When people talk about golf psychology, most have no idea what it entails. Some envision sitting on a couch whilst a Freudian gentleman talks to you about your game, and others think that it involves psyching yourself up before a tournament in the style of an American football team before the superbowl. Most people believe that golf psychology is ‘not for me’ and aimed simply at professionals who have already mastered their swing. Whilst it is true that a professional can get a lot out of the correct psychology, so too can complete beginners.
A simple thing, such as the type of thought you have over the golf ball, can dramatically transform your game for the better, or completely ruin your chances of making a good shot. Although everyone is different and needs instruction tailored to them specifically, there are some universal ideas that hold true in 99% of cases. In my experience, beginners are better off with an internal swing thought, whereas for better players it can vary wildly. The type of swing thought will also vary from shot to shot, depending on what you face.
So what exactly is an internal and external swing thought? I would define internal thoughts as anything that keeps your mind on the process, not on what you are trying to achieve. For example, a swing thought that keeps your conscious mind on the movement of your body, or the club, can constitute internal focus. On the other hand, a thought of hitting the ball high, or hitting to the target with a certain shape can be an external focus. Whilst it is true that all thoughts generally have some cross over, when your mind is more than a couple of meters outside of your body (such as in visualising the landing area) I would consider this external.
Let’s take an example of a 30 yard pitch shot over a bunker. For a beginner, the main problem is getting the ball up in the air and on the green. The main skill to make this happen is to hit the ground in the correct place – as close to the ball as possible. If (as most beginners do) this person has an external focus of visualising the ball flying high over the bunker, they are likely doomed for failure. Visualising a high shot will tell the player’s instinct to go backwards and try to lift and get under the ball. This will result in the ball either being chunked into the bunker, or a skulled shot flying indefinitely over the hazard. In this case, it would be better if the player devoted all of their conscious effort into purely hitting the ground in the right place to the exclusion of all else, as an external thought is in direct conflict with this. I would even go so far as making a beginner do practice swings next to the ball, then hit the shot without even taking a look at the target, as a single look could be enough to dramatically reduce their ability to hit the ground correctly.
The same 30 yard shot over a bunker can be a completely different experience for a professional. They already possess the skill and ability to hit the ground in the correct place (although this can always be refined), so directing their attention to this skill may not be the most efficient way to improve performance. For a skilled golfer, visualising the target, landing zone, trajectory, spin and bounce are more appropriate goals. In fact, bringing in an internal swing thought (such as a technique thought) will usually detract from their ability to get the ball to the hole.
As a side note, if a good player has the ability to hit great shots, yet cant reproduce them in a tournament situation, a third type of thought can be brought in – a neutral thought. In this situation, the player may be suffering from fear, or is just unable to get out of the way of themselves. A neutral thought, such as breathing out during the swing, can help the player produce the shots they know they are capable of producing without the interference that was causing the problems on the course. Although this type of thought could be considered internal, I call it neutral as to differentiate it further. Also, this type of thought is not generally golf swing related.
This internal/external focus idea can also vary across the board from shot to shot. For example, I generally prefer an external focus (target oriented) for putting, and internal for pitching. For long game, it can vary depending upon whether we are going through a technique change, or we are making their current swing work better for them. The main way that this idea varies, is whether or not the vital components of the technique have been learned and ingrained. For example, in chipping and pitch shots, hitting the ground as close to the ball as possible and the correct depth are vital components (not technical things such as body movement). Striking the centre of the clubface is one of what I consider the vital components of the full game also. Generally, the more learned and ingrained the vital components are, the more external the thought should be.
This idea, as a result of the above, should vary depending upon what mode you are in also – learning or playing. If you are learning something new, you should have as much of your conscious mind on your new move. Any external thoughts will be like directing computer processing power to another application. Thusly, your swing move will be much harder to ingrain, and you will be slower to learn it. The best learners I see have the ability to focus purely on what they are trying to do to the exclusion of all else. The worst learners are so concerned with the result that they cannot change their movement even the slightest. On the other hand, a player that has learned something to a good degree would be wise to limit thoughts of ‘how to do it’ and focus more on ‘what to do’. For example, have you ever tried to explain to someone how to drive a stick shift car whilst driving yourself; our performance becomes poor because our conscious mind is now interfering with what it can do perfectly well subconsciously.
As with all things, there are always exceptions to the rule, and places where you may need to change your strategy. I certainly become more inwardly focused when faced with a trouble shot that I have not come across too often, and even prefer to be inwardly focussed on a chip shot even though I have the skills to produce the correct technique. Sometimes it even changes from day to day. The only way to really find out for yourself is through experimentation. Drop 10 balls down and try to go with an internal thought, marking down your results scientifically (such as average distance from the pin). Do the same for an external thought, and then repeat the process for a whole bunch of different shots. But by getting the correct thought (for you) over the golf ball, we can shave quite a few shots off our games without even (consciously) changing our techniques.