What Should You Think About While You Swing? How Locus of Attention Can Help Your Performance
When most golfers are introduced to the game, it’s all about their golf swing. Keep your head still, get your hands here on your backswing, don’t forget to rotate! We are programmed to consciously think about what our bodies are doing at all times. It doesn’t stop either. No matter what level of player, the dominant form of instructional content focuses on the movement of the golf swing.
We collectively assume (and are taught) that we should be thinking about these things before, during, and after we swing. Often, this results in golfers playing “golf swing” and not the game itself.
But what if there were more productive thoughts that had nothing to do with the golf swing? In this article (and accompanying podcast), I’d like to make you aware of a concept called Locus of Attention. It’s a unique, powerful concept that can help just about any golfer improve their ball striking.
While we can’t completely control our minds on the golf course, I strongly encourage you to try some of these concepts. I think they will make a real difference.
The Three Loci
Generally speaking, there are three different loci of attention as it pertains to golf (or just about any other sport):
- Internal Focus: Concentrating on the movement itself, your actual golf swing. For example, what your arms or wrists are doing throughout the swing.
- External Focus: Thinking outside your body. This could be concentrating on striking a certain part of the clubface, brushing a blade of grass in front of the ball, or envisioning a certain trajectory or shot shape.
- Neutral Focus: Unrelated to the movement or process of the shot. A simple example is focusing on breathing. Another could be humming a song.
These can be broken down further, especially external focuses, but it’s best to think of them in these three buckets for the sake of simplicity.
Before I go into the merits, and potential downfalls, of each category, I encourage you to listen to our complete podcast episode on this topic. My co-host of the Sweet Spot, Adam Young, has done a ton of research on Locus of Attention and shares many of his insights from his book The Practice Manual. You can listen here.
There are many nuances, and while I paint some broad strokes in this post, I think you’ll be best served if you listen to the entire episode (yes, that’s a strong plug for our growing show).
Internal Focus – The Default
While this drawing has become satirical, there is a lot of truth to it:
For the most part, golfers play the game thinking about all of the internal movements of the golf swing. While internal thoughts can be productive and suit certain players better, they can limit many players from reaching their potential.
For example, if you were playing catch with a friend – would you think about what your arm and wrist need to do to throw the ball properly to the target? Probably not. If you did think about those things, you would likely struggle to complete the task and miss your mark.
We generally don’t obsess over form and mechanics in other sports as much as we do in golf. So then why should golf be any different?
I believe that if golfers start to move away from internal swing thoughts, especially on the golf course, and start to shift their attention elsewhere, they will free their bodies up to execute athletically. Most players can hit the kinds of shots they want to; sometimes, they have to get out of their own way!
One of the greatest examples I can think of comes from Dave Stockton’s book, Unconscious Putting. He gives an anecdote of someone driving a car on a highway. When you are driving, you don’t think about where your hands are on the wheel or how hard you have to press the gas pedal. However, if all of a sudden you see a police car in their rear-review mirror, your body will likely tense up, and you will start thinking about what your hands, arms, and legs are doing. Instead of driving the car, you are guiding the car.
Stockton found that most golfers putt like they have a cop car in their rear-view mirror. I’ll take his example even further; I think most golfers swing that way too!
This is why an external focus on the golf course can be so helpful to many golfers. It can get you out of “swing jail,” where you are constantly thinking about what your body is doing and moving more towards creating the result you want.
The Power of External Thoughts
Many golfers can have breakthroughs in their games when they start to shift their focus outside of their body and more on a task. I’ve seen the power in my own game, and many of Adam Young’s teachings are focused on golfers executing external tasks.
While there are many forms of external focuses, I’ve written about several practice methods on this site that are external in nature. In my article about how to practice the opposite of your faults, I give a few examples:
- If you’re striking it too close to the heel of the club, consciously try to hit the toe (measure with foot spray)
- Are you struggling with a nasty slice? Try to hit the biggest hook imaginable
- Do you hit your iron shots “fat?” Try consciously trying to strike the ground several inches in front of the ball during practice
If you notice, none of these tell you to externally rotate your shoulder more or tell you to get your hands higher in your backswing. That’s because I truly believe if you self-organize around a task like trying to strike the toe of your clubface, your body will start making the required movements without having to think about them consciously. In my opinion, this is where you want to get to with your game, especially on the golf course.
When I’m playing my best golf, I’m not worried about what my arms, legs, and hands are doing during my swing. I am solely focused on striking the turf in front of the ball with my irons. Or perhaps I’m envisioning playing a fade with my driver as a way to counteract an excessive hook that I’m fighting that day.
It’s not to say golfers can’t have success with internal swing thoughts on the course. There are plenty of examples of that working. Internal thoughts do have their time and place – perhaps when making a swing change or on the range. However, if I had to place a bet, I’d say more golfers are struggling because of internal thoughts than being helped by them.
I’d rather players unlock their inner athlete by shifting their attention away from the swing (as hard as that is to do).
Neutral Swing Thoughts
There is a third category of focus that doesn’t even involve golf at all. These are neutral thoughts such as humming the rhythm of a song or focusing on deep breathing in times of stress.
Many athletes refer to these thoughts as being “in the zone.” In my own game, I’ve had a lot of success in tournaments humming songs to myself (sometimes songs my kids listen to), or when I’m feeling a lot of pressure, I will consciously slow my body down and focus on slowing my breath in an almost meditative state.
Neutral thoughts aren’t for all golfers. On the whole, they’re probably better suited towards more skilled players. Thinking about something entirely different from golf can help certain players get out of their own way and allow their body to do what it knows how to do. Either way, they can be as impactful as an external focus for a beginner or intermediate player.
Experiment On Your Own
Now that you (hopefully) know there are different things you can think about other than the movement of your body, it’s time to experiment. Since all of our brains work differently, it’s best to experiment with what kinds of thoughts can help you get better results.
I think, on the whole, most of you will see incremental success going from internal to external thoughts. And for those of you who are a bit more experienced in the game, neutral thoughts can help just as much.
I’ll give one final plug to listen to our full podcast on Locus of Attention here. The Sweet Spot has quickly become one of the most popular golfer podcasts, with thousands of golfers tuning in around the world weekly. You can check out our full library of episodes here or search for us on any popular podcast platform.
Good advice, Adam, thanks. In my case, with learning a new skill, I probably initially begin with an Internal focus (grip, stance, etc.), then phase into the External focus.
Once in a while, I’ll engage Neutral focus, but it needs to be the deep, slow breathing. I’ve tried humming a song, but tend to end up with ‘Hall if the Mountain King’ or ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. Actually, if I hum Bob Dylan’s ‘Isis’ or ‘Sara’, I can make it work. 😉
Thanks again for this article.
Gunther K Roth says
I am interested in learning about proper breath control during tee shots, fairway shots, bunker shots, and at putting.
At set-up, during the back swing, at the top, during the down swing, during impact, during follow through,is it better to: inhale, exhale, shallow breathe or do nothing?
I am looking for professional input. I know that whatever works best now can be foundational.
Alex Parker says
Wow!! It is very rare that people come out and talk about thoughts and mental peace that is demanded by the game. I loved how you broke the whole concept into three categories and explained the role it plays in the game. Really liked your thoughts on this. Great blog.