Updated: Dec 7, 2020
One of the most common questions I get from golfers is precisely what I titled this article, "How do I control my focus on the golf course?" Whether that distraction is your opponent's skill level, replaying a bad shot in your mind from a previous round, or even what your last two bogeys will do to your final score, loss of focus can turn a bad shot into a lousy hole or worse. If you have ever experienced walking up to a tee box, with a hazard to one side, saying to yourself, "don't go in the water, please don't go in the water, just...don't go in the water..." - SPLASH - you know exactly what I am talking about.
Repeating the same golf swing over and over uses muscle memory, which we know from brain scan technology, merely is neurons firing in a similar pattern over and over. BUT, when we introduce something like focusing on a water hazard, all of a sudden, our brains are focused on something else, and that pattern of neurons firing gets disrupted. It is the same thing basketball players experience at the free-throw line. If their focus is on the situation or the crowd, it becomes tough to repeat that same smooth shot motion they have practiced thousands of times. Just like we discussed in the System 1 and System 2 article, this is simply System 1 automatically focusing on something that it perceives as a threat (in this case the water hazard).
Here are some steps to take back control of your focus on the golf course:
"Just don't think about it" doesn't work. If you have ever heard the pink elephant example, it goes something like this: don't think about a pink elephant for 30 seconds...ready, go! Inevitably you probably pictured a pink elephant or at least thought about one. This phenomenon is called the ironic process theory and was first studied by Daniel Wegner in 1987. You can't just not think about something like a hazard or any other distraction. Instead, multitasking and brain activity research shows you can focus on something you choose, which in our terminology is simply System 2 being intentional about where you direct your focus.
Focus on what you can control. To start, write Things I Cannot Control on one side of a piece of paper and Things I Can Control on the other side and then draw a line right down the middle. Start by listing what you have focused on in the past or might focus on in the future that are out of your control. Usually, it is easy to come up with the obvious things like weather, course conditions, and previous rounds. Sometimes it is more challenging to realize that you also cannot control your current score or your opponent's score, as they are in the past. Some golfers even have a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that once they hit a putt, they can no longer control anything about where the shot goes, green imperfections that bump it off track or even misreading the break. After you hit a shot, you can learn from it, but you can no longer control anything about what happened. To maximize your next shot, you will have to move on at some point. On the other side of the page, you should have things like attitude, focus, what's next, pre-shot routine, or your self-talk, all of which you can control. While it may seem elementary to some, the act of writing this down will take things you can and cannot control out of your working memory (which has a limited capacity). This shift allows your brain to switch from creating and memorizing a checklist to thinking of ways you can apply this next time you are on the course.
Focus on what matters now. Another trap that golfers fall into is worrying about things that don't matter right now. If your long irons are feeling "off" and you need to fix something in your swing, the middle of a round is probably not the time to do it. Focusing on improving hands, hips, swing path, or anything else distracts you from focusing on the course or your next shot. If you have ever tried to putt while worrying about how you will fix your drive on the next tee box, you know what I am talking about and have probably experienced firsthand the impact that those thoughts had on your putting muscle memory. To be clear, I am not saying that you shouldn't make small tweaks or adjustments on the course. If the wind is taking your ball 15 yards left, you should unquestionably adjust your aim point, but trying to perform a significant swing overhaul midround should instead be saved for the practice range later. Does course mismanagement or improper club selection matter? Is that something you should fix and learn from? Yes, absolutely. Does it matter right now? No, absolutely not. So don't focus on it during your round, take care of it later.
Give yourself "permission to forget". What if you can't stop thinking about fixing those long irons midround? Having a permission to forget journal can be a lifesaver or at least a round saver. We know that studies like this one show that having unfinished tasks can impair our sleep because we tend to "ruminate" over them, which is just another way of saying they swirl around and around in our minds. One way to fix this has been tested in multiple studies like this one that show journaling before bedtime can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Why does journaling help us forget about those things temporarily so that we can drift off to sleep? In short, the part of our brain that wants to "fix things" basically says, "ok, we will take care of that later" which allows it to let it go. Just like a to-do list for my wife allows her to take a breath and not feel so overwhelmed by what seems like a million things, journaling before sleep helps us organize our thoughts, clarify our thoughts, and not ruminate or feel helpless. All of which leaves us feeling more confident and in control. The same thing can work for a golfer on the course if there is something they cannot quit thinking about. Writing down a simple reminder to "fix long iron slice with my swing instructor next Tuesday" allows that part of your brain to stop ruminating over the problem and get back to merely playing. A permission to forget journal is a little bit tougher for some of my other team sport athletes, but something they can keep in their locker and write in after practice. On the golf course since you already have a bag, you can easily carry around a notebook or even just place some blank sheets in the back of your scorecard holder.
Focus on what is next. Two of the most common distractions in my experience that affect golfers are previous shots and the impact on their future score. Whether that is ruminating on the slice you just hit or worrying about whether you will be able to shoot a particular score, changing your focus to what is next can quickly redirect your attention to what matters the most that you can control - your next shot! After your tee shot, focus on what the next shot is going to require from you. Where will you try to go with your next shot, approximately what distance are you at, what club will you need, what obstacles could come into play, and what shape will your next shot require? Focusing on these things allows you to focus on what you can control and what matters the most, but even more importantly, it distracts you from focusing on other things that either don't matter right now or are outside of your control. The next step after you arrive at your ball and figure out what you are going to do would be going through your pre-shot routine. A good pre-shot routine should prepare your mind and body for this shot. This intentional focus also prevents you from going back or going forward in your mind. For example, while you are standing over your ball, getting ready to make a putt is not the time to go back to what a horrible approach shot you just had. Right before your approach shot is not the time to wonder if this is the right club. We will dive deeper into this in a future article about pre-shot routines (or you can check out our podcast episode about them here), but the concept of focusing on what is the next step is a universal tool that can be used all over the golf course.
To control your focus on the golf course, you need to:
Be aware of what your mind tends to focus on
Have a plan to redirect your focus to what matters now that you can control
Focus on what is next
Practice doing this! Which leads us to our final section - the action plan.
Before your next round, set a goal for what you will focus on before and after particular shots. Maybe something like, "I will not focus on my final score, and when it comes up in my mind, I will instead focus on what is next" or "I will not doubt my club selection or shot selection. I will commit to it and let it rip!"
You can keep your regular score on your scorecard (at the bottom or even bring a separate scorecard with you) but pick out a section where you can put a checkmark or an X for each hole. When you write down your score at the end of each hole, place a checkmark if you reached your focus goal or an X if you got off target and didn't redirect your focus onto what's next. When you tally up your score at the end of the round, tally up your checkmarks, and X's so that you can see a final score for those.
Reminder: Don't get frustrated if the first round doesn't go as well as you would have liked. Simply use it as a reminder that the next time you will improve your focus and get back on track when System 1 wants to distract you.
It can take some work, but you can take back control of your focus! Make your plan and put it to work! Our next article will look at controlling that little voice in the back of your mind while you are on the course.