Have you ever found yourself worrying about a tricky passage a couple lines in advance? And totally flubbing it when you got to it, precisely because you started thinking about it?

For better or worse, the things we think about when playing have a significant influence on the quality of our performances. And more to the point, thinking too much about a difficult passage is probably going to do more harm than good. Like walking through a food court on day 2 of a juice cleanse.

But it’s not like we can simply zone out when we play. We have to think about something. So if thinking about a really awkward shift is probably just going to make us tighten up, take a wild stab at it, and miss, what exactly is the most performance-enhancing thing to think about when we want to play as cleanly and accurately as possible?

Fore!

A golf study yields some intriguing clues. I like this one in particular, because unlike most studies, which look at what happens when participants learn and perform a new skill, this was a study of 33 skilled golfers, who had an average handicap of 5.51.

Each was asked to make a short, 20-meter chip shot from the fairway to the green, with the goal being to get the ball as close to the hole as possible.1

Each shot was given a score, based on the distance from the final position of the ball to the hole. If they got a hole-in-one, their score would be a 0 (as in regular golf scoring, lower scores here equals better performance). If the ball came to a stop 2 meters in front of the hole (or 2 meters behind the hole), their score would be a 2. The worst score they could get on any shot was a 5; so even if they totally bungled a shot and hit it 10 meters past the hole, their score for that shot would still be a 5.

Three different levels of focus

The golfers were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each group would go through the exact same procedure, hitting the same shot, from the same place, with the same club, etc., but would be asked to focus on a different aspect of the shot.

One group – the internal focus group – was instructed to focus on the “motion of the arms during the swing” and to “maintain the hinge in the wrists through impact.” They were also told to repeat the phrase “wrist hinge” either out loud or to themselves before each shot, and asked “to what extend did you maintain the hinge in your wrists during that swing?” after each shot.

The idea here was to get them to focus on their body, and one very specific aspect of the mechanics of the shot.

Another group – the proximal external focus group – was instructed to focus on the “position of the clubface through the swing” and in particular, “keeping the clubface square through impact.” The cue phrase they were asked to repeat before each shot was “square face.” And after each shot were asked “to what extent did you maintain a square clubface during that swing?”

Rather than having these golfers focus on their body, the idea was to shift their focus to something a little further away – like the hitting surface of the golf club.

The last group – the distal external focus group – was instructed to focus on the “flight of the ball after it had left the clubface and in particular the direction in which they intended to set the ball.” Their cue phrase was “straight flight” and were asked “to what extent did you set the ball out on a desirable direction for that shot?” after each attempt.

This group’s focus was even further away from their body; so far that they weren’t even focused on the golf club, but instead, on something much closer to the desired end result of all their movements – the trajectory and direction of the ball in the air.

No pressure!

Each golfer was given 30 shot attempts in low-key practice-like conditions.

Then, they were given 20 more shot attempts – but this time with some stakes (the researchers wanted to see if being anxious changed anything).

To increase the pressure, they were videotaped and told that a PGA pro would watch and provide an evaluation of their chipping performance. Plus, their scores would be published in a league table. And furthermore, there would be prizes – ranging from £80 to £10 – for the 5 golfers whose average scores improved the most from the initial set of 30 low-pressure shots to the last set of 20 high-pressure shots.

Which level of focus led to the best scores?

Under regular practice-like conditions, the golfers who focused on the flight of the ball (distal external focus) performed the best (avg. score = 1.5), and consistently hit the ball significantly closer to the hole than either of the other two groups.

In turn, the group which focused on the position of the clubface (proximal external focus) performed significantly better (2.10 vs. 2.99) than the group which focused on the motion of their arms (internal focus).

And what happened under pressure?

The same exact type of focus enabled the most accurate performances under pressure conditions too. Once again the distal external group hit the ball significantly more accurately (avg. score = 1.27) than the proximal external (2.13) and internal focus (3.24) groups.

Take action

So what does this mean for musicians? How does “flight of the ball” translate into musician-friendly terms?

I had an ear training teacher in grad school who, if we sang a note out of tune, make us stop, pause, take a moment to hear the pitch of the note in our heads, and then try again.

So the musician’s analog of the golfer’s “flight of the ball” might be the pitch of a note, the dynamic and sound quality of a note, the shaping of a phrase, or how our sound blends into the section – something closer to the end result we’re going for. And further away from our hands, or the specific mechanics of how to execute the scary shift or navigate the thorny finger-twisting sequence.

Why is this the case? Well…that goes a wee bit beyond the scope of this article, but maybe we’ll come back to that someday…

Wait! One caveat!

An external focus of attention is not universally helpful. The research in this area also suggests that beginners or less advanced individuals, may perform better when using an internal focus.

In addition, and this is true at all skill or experience levels, there will be plenty of times when adopting an internal focus is more effective for learning. If you need to break down a skill, figure out what’s going on, and make technical adjustments, an internal focus often makes more sense than an external focus. Because if there’s a fundamental technical reason why your intonation or sound or rhythm is unstable, simply shifting your focus is probably not going to be an effective or stable long-term solution.

So an external focus is not a one-size-fits-all panacea – but then again, what is? Take a few days to experiment with different levels of external focus, and see what changes in the consistency, fluidity, and accuracy of your technical execution!

Footnotes

  1. And in case you were wondering, they all used a 50◦ Callaway pitching wedge, and Callaway HX-TOUR ball.