practice focus

Fix Your Focus, Improve Your Playing

Focus, especially when playing a piece with many challenging sections, can often make the difference between a successful performance and a not-quite-successful performance.

However according to a recent study on golf, where you should focus matters just as much as if you focus.

The Golf Study

According to this blog post on the Bulletproof Musician, a study of 33 skilled golfers (with an average handicap of 5.51) found some interesting correlations.

The study involved separating the golfers into three groups. They would each direct their focus at different things while trying to 20-meter chip shot land as close to the hole as possible.

  • Group 1 -the internal focus group – focused on the motion and position of their arms and wrists.
  • Group 2 – the proximal external focus group – focused on the position of the clubface during the swing, or something outside of their body but close in proximity.
  • Group 3 – the distal external focus group – focused on the flight of the ball after it left their clubface, or something outside of their body and farther away – much closer, in fact, to the desired result than a specific process.

Each group had 30 shots in low-key, practice conditions, and then 20 shots where they were being videotaped and had the opportunity for small cash prizes.

The Study Results

The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the distal external focus golfers performed best – both when they were in practice conditions and under pressure. The proximal external focus golfers were the next-highest scoring under both conditions, and the internal focus golfers came in last in both cases.

The Music Connection

We can apply a similar thought process to practicing music. Instead of worrying primarily about the mechanics of playing, we might instead try to focus on larger “flight of the ball” aspects. Things like the musical direction of a line, the overall dynamic or melodic shape of a phrase, or even focusing on the sound that we want to have rather than trying to (physically) change the sound we are producing, can all have profound effects.

One small caveat, though. 

Remember that this study was performed by skilled golfers, not beginners. While more external focus can be incredibly useful for those who have already learned basic technique, it’s not always helpful for those just beginning to learn a skill.

For those just starting out, more internal focus is often necessary to examine and break down a skill into smaller, more manageable components, until the correct technique becomes second nature. But for those with decent technique, sometimes a change in focus might be all that’s necessary to get past that one roadblock!