I am often asked about the merits of taking swing thoughts or keys out onto the golf course when they play. I’m thinking here about some of the classic ones like “keep your head down”, “keep your eye on the ball”, “swing back in one piece”, “left shoulder under the chin”, etc.

Now, my major concern about swing thoughts and keys is not so much about their content, but rather about when you think of them. Some would argue that there’s no place for them at all during a round of golf and they should be confined to the practice ground. While I broadly agree with this, I feel it’s more important to eliminate conscious thoughts about the swing once you step in to address the ball.

There are parts of a golfer’s routine that require conscious though and there are parts where it’s better to trust your unconscious learned skills to actually hit the ball. When you first learned to drive a car, you had to think about everything you had to do. As a result, you were overwhelmed, perhaps over self-aware, and it was difficult to drive smoothly. Now you know how to drive, you only consciously need to think about things like where you want to go, when you have to get there and have you got enough fuel – your pre-driving routine. The actual driving is performed as naturally and unconsciously as breathing or signing your name. Try copying your signature and you’ll understand how much self-awareness gets in the way.

Although I generally don’t’ interfere with the intricate details of an individual client’s routines, I do encourage them to split their routine into four parts:

  • Pre-Shot Routine – where you consciously concentrate on preparing, planning and imagining the shot you want to play
  • Rehearsal swing – where you internalise the feel of the shot you imagine
  • Shot Routine – where you unconsciously take your stance, have one final look at the hole and hit the ball instinctively
  • Post-Shot Routine – where you consciously learn from the shot and either celebrate it or release it to the past where it can’t hurt you.

The only place for swing keys is in the first and possibly second parts, where the physical “feeling” you’re working on can easily be incorporated into the way you plan to play the shot. Once you’ve internalised that feeling in the rehearsal swing, then you can simply step in to the shot and trust your unconscious to deliver that feeling.

Are Golfing Objectives the same as Swing Keys?

Golfers often talk about their objectives for a round and their swing thoughts and keys. For me, these are different. Your objective is generally about “what” you want to achieve and a swing key is more related to “how” you’re going to make it happen. Using the analogy of driving a car, the “what” is the conscious choice of where you want to go, when you want to get there and perhaps the route you plan to take. The “how” is largely dictated by your unconscious learned ability to drive a car.

In golf terms the objective should be decided in the Pre-Shot Routine. It’s what you see the pros discussing with their caddies. One they’ve agreed on the nature of the shot, the caddy steps back and the pro takes a rehearsal swing or two, to get the feel of the shot, and then hits it. For top golfers like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, it only takes 11 seconds to hit the ball from the moment the caddy steps back. That doesn’t leave much time for conscious thought about swing keys, or anything else for that matter. Everything in the Shot Routine is pretty much automatic, including any forward press. That’s just part of the feel of the shot.

So why are some keys more appealing to certain golfers?

This was something that used to catch me out when I first started doing golf psychology, especially using NLP. Almost every NLP technique I was originally taught was based around getting people to visualise – to see pictures in their mind’s eye. The problem was that many of my clients couldn’t consciously “see” those pictures that clearly and neither could I see mine.

What I eventually learned was that we all experience the world through our five senses of sight, sound, feeling, taste and smell. We also code our memories using those five senses. That’s why we can hear a tune or smell a particular aroma and be transported back to some significant past event and experience all the feelings we had at the time. How many couples have “our song”?

More importantly, I also learned that people have their own personal unconscious preferences for the sense they use the most. If you listen to a number of people describing the same event, some will describe mainly in terms of what they saw, some in terms of the sounds or words and others in terms of feelings. How many times have you heard someone saying things like, “I see what you are saying” or “that picture makes me feel bad”? Personally, I tend to use feeling words, perhaps that’s not surprising for a therapist and it’s consistent with the fact that I “can’t” consciously see pictures in my mind. I must see them unconsciously, or I wouldn’t recognise people, places and things.

When working with a client, I now do my best to pay attention to the sensory words that people use in conversation and phrase my own words and techniques to match theirs. If I’m talking to a group of people, it’s more difficult. That’s when I “try” to use seeing, hearing and feeling expressions. If I’m presenting, I make sure my slides include pictures as well as words and I try to use my body to convey feelings.

Andrew Fogg, the Golf Hypnotist, is an enthusiastic golfer, hypnotherapist and NLP Master Practitioner. He is a golf psychologist and author of a recently published book “The Secrets of Hypnotic Golf” and a series of Golf Hypnosis audio programmes.