Before reading this article, please watch the following video: Selective Attention Test
What did you learn about your ability to pay attention? Did you count the correct number of passes? Did you see the person in the gorilla suit the first time? Don’t worry if you didn’t, most people don’t, and in fact, the way our brains are wired makes it nearly impossible to consciously pay attention to two things at once. The world around us is bombarding us with far too much information for our brain to process it all so we only focus on the information that we determine to be the most salient or meaningful at the time. This is called selective attention. As the video you just watched demonstrated, when you focus, or selectively attend, to one specific thing (in this case the number of basketball passes) you fail to notice all the other information around you (a person in a gorilla suit walking in between the people passing the basketball). This failure to notice information that we are not paying attention to is call inattentional blindness. In essence, if we aren’t paying attention to something, it doesn’t exist.
What does this have to do with golf you might ask?
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 golf” is, not surprisingly, target focus. Target focus has two key features and can be defined as: (1) 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), and (2) the ability to stay attentive to that target throughout the golf swing undistracted by external or internal stimuli. By external stimuli, I am referring to any possible distractions outside the mind of the golfer (e.g. weather, noise, course conditions, hazards, other people, etc.) By internal stimuli, I am referring to any possible distractions inside the mind of the golfer (e.g. performance anxiety, fear, elation, negative self-talk, thoughts about swing mechanics, etc.).
Having worked with many golfers over the years, the first part of being target focused is easy. If you hand a golfer a club no matter their skill level, point them down a fairway and ask them to choose a target, they will be able to do so. An interesting note, which I will get into later when I suggest ways to work on target focus, when you ask a high handicap golfer to pick a target, they often chose targets that are non-specific and closer to them in proximity (e.g. the fairway or the green). When you ask lower handicap golfers to pick a target they chose very specific and distant targets (e.g. a cart path sign or the left edge of a bunker). The second part of target focus, the ability to stay attentive to that target throughout the golf swing, is something that even the professional golfers I work with find challenging. Again, choosing a target for a professional golfer is not the problem, being able to stay focused on that target is the true test. The shift is often subtle and their attention inevitably seems to slip away from their chosen target to something else, which my students often report is 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 any 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 mentioned and demonstrated earlier, 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. A common example of how this works is texting while driving. Hopefully you don’t text while you drive, but if you have, think back to the last time you did and how difficult (and dangerous) it was to drive as your attention shifted back and forth from the road to your phone. There may even have been a time where you almost drove off the road, or narrowly avoided an accident. Interestingly, if I asked you if you were able to pay attention to both your phone and the road at the same time, you would say, “yes” despite clear evidence to the contrary. Importantly, our perceptions of our abilities to attend are skewed, and despite our beliefs, when our attention shifts from one thing to another, we become blind to the previous thing we were focused on.
These principles apply to golf as well. If, as you prepare to hit a shot, you appropriately focus your attention on an external target, say a tree in the distance and then start worrying about your backswing, your attention will shift from the tree in the distance to “worrying about your backswing”. If you are unaware that your attention has shifted, as most people are, “worrying about your backswing” then becomes your new target, and you become blind to your original target (the tree in the distance) in the same way you were unable to see the person in the gorilla suit. It should be no surprise then that if you focus your attention on “worrying about your backswing”, without consciously reconnecting to your original target, the odds of you hitting that original target decrease significantly simply because you’re no longer paying attention to it.
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. Let me give you a classic example, your 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 “stripe 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 chose 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.
The bottom line is that whatever your attention is focused on will become your target, and as such, you will physically react accordingly. In other words, you will swing to the target that is in the sites of your attention. Focus on the pond and, more likely than not, you will create a swing that finds the pond. As noted earlier, 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 focus is one of the many psychological skills I teach the players I work with, but it might be one of the most important. My experience tells me that if you hold a golfer’s technical ability to swing a club as a constant, working only on improving target focus can dramatically improve scoring ability. I fully understand that being aware of how your attention “toggles” back and forth from one thing to another is difficult and takes time, but with work it can be the key component to taking your game to the next level.
Ways to practice target focused golf:
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 and if you weren’t what took your attention away. This can be done on your scorecard of 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 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. The 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.
Putt looking at the hole
Putting while looking at the hole 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 to 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. 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. 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.
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 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.”
During the 2015 Masters, which Jordan Spieth won, his caddy, Michael Greller would say, “small distant target” as a reminder to Jordan right before he would hit a shot. I have no doubt that that swing thought greatly contributed to Jordan’s success that week. 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 small 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, chose small, distant targets, and the more specific the better (e.g. a leaf on a tree, a rock, a ball mark on the green, etc.)