To play your best golf, it's critical to adopt a “process vs. outcome” approach. That means focusing on the elements of the current shot, not the possible results of a good, bad or indifferent swing.
Of course, learning any new skill requires practice and patience. The driving range is a great place to develop and ingrain a process-based approach. Here's a good way to start:
- At the beginning of each practice session, choose a single thought you'll repeat on every shot. It could involve your alignment, your grip, your takeaway, the downswing or anything else. But limit it to one simple key.
- Be mindful not to pick a result-based goal, like hitting the ball within 20 feet of a marker. Remember, you're working on the process of hitting the shot, without concern for happens after contact.
- Commit to giving full attention to your one thought on each and every shot.
- After hitting a shot, assess your success in focusing on that thought. Did you actually call it to mind? At the proper time? With total focus?
- If you're consistently concentrating on your single key, that piece of your setup or swing should be on the money more often than not.
It's much easier to focus on the process, not the result, when you're merely practicing. After all, there are no real consequences, good or bad, to distract you on the range. Strengthen your focus there and it will carry over to the course.
How to Practice a Process vs. Outcome Golf Mentality
The average amateur golfer seems to believe that his or her swing is the only thing preventing lower scores. Most players think that if they can solve the mechanical issues in their swing, scoring will take care of itself. Unfortunately, this is not accurate. In fact, there are many other factors involved in your score for a given round than just your swing. It is possible to make great swings and still shoot a poor score – and it is also possible to make poor swings while producing a solid score. The mental side of the game is hugely important and consistently underrated. If you would like to play your best golf, start working on your mental game as soon as possible.
In this article, we are going to talk about a side of the mental game which is rarely examined by golf teachers. You will see plenty of golf instruction which addresses things like a pre-shot routine or club selection, but you won't often hear a golf teacher talk about the issue of process vs. outcome on the course. The mentality that you take with you onto the course with regard to this important point will have a lot to do with how you are able to perform. Generally speaking, better golfers are more concerned with the process than anything else, while lesser players are only focused on outcomes.
So what do we mean by process vs. outcome in the context of golf? The points below should explain this concept more clearly.
- Process. When focused on the process in your golf game, you are thinking first and foremost about how you execute on the things you can control. For instance, a big part of the process is making a consistent, repeatable swing. You also need to think clearly within the process of playing golf, including making smart club selections and picking safe targets. Another way to think about the process is to note that it includes everything lead up to the moment the ball is struck. So, from the time you arrive at your ball to the time you send it into the sky, everything you do is part of your golf process. By consistently improving and refining this process, you should become a better player in the long run.
- Outcome. Players who are focused on the outcome of their shots, rather than the process that proceeds those shots, only care about where the ball ends up. These players aren't particularly worried about how the ball gets from point 'A' to point 'B' – as long as it gets there. At first blush, this seems like the right way to think about the game. After all, the point of the game is to get the ball as close to the target as possible. However, if you only focus on outcomes, you are going to miss opportunities to improve that you may have spotted when thinking instead about your process. Playing with a mentality that is concerned only with outcomes is certainly a simpler approach to the game, but it is not likely to be the approach which leads to the best results.
All of the content below is based on a right-handed golfer. If you happen to play left-handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.
The Problem with an Outcome Mentality
As mentioned above, thinking about otucomes only does make some sense on the surface. The goal of the game is to get the ball in the hole as quickly as possible, meaning hitting good shots comes down to getting close to your targets. So, as long as the ball is winding up near your target, you have nothing to worry about – right? Not so fast. Even within shots that have positive outcomes there is often cause for concern.
To illustrate this point, let's work through an example. Imagine you are playing the first hole of your round, and you have 150 yards to the hole. For you, a 150-yard shot requires the use of a 7-iron, so you take the 7-iron from the bag and prepare to hit the shot. After going through your pre-shot routine you walk up to the ball and take your stance. After one final look up at the target, you look down and begin your swing. The backswing is completed without a problem, but during the downswing you look up a bit early in anticipation of watching the ball fly.
As a result of pulling your head out of the shot, your upper body lifts up and you hit the ball thin. Rather than a beautiful shot flying high through the air, your ball shoots toward the target only a few feet off the ground. Your hands are left stinging as a sure sign that you made poor contact. However, even after making such a poor swing, the ball still winds up close to the hole. Since the green is sloped from back to front, your low shot stops quickly when it lands, and it even takes some of the slope back toward the cup. In the end, you are only left with a birdie putt of about twenty feet – which is a pretty good result on a 150-yard approach shot.
