Effect of Focus Techniques on the Putting Stroke

Daniel M. Rockers
Ph.D Sports Psychologist,
Sacramento California



What are the immediate changes in the putting swing when mental focus is applied? While previous studies have indicated the importance of having a preshot routine including mental-focus elements, none have shown what actually changes when such elements are introduced into a routine. In this study, subjects were trained in a specific attentional technique, and putting was measured both pre and post- treatment. These results were then compared to the putting of a control group. Results indicate that an immediate change as a result of simple attentional training is a longer (slower) putting stroke.


The purpose of this study was to determine which “micro”-changes occur in the putting stroke as a result of implementing a pre-shot routine. 

Several studies note that a preshot training routine improves performance or that consistency of routine is associated with level of performance (Cohn, 1990, Cohn, Rotella, & Lloyd, 1990, Crews 1994).  The reasons cited are varied, but most indicate that there is a reduction or suppression of conscious processing, which enables the performer to execute the programmed motor skills with more fluidity, ease, and consistency. Automatically processed (non conscious) motor movements are more fluid, whereas consciously controlled, intentional movements are less so. Others suggest that it is the stability of timing of the learned task that improves performance. Kingston and Hardy (2001) suggest that the reason preshot routines are helpful is that they reduce excessive internalizing, which impairs or inhibits performance.

Interestingly, some studies recommend preshot or preperformance routines, but do not cite immediate improvement in performance as a result of such routines (Beachaump, Halliwell, Fournier & Koestner, 1996; Cohn, Rotella & Lloyd, 1990).

What is a “Pre-shot Routine”?
A preshot, or preperformance, routine is defined as “a sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sport skill” (Moran, 1996, p177). Kingston and Hardy (2001) define preperformance routines as “a collection of well-learned process goals linked together to form a coherent flowing routine.” It has also been defined as a “set of cue thoughts, actions and images consistently carried out before performance of the skill” (Crews and Boutcher, 1986). In their observational analysis of professional golfers they found that a preperformance routine might typically include setting, imagery, kinesthetic coupling, setup, waggle and swing thought.  Common in all these are the critical elements of mental skills and attention.

I believed that the reasons for the above studies not showing immediate improvements in preperformance routine is that the change variables being measured were not being measured on a sensitive-enough level. For example, it may take several aspects of a swing change to hit more pins, but if only one or two of those change, we may not see an immediate change in the number of holes made.  In such an instance, the measure of holes made is not refined enough to detect the changes. What is needed is a finer measure of change, such as some of the constituent components of the swing overall. This might include such things as clubhead swing path, clubhead speed at impact, whether the club was accelerating or decelerating, face angle at impact, and so on.

In this study, I measured several aspects of the putting swing to determine which ones (if any) change immediately as a result of incorporating specific mental strategies in the preshot routine of putting.




I collected data from 20 subjects who were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a control group and a treatment group. The control group (CT) had 6 males and 4 females, while the treatment group (TX) consisted of 10 males. The average ages of the groups were about equal; TX mean was 44.9 yrs, while the CT group was 46.5 yrs.  The skill level of the two groups turned out to be slightly different; TX index average was 26.8 (ranged from 0 to 30), while the CT index average was 19.8 (ranged from 10 to 35).

Instruments and Equipment
I collected data using the iClub, a feedback device which wirelessly tracks the swing and sends data to the computer.  All putting was done on a portable putting surface (4’x12’) to reduce putting green variability.  The putts were all 10’ long, and the putting green rates 10 on the stimpmeter. Individuals provided their own putters for use in the study.

Process of the Study
As mentioned earlier, I collected data from two groups, a “control” group, and a “treatment” group.  The “treatment” group made twenty swings, was trained in attention/focus strategies, and then made twenty more swings.  The “control” group made twenty swings, received no treatment, and then made twenty more swings.  Having a control group allows the statistical analysis to parcel out practice effects: when we measure what changed in the treatment group, that change must be significantly different than any practice effects the control group showed.  Stated another way, it allows a security in feeling that the changes in the treatment group aren’t due just to practice effects.

The Training that the Treatment Group Received
Focus. Your focus affects your performance in sports one way or another: focused appropriately you can make your golf swing smoothly and consistently.  But if focused inappropriately, it can cause all kinds of problems.  It is important also to keep in mind that focus is a skill, and like any muscular skill, takes a lot of practice to implement it well.  In this study, participants were trained in a specific technique, and then asked to use it right away in their putting.  They did not have much opportunity to practice it, and I expect the results to be even more different if they had several practice sessions. In support of that, since the study ended, several participants contacted me and told me that they were playing much better because of the training received in the study.

The Focus Matrix. Focus, or attention, can be thought of the searchlight of your awareness.  Like a searchlight, you can focus it narrowly or in a broad manner (call this “width”) and you can direct it outside of you or inside your mind and body (call this aspect “direction”).  If you put these together you can create a matrix like the one below:

In the putting stroke, we start in the (1) Broad External quadrant: Assessment.  Attention is focused outside, and on many areas: where the ball lies, the wind, slope, distance, grass grain, green speed, and so on.  After this data is collected, attention goes inside your head to be analyzed (2) Broad Internal. This is where this information is processed, compared and a decision is made. This decision has to do with aim, power, and so on in the stroke. In quadrant (3) Narrow Internal, preparation for the swing is made. We have moved from a broad focus (more than three things) to a narrow focus (one or two things only). At this point, the decision is made; we are committed. In the fourth quadrant Narrow External, we stay with a tight focus but it is on something outside ourselves: it is the ball while we are executing the decision made earlier.

