MIND IN GOLF: CONCENTRATION – PUBLISHED IN GOLF DIGEST SOUTH AFRICA

When we say to our better-ball partner, “Come on now, concentrate!”, what do we mean by that?. We also often hear, “I’ve lost my concentration” or “He’s lost his concentration.” What do we mean by that? What do we want our partner to do, and what have we lost?


Dr Deon van Zyl

Very simply put, concentration is AWARENESS of something, either something outside ourselves (like the wind, slopes, flag etc.) or something inside ourselves (like a thought or feeling). In essence we are always concentrating, because during a waking state we are always aware of something. If however we are engaged in a task, but our awareness is somewhere else, on irrelevant or unrelated things, then we are not concentrating. So we want our partner to be more aware, but actually, we want him to be aware of the things that are relevant, and that relate to the shot at hand. When we’ve lost our concentration, we haven’t lost our awareness, we were just aware of outside and inside things that were not relevant to the shot we were playing.

Concentration then is the ability to direct your outer and inner awareness to aspects that are relevant and important to the shot at hand. In-between shots you can be aware of anything, like the trees, clouds, the conversation, inner fantasies about your dinner-date tonight, feelings of frustration, peace etc. But during the 45 seconds or so, before you play the shot, your awareness needs to move towards relevant aspects of the task at hand. Standing over the ball and thinking about your uncut lawn is inner awareness, but because it’s not related to the present task of playing a golfshot, it’s not good concentration.

One of the very best practices to direct your outer and inner awareness just before you play the shot, is the so-called “pre-shot routine”. Tiger Wood’s dad called it the S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure) and drilled the importance of it into Tiger’s mind from a very young age. All good players have a routine that is uniquely suitable to them, but all routines aim to achieve concentrated awareness of what is to be done, the execution of the shot.

Well known Psychologist, Robert Nideffer, gave us the ingredients of concentrated awareness, which he calls attention. In golf it consists of:

  • Broad external awareness (slopes, wind, terrain, humidity)
  • Narrow external awareness (your lie and your target)
  • Broad internal awareness (calculating yardage and club selection)
  • Narrow internal awareness just before you hit the shot (setup and posture checks, visualizing the shot trajectory/path, and sometimes one simple swing thought or cue – which can be an internal picture/image, a word or a feeling)

Whatever you do in the minute or so before you hit the ball, these four ingredients should be part of your concentration routine. People differ a lot when it comes to Narrow Internal Awareness, and that is where I’ve developed a way of assessing what works best for different people according to their own unique concentration style. Jack Nicklaus was always great on making internal pictures and visualizing, while Gary Player did a lot of internal “self-talking”. Colin Montgomerie or John Daly play more on internal “feel”. We are all different, and you need to find what works for you through practice and good professional advice.

CASE EXAMPLE:

I put Ryan through his concentration paces on the practice tee and together we made a few adjustments that could improve his concentration, and are relevant to his unique concentration style. Remember this is RYAN’s ROUTINE. Your concentration routine can be totally different, although the ingredients in the left-hand column should be included:

CONCENTRATION INGREDIENTS
RYAN (Present Routine)
RYAN(Recommended New Routine)
Broad external awareness (slopes, wind, terrain, humidity) He skims over this very quickly. Just a very general feel of the wind. Take a few seconds to “tune into” the broad external environment. The minute you become aware of slopes, wind, terrain etc, the double drop, three-putt or eagle from the previous hole go out of your mind. This is the beginning of good concentration.
Narrow external awareness (ball lie and target) Sufficiently engaged with this. From behind, he looks at the line from the ball to the target, and makes a mark in front of the ball on the target line. This is fine for Ryan. From behind, look at the line from the ball to the target, and make a mark in front of the ball on the target line.
Broad internal awareness (calculating yardage and club selection) Doesn’t do his own calculations. Too dependent on the caddy for this. Do your own calculations first and then double-check with the caddy. This is part of good concentration. While you are calculating distance and club selection, you’re not thinking about tonight’s dinner or the uncut lawn!
Narrow internal awareness just before you hit the shot (setup and posture checks, visualizing the shot trajectory/path, and sometimes one simple swing thought or cue – which can be an internal picture/image, a word or a feeling) Does a grip check before his practice swing, and just before the actual swing. His swing-thought varies from a quick picture of his ideal swing to giving himself short words or phrases like “Don’t go steep”, “Take it inside”, “Keep it flat”. Too technical and instructional, and the word “don’t” just makes you think of what comes immediately after it…”go steep”. It’s like saying “Don’t think of a leopard”, and a leopard is exactly what then comes to mind! Grip checks for Ryan are fine. Once it becomes automatic it isn’t necessary any more. My assessment shows that Ryan’s concentration style works best with a simple visual key, which is a mental picture of his ideal swing or stroke, combined with a feel or sense in his body of the desired move. If he does this during the practice swing, his attention is on the desired positive move, not on “don’ts” and other technicalities.

Remember, different players should have different routines, because we all concentrate differently, especially when it comes to “Narrow Internal” attention. Here are a few narrow internal swing thoughts that won major championships. Note how positive and simple they are:

  • Seve Ballesteros while winning the British Open - “Right shoulder behind neck” (on the backswing!)
  • The same Seve while winning the U.S. Masters – “One Piece”
  • Gary Player – “I’m a chicken on a spit” (rotating around the spine)
  • Bobby Jones – “Swing past the chin”
  • Sam Snead – “Oily”
  • Jan Stephenson (Multiple LPGA winner) – “Feathers” (soft feeling during putting)
  • Hale Irwin – “Hands sliding down a Supertube”
  • Ernie Els (just before the 5-iron on the 17th that won him the 1997 US Open) – “Low back and slow through”

The narrow internal swing thought “dials your swing”, triggers the desired move, and establishes a connection between the brain and the muscles. But remember to keep it simple, a picture, word/short phrase or just a feeling.

In the end, all routines aim to achieve four things: to assess the external conditions, to pick a target and the correct club, to align and set up properly to the chosen target, and to focus your thinking/feeling narrowly and positively on the desired move.

In essence we want to be fully involved and absorbed in the WHERE and the HOW of the shot. A good pre-shot routine does not take more than 45 seconds, zooms you away from all external and internal distractions, reduces negative emotions, and keeps you fully in the present moment. Find a routine that suits you, and does not irritate your fellow competitors!

The Philosopher Plato could’ve talked about a pre-shot concentration routine when he said: “Take charge of your thoughts, you can do what you will with them” or in simple terms “where the mind goes, the behind follows!”

Dr Deon van Zyl is a Clinical Psychologist and a former Associate Professor at the University of Pretoria. He’s been working in the field of Golf Psychology since the early 1980’s, and has assisted many of our top golfers and teams. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.