So, from an outcomes perspective, you would be satisfied with this shot. After all, sticking the ball to twenty feet from 150 yards out is no easy task, and you will now have the opportunity to make a birdie to start off your round. If you are only going to concern yourself with the outcomes in your game, this shot can be seen as nothing other than a success.
However, in the back of your mind, you still know you didn't make a great swing. Was it really a good shot, or did you just get lucky? Pretty clearly, you were lucky. There is nothing wrong with getting a little bit of luck along the way in this difficult game, but good fortune should not skew your analysis of your own golf game. By taking an honest, process-based view of your game, you will remember that you made a poor swing. Instead of pretending that the shot came off perfectly, you can honestly assess your mistake and work to do better on your next shot.
This concept can work in the opposite direction as well. Let's go back to the same scenario and imagine you are again standing at the 150-yard mark with a seven iron in your hands. This time, you stay down beautifully and strike a perfect shot. The ball climbs well up into the sky, it holds the line you had picked out, and it seems destined to land within close range of the cup. However, as the ball is flying, a sudden gust of wind comes up and knocks the ball down out of the sky. Now, instead of landing near the hole, your ball lands well short of the green in a difficult spot. Rather than having a chance at a birdie, you will be happy just to escape with your par after a tough up and down.
With this type of shot, the outcome-focused golfer may be discouraged at their failure. The goal was to knock the ball on the green with the 7-iron shot, and that didn't happen. Of course, this would be an illogical way to look at your performance. You didn't do anything wrong, and you should be proud of the swing you made. The gust of wind can be seen as nothing other than bad luck. If you were to make the same swing again next time, it is very likely you would be rewarded with a better result.
These two examples should clearly demonstrate why it is better to focus on process rather than outcomes. Grading your own performance on the outcomes of your shots is misleading, as the game of golf does not always fairly reward you for your performance. Some of your good shots will end up in bad places, and some of your poor shots will end up right next to the hole – that's just how the game works. Rather than blaming yourself for something that wasn't your fault, or taking credit for something you didn't earn, focus on process and let the outcomes take care of themselves.
Pieces of the Process
So, at this point, you have hopefully been convinced that focusing on the process of your game is the right way to go. In the end, you are going to make better decisions and track your progress more accurately when you are concerned with the process rather than only your otucomes. Assuming you are now committed to focusing on the process, it is important that you have a clear picture of what should be included in this category. We touched on this briefly in the introduction, but the points below will expand on each part of your golf process.
- Planning your shot. The first part of your process is planning the shot you are about to hit. One of the great things about golf is the fact that each shot you face is unique. Even if you have had a similar distance countless times before, you will still need to consider the wind, the air temperature, slope of the ground, hole location, and much more. There are endless variables involved in each golf shot, and it is your job to analyze those variables before finalizing your plan of attack. Many amateur golfers struggle with this part of the game – and most of them don't even know that it is a problem. As you learn to focus more on your process than your outcomes, you should come appreciate the importance of the planning phase. Plan out your shots properly and you may be surprised at how quickly your results can improve.
- Preparing your swing. Once the mental planning is complete, you can then move on to working on preparing your body to actually hit the shot. It is important that you plan before you make any practice swings because you need to know what it is that you should practice. Are you going to hit a half shot to keep the ball down out of the wind? Are you going to hit a draw, or maybe a fade? Whatever the case, you need to know what type of shot you are trying to produce before you can prepare your mechanics appropriately. It is not necessary to make several practice swings in order to get ready for a shot, but you should at least have some mechanics in place to get your body ready. Often, for professional golfers, this will be a single practice swing or just a practice movement that gets them going in the right direction. Whatever it is, you need to be completely ready to fire when you take your stance over the ball.
- Making the swing. In the example we used earlier in this article, this is where the breakdown in the process was found. A poor swing can certainly undo all of the hard work you have done to prepare for the shot at hand. Most amateur golfers will tend to blame this part of the equation for all bad shots, even if it was really an error in planning that led to a negative result.