A lot of people get into head trouble by not being aware of any of these attentional changes, and they just process them as they might show up. But by not having a specific sequential process that they do each time, they allow thoughts to “pop up” at random and interfere with their swing. To counteract this, the mind must be trained, so that at important points (when the pressure is on) the mind responds the right way-and not with random fears and concerns. It can be helpful to think of the mind like an animal—if it is not trained, it might do what you want, but there will certainly be times when it will act in ways that you clearly do not want. If you train your mind, there will be fewer times of acting up.

This “acting up” of the mind can show up in many ways. For example, it may be in thoughts of a previous shot hit thin, or a putt that went too far past the hole.

The training that I gave the subjects focused on quadrants 3 and 4.  They were asked to implement a conscious centering breath in quadrant 3, allowing the arms and shoulders to relax, then to move the focus outwardly on the ball.  They were to keep awareness on the ball all the way through the putt, and see the turf under the ball after the putt (have a conscious recollection of the turf image).  They then rated how well they felt they implemented this mental focus approach.




While earlier studies indicated the importance of pre-shot routines in putting, many did not show any performance differences right away. My thinking was that some differences most likely do show up right away, but they are so small that they may not show up in gross measures like the number of putts made.  What is needed is a finer-grain measure of the putting stroke. By using the iClub, I was able to measure many fine-grain variables of the stroke, including club speed, lie angle at setup and impact, lean angle at setup and impact, impact face angle, tempo back and tempo forward.

What Changed and What Did Not

Nonparametric statistics were computed using SPSS. The reason for using this somewhat more conservative approach was that although 20 swings were recorded in each trial, not all 20 swings were always useable; sometimes the data was not transmitted or recorded correctly, and so on. This means that not all cells for comparison contained equal Ns, and therefore the nonparametric approach seemed the best.

Table 1 is a chart of the average values for each variable measured, as well as the standard deviations. Initial statistics (Wilcoxon Signed Rank) were run to see if the Control group appeared significantly different than the Treatment group on Trial 1. The results indicated that, although there were differences between the groups on the first trials, the groups did not start off differently from each other.

Next, I computed the difference in scores from Trial 1 to Trial 2 for each group, then analyzed (using Mann-Whitney) whether that difference was significant for the Treatment vs. Control group.  Table 2 shows the results.

With so many swing elements measured, I was surprised to find that only one showed significant changes. There are a number of possible reasons for this, which I address later in this article. The table indicates that the one statistically significant difference score is Time to Impact (TTI), which is defined as the time from the top of the backswing to impact.

If we look back at Table 1, we see that the two groups begin the experiment with the same TTI scores, 0.32 seconds. This is pretty much in line with standard measures of TTI timing; for example, in his book on the yips, Haney (2006) reports that the typical time for tour players’ TTI is .317 seconds.

Next, when we compare the difference in scores from Trial 1 to Trial 2, we see that the control group did not change in their TTI scores (.000 seconds), whereas the treatment group was .025 seconds longer after the treatment, a statistically significant difference. This means that the time from the top of backswing until impact was longer for the treatment group.

To better understand what was occurring, if we examine the accelerations from Trial 1 to Trial 2, we see that the control group speeds went from 11.03 to 10.14.  The treatment group went from 9.23 to 7.53. They both slowed down, but the change in the treatment group was more pronounced. This likely reflects the changes that the treatment made in the subjects: they were still accelerating, but somewhat more slowly.  The overall result: more time spent from the top of backswing to impact.

Why might this be? It is important to keep in mind that: when directions were given to participants, nothing was said about slowing the swing. Subjects were instructed to relax their arms, build awareness of the ball, and of the turf under the ball at impact. After each swing, each participant was required to give a rating of how well they implemented the awareness routine.  This had the net effect of helping to build an “in-the-moment” awareness during the swing.

This “in the moment” awareness is not about exerting more conscious control in the swing; in fact it is just the opposite, but providing a specific place to focus the consciousness.  Specifically, someplace helpful as opposed to a place that is detrimental (e.g. my last poor shot, how I missed the hole left, etc.) It is about increasing the current awareness of the ball itself. It is giving the mind a place to “park” while the body goes about its business of swinging the club through the golf ball. In doing this, you get away from the relatively crude effects of consciously induced effort, and move more towards the automatically controlled “effortless” effort.



In this pilot study, multiple variables relating to the putting stroke were measured. Subjects were given a specific mental-focusing technique to apply, and when they utilized the technique they did not accelerate as quickly through the ball.  My hypothesis is that this reflects an increase in conscious awareness of the ball, but not of swing mechanics. What this does is to allow the smooth processing of automatic movements to flow, ultimately relating to improved performance.

It certainly is possible that differing skill levels may benefit in different ways from mental focusing techniques. An improvement to the study would be to select a group of lower index golfers and train them, measuring what changes they make in their swing, as compared to higher index golfers.


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