care of the process and the results eventually take care of themselves.

These elements can include things like visualization, developing a pre-shot routine, trusting your line, taking a drink of water on every tee box, focusing on breathing when your mind gets ahead of you, etc. It can be any number of things that you determine will make you a better player over time.

The cool thing about focusing on process is that you have complete control over performing these process goals, and you can gradually train yourself to improve them.

You can even score yourself using the Circle Game, which I learned from European performance coach Karl Morris. Let’s say you committed to taking a deep in-and-out breath before every shot (even tap-ins). If you took that breath before every shot on a hole, give yourself a circle on your scorecard for that hole. If you didn’t take a deep breath before every shot on a hole, no circle.

If you get 6-7 circles on your first attempt, that’s a great start. (It’s harder than you think.) But then the next round, you get 9, then 11, and so on. Over time, you’ll document evidence that you are learning that particular skill and incorporating it into your game.

By focusing on process goals, you learn as you develop them and sharpen them over time. You are in complete control, which builds confidence as you witness your improvement, and it’s a far more relaxing and enjoyable way to play golf.

Here’s the really cool part of focusing on process goals—you’ll eventually get the results that you’ve been seeking without trying so hard.

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!