When it comes to golf focus, your target may not always be what you think, but whatever you are thinking is always your target.
You might be wondering, what on earth does that mean? Golf psychology can be a tough nut to crack, but when you take the time to get to know how our minds work, you can have a better understanding of training your brain to focus better and improve your overall golf mental game.
One of the first places to focus on is just that: your golf focus. The inability to control one’s attention is a common problem that plagues golfers at every level from professional to amateurs. We think we are focused on one thing when in fact our attention is fixed on something else, and unless we know that that’s happening, that “something else” will become our new target.
Here is a classic example: you’re standing on the tee box ready to tee off, when out of the corner of your eye you see a pond that hugs the right side of the fairway. Immediately, your attention shifts from “strike it down the middle of the fairway” to “don’t go right.” You take the club back, swing and sure enough the ball goes right, splashing into the middle of the pond.
At the root of this problem is the simple lack of awareness as to what our target is at the moment when we choose to execute a shot. If you’re worrying about a pond, the pond will become your target. If you’re thinking about your grip, your grip will become your target. If you’re anxious about being embarrassed, embarrassment will become your target.
That is why we recommend the tactic of target-oriented golf to refocus your mind and improve your golf mental game. If you take the time to do some golf mental game practice, you can train yourself to focus and tune out other thoughts that try to take your attention away from the task at hand.
Train Yourself to Play Target-Oriented Golf
One of the biggest questions golfers wonder is what to focus on during a golf swing. Our answer is simple: focus on your target.
In its most quintessential form, golf is a game of targets. From your first shot to your last, you strategically plot your way along the course aiming at the targets you deem most likely to get the ball in the hole in as few shots as possible. Depending on skill level, some golfers are more successful than others at hitting their targets and thus are more likely to shoot lower scores.
From a mental perspective, one of the key psychological skills necessary to play successful target-oriented golf is, not surprisingly, target focus. Target focus has two key features and can be defined as:
- The conscious awareness of a chosen external target (e.g. a distant tree branch, a section of a fairway or a spot on a green)
- The ability to stay attentive to that target throughout the golf swing undistracted by external or internal stimuli.
The first part of target-oriented golf – choosing a target — is easy. Staying focused on your target during a golf swing, however, is not.
Focusing Golf Swing Thoughts
The key to succeeding in the second part of target-oriented golf – focusing on your target – is learning to quiet external and internal stimuli.
External stimuli refers to any possible distractions outside the mind of the golfer (e.g., weather, noise, course conditions, hazards, other people, etc.). Internal stimuli is any possible distractions inside the mind of the golfer (e.g., performance anxiety, fear, elation, negative self-talk, thoughts about swing mechanics, etc.).
The ability to stay attentive to that target throughout the golf swing, is something that even professional golfers find challenging.
Golf swing thoughts can often lead to attention slipping away from the chosen target to something else, which students often report as something internal. They start thinking about their swing, their setup or their grip. Negative thoughts creep in. They worry about whether or not the ball will go where they intend it to, or about what other people are going to think if they don’t perform well.
All the while, their chosen external target slips farther away from their awareness. Only the most vigilant golfers can bring their attention back to the original external target.
In psychology, this switching of attention, back and forth from one stimuli to another, is known as “toggling,” and it is thought to be one of the reasons why we can’t pay attention to two things at the same time. As our attention shifts, we lose sight of, or ignore, the thing we were previously paying attention to unless we turn our attention back to it.
Regaining Your Golf Focus
The bottom line is that whatever your attention is focused on will become your target, and as such, you will physically react accordingly. The first step to learning how to improve your mental golf game is to recognize the problem so you can correct it.
The more successful target-focused golfers are not distracted by external or internal interference. They stay fully committed to their original targets throughout their golf swing, and when they do get distracted, they are able to refocus undeterred.
Target-oriented golf is one of the many golf psychology skills we teach the players we work with, and it might be one of the most important.
Golf Mental Game Practice Exercises
Learning how to improve your mental golf game is the first step in overcoming “toggling” and committing to target-oriented golf. Through golf mental game practice, you can train yourself to focus on just one target without letting anything else cloud your mind.
Give these golf mental game exercises a try during your next practice.
Track Your Target Focus
Like greens in regulation, fairways hit, driving distance and scoring average, target focus can be tracked as well. Before your next competitive tournament, commit to keeping track of your target focus.
Either during or after your round (preferably during), make note, with a “Y” for yes and an “N” for no, of whether or not you stayed fully committed to each shot. If you weren’t, take note of what took your attention away. This can be done on your scorecard or a separate piece of paper. Like all other golf stats, you should start to see themes or patterns emerging that you can then more concretely address.
Staying With the Afterimage
Take a golf ball and place it on a putting green. Soften your gaze and simply stare at the ball for about 15 seconds or so. While continuing to stare, move the ball out of the way, fixing your gaze on the spot where the ball was. You should see an afterimage of the ball; a dark spot where the ball used to be.
See how long you can stay with the afterimage before it disappears. You will notice that if you blink or get distracted the image will fade quickly, but if you are able to stay focused, the afterimage will linger.
Putt Looking at the Hole
Putting while looking at the hole is a tactic that has been around for a long time and is a great way to practice target focus. Next time you are on the putting green, try hitting putts looking at the hole versus the ball.
The way it works is to set up the ball the way you normally would after you’ve lined up a putt. Before you take the club back, look at the hole instead of looking at the ball. As you are looking at the hole, make your stroke.
A common stumbling block to this exercise is worrying about mechanics. When we putt, we often become so caught up in the mechanics of our putting stroke that we forget about the real target, which is the hole. If this is you, stick with it. Let go of your concern about mechanics and just keep looking at the hole.
Focus on Your Landing Spot
When chipping or pitching the ball, practice hitting a specific landing spot. Imagine where the ball would need to land to get to the hole. It can sometimes be helpful to first take a ball or two and toss it underhand on the green to mimic the shot you want to hit.
Once you find the landing spot practice, hit shots to that spot to the best of your ability. Sometimes placing a golf towel flat on the landing spot can serve as a stronger visual target. Regardless, set up to the ball and connect to your targeted landing spot, taking a good mental picture.
When you turn back to the ball to hit the shot, do your best to keep that mental picture of your landing spot in your mind’s eye (similar to the afterimage exercise) and try to hold it there throughout the shot. This exercise can be done looking at the target in the same way as the putting exercise, but it becomes more difficult the further you move away from your target given the physical limitations of the body.
Small Distant Target
If we want to practice target focus, especially the further we get away from the green, choosing small distant targets will help. Our brains like certainty, and by choosing specific distant targets, we create a much clearer and more precise plan for our brains to follow.
An additional benefit is that by being so precise with our targets, it can act as a barrier to outside interference as our attention becomes so focused we lose awareness of external distractions. So, when you practice or play, choose small, distant targets, and the more specific the better.
At The Golf Performance Center, we believe learning how to improve your mental golf game is one of the 5 Elements of Success to improve your game overall, and becoming aware of target-oriented golf is a great way to improve your golf mental game.