Your focus is your most precious asset when playing golf. If you want to perform your best, you need to give every shot you hit your full attention! This means you have to focus at your best ability. What many golfers don't understand is that focus is a skill, and it needs to be practiced.
What does that mean? Well, working on your ability to focus doesn't mean practicing your ability to think more or how to think more intensely. In reality, better focus is more about quieting the mind and "sensing" or "allowing" more to happen. A lack of clear focusing ability is one of the main reasons why consistency is so hard to achieve in golf. If your attention is constantly distracted or you're trying too hard to think your way through a golf swing, then your scores will reflect a lack of focus, as well.
The number-one rule about any focus exercise is that it keeps you completely engaged through one or two of your senses for the entire swing, from beginning to end. One of the most common errors I see with regard to this is when a student anticipates too much. As golfers, it's common for us to anticipate the result of whatever swing or stroke we make. But when this happens incessantly, the mind races ahead of the present and all hell breaks loose! Good swings require that the conscious mind stays quiet or occupied on something that's in the present during the entire motion. In fact, this is an unwritten law of superior athletic performance. All great athletes are able to get themselves in the present during their performances. The challenge with golf is that each performance is separated by a fairly lengthy time and you have to initiate the motion. You don't get to react to something or someone moving toward you like you do in most sports.
Here are some of my favorite focus exercises that you can practice on the range, and even better, on the course. Several of these exercises are from the likes of some of the best golf instructors in the industry: Fred Shoemaker, Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson, and Timothy Gallwey. All of them have been instrumental influences in my teaching and have great books that every golfer should read!
FEEL YOUR BALANCE Balance is a nonnegotiable fundamental. Doing these simple, but very effective exercises will help you improve your stability during a swing and learn to swing without a mind full of bad swing thoughts. Focusing on balance easily distracts your conscious mind from worrying about too many things during the swing. It's also a great way to get loose, both physically and mentally.
To get started on developing a better kinesthetic awareness (feel), try and make a few swings (with or without a ball, that's your choice) with your feet together. Swing easy, then make full-speed swings, and keep at it until you're able to hold your balance. Next, do the same thing, but on your right foot. Then, do it on your left foot. Finally, finish making some golf swings with your eyes closed. The goal is to develop a feel for your swing's balance and let go of result-oriented thinking.Start this drill with the feet together, making at least five swings. Do the same here, and make five or more swings off your right leg. Again! But now make some swings off your left leg. Finally, close your eyes and swing five times! I like this drill without a ball, but you can use one if you'd like.
GET A GRIP This exercise, much like the tempo exercises on the following pages, will help you develop a better sensitivity to the clubhead, improving your overall ability to feel and time your swing. When grip pressure is too tight or sometimes too loose, we lose feel of the clubhead, and it becomes difficult to make solid contact.
Many players feel their shots in their hands, so being fully aware of your grip pressure from beginning to end can be a great way to get present. Try to keep your grip pressure constant all the way through the swing. Start by hitting five shots with soft grip pressure. Do the same with medium soft grip pressure, medium pressure and so on, until you reach the firmest pressure you can handle. Then, swing with whatever pressure level helped you not only hit the best shots, but that felt the best in your hands. This simple set of exercises will have your hands "feeling" more comfortable.
SOFT Imagine gripping the club as easily and softly as you can without losing control of the club. This is the old "small bird in the hands" sensation. Hold it soft, but not too soft that the bird flies away, and not too firm, that you hurt the bird.
MEDIUM SOFT This firmness is probably how you hold your putter. The hands are relaxed, but the club is relatively secure in the fingers. It's where most golfers feel comfortable holding the club.
MEDIUM The hands are flexing more with medium grip pressure. It's not too tight that the wrists start locking up, but visibly, the knuckles are showing some whiteness and the forearms are flexing.
MEDIUM FIRM This level is what it feels like when the club is getting wet from rain and you're afraid the club will slip out of your hands. Both hands are clenched and the tension is through the fingers, all the way to the elbows.