Each shot you hit throughout any round of golf is a complete process in and of itself. During your practice sessions, you should be working on refining your process to the greatest degree possible. By having a finely tuned process which you can count on time after time, your game should be consistent from round to round. No golfer is perfectly consistent, but those with a solid process tend to hold together better than the rest.
Making an Accurate Evaluation
No one likes to hit bad shots. Golf can be a frustrating game, and most of that frustration comes from looking up after a swing to see the ball headed in the wrong direction. While poor shots are never fun, they are most certainly inevitable. This is one of the hardest games in the world to play, and every single golfer in the world hits poor shots. From the top-ranked golfer in the world on down to a complete beginner, bad shots are just part of the experience.
A large degree of your success or failure in golf is going to come down to how well you analyze your game after a bad shot. Each poor shot you hit should be seen as a learning experience – a chance to learn from your mistakes so that fewer mistakes will be made in the future. The best time to evaluate your performance on a given shot is immediately after that shot has taken place.
So, if you look up to see your ball headed well off line, stop and think about what might have gone wrong. Did you make a poor swing? Were you using the wrong club, or trying for the wrong trajectory? Or, did you simply lack focus while you were preparing for the shot? There are a number of different things which can go wrong and create a poor result, and it is your job to play detective and get to the bottom of the 'case'.
Misevaluating poor shots is a common phenomenon among amateur golfers. The key to accurately determining where you shot went wrong is to be brutally honest with yourself at all times. Golfers naturally don't want to take the blame when they hit a poor shot, so many are inclined to immediately blame something like the wind, or their equipment, or even the ball. While it is possible that one of those elements led to a poor shot, there are other possibilities as well. Be honest with yourself in the aftermath of a poor shot to determine exactly what went wrong and how you can correct the mistake before your next shot.
Since the poor shots can add up rather quickly over an 18-hole round, it might be best to carry a notebook where you can jot down your thoughts throughout the day. Once you decide what it was that led to a poor result, write that note down and then move on. When the round is finished, you can look back to see if any patterns have emerged. Do all of your poor shots seem to be the result of incorrect club selection? If so, you need to find ways to get better at this part of the game. Whatever the case may be, use the notes you take to improve yourself before teeing it up again.
A Practice Drill
If you are accustomed to thinking only about otucomes rather than the process of hitting your shots, it may be hard to break that habit. With that in mind, we have outlined a quick practice drill below which will get you out of the habit of thinking only about outcomes. This drill takes place on the putting green, but it should help you improve your mentality to the point where you can think about process over outcome in all areas of the game.
To perform this drill, head to your local golf facility and follow the steps below.
- As this is a putting drill, you are obviously going to begin by walking over to the practice putting green. You will need your putter, three golf balls, and a small towel (a typical golf towel will work nicely).
- To set up for the drill, find a relatively flat section of the putting green where there is a hole available for you to use. Drop the three golf balls on the green approximately five feet from the hole – you don't have to get the distance exactly right, but you should be putting from somewhere in the five-foot range.
- Next, take the golf towel and use it to line the hole itself. Lay the towel down over the hole and push it gently into the cup. You want to arrange the towel in such a way that the ball will still be allowed to fall in, should your putt be on line. The idea here is to sufficiently pad the bottom of the hole to the point where the ball won't make a sound when it drops in.
- Now that you are set up, walk back to your golf balls and prepare to hit the first putt. Take your stance as usual, place the putter behind the ball, and take one last look at the hole. When you look back down at the ball, however, you are going to close your eyes. These putts are going to be hit with your eyes closed throughout the stroke.
- With eyes closed, make your stroke and send the first putt on its way. With no way to see or hear the outcome of your putt, you will only be left with your feel. What do you think happened? How was your stroke? Evaluate your performance first before opening your eyes and checking on the results for yourself.
- Continue on to hit the next two putts in the same fashion. You can repeat the process of hitting three putts in a group over and over again as many times as you would like.
The goal of this drill is to make you more aware of your technique and less concerned with the outcome of your putts. You want to make the putts, of course, but you want to make a quality stroke as well. With this drill, you will have to think about the details of your stroke before you can look up to see if you made the putt.
In the conflict between process and outcome, process is going to win out each and every time. If you can train yourself to focus on the process you are using to hit your shots, the outcomes will take care of themselves. Sure, you will incur some good and bad luck along the way, but that is just part of the game. The players who perform best from a process standpoint are those who will rise to the top in the long run. Good luck!