Unless you have been actively incorporating a target into your off-season training, one of the challenges of heading outdoors, after practicing inside all winter, is swinging to an external target. For most, indoor practice sessions tend to lean heavily on technique, and lose sight of external target focus. Working on your swing is never a bad thing. Afterall, when Steve Stricker, a Wisconcinite and no stranger to the cold, won PGA Comeback Player of the Year in 2006 and 2007, he attributed much of his success to relentlessly banging balls into a net in a heated trailer in his backyard. Regardless, honing technique will undoubtedly improve your game, however, unless you’re connecting those swings to an external target, you’re not getting the most out of your practice time and could be reinforcing a bad habit. By focusing your attention on swing alone without adding a target to the equation, you run the risk of ingraining the idea that technique should guide the swing above all else.
As a quick background note, the way our attention works is pretty simple, we focus, either consciously or unconsciously, on those things we deem most salient in any given moment. If, for example, you’re sitting on your couch watching television and the doorbell rings, the noise of the doorbell will automatically pull your attention away from the television. This attention grab can also be a conscious one. Say you’re standing on the first tee and you become aware of how nervous you are waiting to tee off. You can choose to focus on your nervousness, or you can choose to focus on piping your drive down the middle of the fairway. Importantly, whatever you choose to focus on will become the “target” of your attention. Remember, we aim at what we see.
So, as the weather begins to warm and we start to transition outside here in the Northeast, we can’t forget about the target. Here are a few drills to help bring target back into your practice:
Drill 1 – Staying with the after image
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. This is a great exercise to practice staying connected to a target and translate beautifully to hitting any golf shot. Importantly, golf is one of the few sports where the player doesn’t look at the target they are aiming at. So, we have to rely on our ability to hold the image of our target in our mind when we look away to hit the shot. This is a good drill to begin practicing that skill.
Drill 2 – Putt looking at the hole
Putting while looking at the hole a has been around long before Jordan Speith and it is a great way to practice target focus. Next time you are on the putting green try hitting putts looking at the hole. The way it works is to set up the ball the way you normally would after you’ve lined up a putt, but 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 without looking back down to the ball. Try and stay as focused on the hole as possible. 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. Let go of your concern about mechanics and just keep looking at the hole while you putt. If you can truly focus your attention at the hole, you will be amazed by how pure your stroke will become and by the accuracy of your putts. This drill is also a great reminder of what the true target should be and how tempted we are to default to technique.
Drill 3 – 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 based on the lie of the ball, the loft of the club, and the height of the shot. 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 hitting 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.