Mind Games: Corral your swing thoughts

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How to stop your mid-swing brainwork sabotaging your play out on the course

This tip comes from TG Top 50 coach Karl Morris, who has worked with Major winners including McDowell and Oosthuizen. Find out more www.themindfactor.com 

So you've played beautifully, five under your handicap... and all because of one little thought you've been telling yourself throughout the round. "Back to target", "Slow from the top", "Balance"... It could be any of a thousand swing cues.

Whatever the thought is, it is the key to unlocking your real ability. So you bounce out a few days later, full of confidence and eager to put the magic thought back to work. Only, of course, it doesn't.

I'll wager you are all familiar with this frustrating swing thought pattern; and quite possibly also the one where one thought becomes, two, then three, then five... until the headache becomes unbearable and you ditch them all. The usual experience then is to play superb golf for 13 holes until a poor shot causes that first little thought to sneak back in... and the cycle continues.

This would seem to confirm what some quarters of sports psychology have been telling us for years – that you should forget your swing and think about the target, or your ball flight. But this is not my experience. I've worked with masses of elite players who have told me they've won tournaments using mechanical swing thoughts. Clearly, when it comes to swing thoughts, there is no one single piece of wisdom that applies to all.

There are ultimately four places you can direct your attention when you swing the club:
➡︎ The target
➡︎ The club/ball
➡︎ Your body

Something totally unrelated to your task, for example humming a tune. Based on what I have seen work at all levels of the game, my advice to you is to pick a focus based on where you are with your game.

If your swing is under control and you are playing well, thinking target and ball flight can be liberating and effective. If you are working on something – perhaps eradicating a particular flight that's troubling you – and you've been given a cue from your coach, you'll need to cue that on the golf course as well.

A more mechanical thought will be appropriate. Of those four focuses above, perhaps the most intriguing is the final one. When your conscious mind gets too involved in directing your body, it actually begins to interfere with the motor program needed to swing the club. Focusing your attention on something unrelated to the task can be effective for some people as it frees them up.

If this rings bells with you, give it a try... but also check out golf psychologist Carey Mumford's work on so-called "clear keys", as they broadly work on the same principle. Picking the right type of swing thought for the state of your game is important, but the second part of the solution is to harness how you use swing thoughts.

To do that, follow these three guidelines:

➡︎ Commit to limiting yourself to one swing thought. Placing your attention on a single area is a key focus tool validated by the entire discipline of meditation – as well as Adam Scott. "Whatever I'm working on, I like to keep one swing thought in my head when I'm on the course," he says. "Keeping it simple helped me at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston in 2013."

➡︎ Base technical thoughts on advice from a coach. Unfortunately we golfers are a bit like magpies when it comes to swing thoughts, picking up anything that looks good. This is often why they are typically so flaky. An effective coach helps you understand yourself. They will reveal your chief tendencies to you, and as most swings don't actually change much, you will quickly grasp the two or three key thoughts that might apply to your game. Regular meetings with the same coach will also stop you overdoing a useful thought.

➡︎ If you don't have a long-term relationship with a coach, learn from past experience of "bullet-proof" swing thoughts that have let you down and take a more flexible, short- term approach. Make time to hit some balls before the round, keeping your mind clear and observing your swing. Your body will tell you what you have on the day, and what thought will serve you. This is not as useful as targeted thoughts from your coach, but it will avoid the frustration of seeing the thought that worked so well last time lose its power.