Automaticity in Golf: The Reality of Swing Thoughts
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You would think that an 8 year study on the benefits of relinquishing swing thoughts would lead me to become a sports psychologist, complete hippy or otherwise esoteric character. To give you a clue as to the personal impact of the study, I am a technical coach that utilizes 3D motion analysis technology. I value greatly self-awareness of one’s movement and view technical awareness as the route to positive automaticity.
It is easy to be seduced by the notion that optimal performance occurs in the absence of conscious control. Golfers are all too familiar with what it is like to think too much about the swing, be that through their own hypothesis testing or explicit coaching. I don’t know who best to credit with the phrase, “paralysis through analysis”, but I would like to bet it was a golfer.
It follows logically to contrast this crippling experience of extreme conscious control with our retrospective reflections of moments of peak performance, which often seem to be effortless and without the inner chatter/self-instruction that accompanies the rest of our golf experience. These self-report experiences relate well to typical descriptions of FLOW state with automaticity being considered a heavily contributing factor.
If you are like me then at some point, this line of thinking would have led you to committing yourself to a ‘not thinking about your swing’ rule on the course and a new pledge to trust in our wonderful subconscious mind and innate skill.
This noble vow seldom lasts long before we are back to engaging in swing thoughts old and new. It is not a lack of perseverance or mental fortitude that causes the slip back but a lack of tangible results. The truth is:
Optimal performance may seem to occur when our level of swing thought is reduced but the opposite causality does not hold true; merely reducing swing thought will not lead to peak performance.
This is in stark contrast to previous academic research and the prevalent teachings of golf psychologists over the last 2 decades. I distinctly remember a conference where a leading figure in England Golf dismissed golf psychs as having only two messages;
‘don’t think about your swing’ and ‘stay in the moment’.
Such is the prevalence and over-use of the message that it is eroding the reputation and credibility of sport psychology. A more grown up description is required.
Until most recently, the literature on the subject viewed reinvestment (swing thoughts) as having a wholly negative effect through the process of consuming working memory and breaking down the procedural nature of the movement. It should be noted that these theoretical positions are in the main, based on studies of putting with the odd chipping task. I would argue that the mechanical complexity of the putting stroke and perceptual demands of putting are not comparable to the full golf swing and require an entirely different cognitive strategy.
My PhD Thesis
My route into this study was as a coach with an intervention to test. The intervention (flow drill) was in essence, to walk into the ball and hit with only the minimal time required to set our address position and initiate the action. This had proved transformational for many and a wrecking ball for some. For others, including myself, this approach was extremely useful in some scenarios but not effaceable for the vast array of task variation we have to deal with on the golf course.
In its entirety, the study involved a number of experiments over 8 years with expert golfers (hcp <6) under baseline and anxiety conditions.
Early results only highlighted the disparity of golfer’s reactions to the forced ‘low reinvestment’ intervention with some improving and some getting worse. The assumption was made that the intervention was quite harsh on first exposure so we even tested a 6-week practice period to accommodate to the temporal restriction. Surprisingly, this didn’t lead us to any further conclusions. It was at this point; a more individualistic approach was taken with the aim of uncovering any personality factors that may influence the golfer’s reaction to hitting in the absence of conscious control. Among a number of measures introduced, the scales below were correlated with the state reinvestment (level of swing thought) and performance data (5 iron shots) during baseline and anxiety conditions.
The concept being tested here was that verbal and visual information weigh differently on cognitive load. Would someone who tested high in the visual domain have a different thought process and react differently to a golfer who thinks in more of a verbal style? This could go back to the initial coding of the movement.
What we found was that when swing thoughts were severely restricted, the high-verbal group’s performance declined while the highly visual group performed better in comparison to their baseline scores. Various interpretations of this result were offered but in terms of the big picture, we can clearly see a personality factor that influences one’s cognitive process during shot execution.
Working Memory Capacity
It seemed logical that the effect of swing thoughts would be influenced by how much information one can hold and process at any given time. Essentially, this is the realm of working memory so, novel as it was, it seemed only logical to test for an affect of working memory capacity (WMC).
Contrary to existing theories of WMC and pressure, in this study the low WMC group got worse while the high WMC remained stable in performance terms. The interpretation was made that WMC plays a much bigger role in movement production than previously thought and without the ability to hold and process information, the automaticity intervention is actually destructive.
What does this mean to the golfer and coaching practitioner?
Like all research, many more questions have been raised by the study but my overall views on the matter have changed greatly. To think or not to think is a far too dichotic framework with which to view the subject. The results of this study and other recent papers are shifting the previous views of automaticity as the pinnacle of motor learning and ideal performance state.
Influencing factors include;
- Personality; Not exclusive to but including WMC and cognitive style as highlighted in this study.
- Task variations; this includes novelty of task such as sloping lies etc. We must also consider the mechanical complexity and perception/action demands. i.e a putting strategy is much better arranged around the focus on the ball’s pace and curve than the relatively simple action of the stroke which often acts as a distraction for elite players
- Whether the golfer is at an autonomous stage of learning or undergoing a swing change. To this point, I am seldom not undergoing a change and see the process as constant evolution.
- Pressure. It is only natural to want to control movement more under pressure, leading to heavy levels of swing thought. We have all been there!
Dos and Don’ts of Swing Focus
While scientists wrangle over a useful theory of automaticity that reflects our sport, here are some basic do’s and don’ts to consider.
External vs Internal Focus
This is well documented with external focus having closer links to the task and higher levels of automaticity. However, it is not fool proof or exhaustive. Other classifications currently being studied include:
Holistic Focus: Whole vs Part Movement
Simply put, a focus on turn back, turn through involves much bigger chunks of movement and will be preferable to a focus on the back of the left wrist or even clubface at the top of your back swing. Even though the clubface would be an external factor.
To this end, one’s swing training should reflect ‘one fluid movement’ where possible and not a multitude of pieces. This is a big part of the ‘tradecraft’ of good coaching and is not as easy as it sounds.
Due to the familiarity of the pattern movement analogies are rich in information cues yet low in cognitive load. They also tend to be whole movement foci as well, making them an excellent form of swing focus.
Key Movement Effector
Understanding that movement representations of experts are arranged in a hierarchical structure, focus on one area could have a totally different affect than a lower order segment. Eg. A focus on the scuff of the grass while chipping will create self-organisation around the very element that relates to good contact. Focusing on your backswing may give you a good back swing but not necessarily a good outcome.
Need I say more; not really a swing focus but low cognitive load with swing timing benefits.
To summarise, although you will never catch me using absolutes like ‘don’t think about your swing’, a modern coach needs to be ever aware of the cognitive load placed on the pupil and structure learning in a manner that allows for efficient and logical encoding of movement representations.
As for the intervention; I used it only yesterday with a pupil that was trying to swing while recalling every last piece of instruction ever given to him. The results were nothing short of breath taking! It was a true one-trial transformation and that is what motivated me take on this study in the first place.
Any view on automaticity must take into account the role of self-organization within the movement/swing. More on this in my next post.
Did you know that looking at the ball can ruin your movement?
My next research project is a study on the effects of ball focus. To find out more and help steer the research, please leave your thoughts and experience on the research forum page.