FIRM Imagine your grip coated in butter! Grip the club as firmly as you can while still making a golf swing. Try and keep the pressure even in both hands, and hold the handle firmly well into the finish position.
TEMPO TIMER Many golfers suffer from what I call "golf ADD." By the time the swing starts, their mind goes all over the place and their swing falls apart. These following tempo exercises are challenging, but will help you get better at keeping your focus on one simple thing–the duration/rhythm of your swing.
Great tempo is connected to great focus, too. As you've probably noticed in the other exercises, when you start to get "into the zone," your tempo seems to find a smoothness that isn't there when you're thinking or anticipating. There's no rush to the motion. So, practice hitting balls at different tempos from beginning to end. Grab a buddy to help you do this, and have him/her keep track of which tempo works best for you.
To start, hit five balls where the swing takes a full five seconds from beginning to end. Then, hit five balls again, only now make a swing that takes a full four seconds from beginning to end. Do the same routine for a three-second duration, and then, finally, hit five balls with the fastest tempo you can make while still making decent contact with the golf ball.
After you do this, go back and determine which tempo was best for you. Was it three seconds? Five? Maybe you're somewhere in the middle at four seconds. The point is to find the right tempo for your swing and not have it be either too slow or too fast (most golfers who have tempo issues are too fast). Once you feel the tempo that works best for you, stick with it and practice at that pace!
FIVE IN A ROW In order to become a more relaxed and focused player, you need to discover that your swing has a natural, repeatable rhythm to it. To do that, I like to employ the five-ball drill. Simply line up five balls as I have here, and get ready to hit all five in a continuous flow–one after another.
To add some dimension to this drill, try and say, "Hit!" at the very moment you make contact with each ball. If you're saying hit early, you're anticipating the shot and you're not staying focused. If you tend to say it on time or a little late, you're experiencing the present feel of a focused golf swing. This drill will help you improve the timing of your swing, especially with regard to syncing the clubhead, the arms swing and the body swing.
GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME Many golfers suffer from some sort of anxiety in the bunker. This focus exercise can help free you from anxiety and, in turn, help you focus more on what you really need to feel–the clubhead doing the work.
Without a ball, make a practice swing in the sand, and keep your full attention on the clubhead–all the way through to the finish. Visualize how it moves, how it interacts with the sand, and the distance and direction it travels. Be conscious of the move and how it feels. Then, do the same with an actual ball in the bunker. Don't worry about results or getting the ball airborne. Stay focused on the clubhead! As you shift your awareness off the ball (you're not making direct contact with the ball anyway), you'll develop a better sense of feel of how the clubhead interacts with the sand. With that, you'll be more confident in your golf swing, and it will produce better results. So focus on the clubhead, not the ball!
SEE THE SPOT Fred Shoemaker is one of my favorite instructors–I'd be remiss not to give credit where it's due. I learned this drill from him, and it's tops for helping you develop more focus over short putts. The key is to focus on the golf ball, not the putterhead or the stroke. First, find yourself a bright-colored ball. I like to use a pink one because it contrasts well with the green grass. Next, relax your eyes as you stare at the whole ball for 10 to 15 seconds. Let it fill your vision, and release any facial, arm or hand tension. Then, when you feel ready, putt the ball, but keep your eyes fixed on the ground where the ball once was. You should see a dark spot (sometimes a distinct color, depending on what color ball you use) about the size of the ball, which eventually will fade away.
Do this 10 times without a target, and see how long the spot can last. Then, do this on three- or four-foot putts using your regular golf ball. The goal is to still see the phantom ball effect and relax over the ball, and help take your mind off controlling your stroke. Simply focusing on the golf ball and not on whether you make or miss the putt will help you, especially if you have a tendency to "yip" those short putts. This exercise will keep you down through the stroke and also take the jerkiness away from your putting motion.
Dan Martin, PGA, teaches at Rustic Canyon Golf Course in Moorpark, Calif. For more information, visit danmartingolf.com.