Date: February 25, 2016
Author: Courtesy

Golf, Kaizen, Focus

In my role as National Golf Coach for Golf Australia, as well as coaching club golfers and beginners on a daily basis, I am constantly challenged by the questions; "What should I focus on when I am playing golf; when I am hitting my shot and in between shots?"

The psychology of golf, other sports and life itself, really boils down to that one word, FOCUS and where is it, at those critical moments in time.

The great Gary Player, who won 163 times world-wide, including nine majors and is only one of five players to win all four majors recently said;

“On a scale of 1-100 I would say my confidence was usually about 105. It all comes down to what you focus on. You have the choice to focus on something that is constructive or destructive.”

Focus is therefore a choice that needs to be decided on prior to performance and practised both in the practise and competitive environment. It is a trait that the best golfers are all renowned for.

The best golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus is one such golfer, famous for his immense level of focus. He once said “I never hit one shot, even in practise without a clear picture of exactly where the ball was going to finish and the ball flight that was required to get it there”.

Ben Hogan, nicknamed the “hawk” for his steely glare, was so focused on his own play during the U.S Masters that he did not even notice his playing partner having a hole in one on the famous 12th hole. Hogan, after a birdie of his own, walked to the next tee to take the honour with his tee shot and commented “you know that is the first birdie I have ever made on that hole” without the slightest recognition of his opponent’s amazing feat.

Research in psychology conclusively shows that performance is enhanced when a person sets high but achievable goals and focuses on them with passion and determination.

Annika Sorenstam, arguably the greatest female golfer of all time, learnt this from her legendary coach and teacher Pia Nilsson, who was her mentor as she grew up in the Swedish National program. Nilsson instilled the idea of specific powerful goals for each session, round, tournament and season.  Nilsson’s passion was to “change the belief structure” so players could stretch their potential to new levels. She encouraged Annika to believe in a vision called VISION 54 (a vision that it was possible to birdie every hole) and this guided Annika’s training and FOCUS in every session.

Annika believed in that possibility and broke down each component of the game in detail and researched with Pia and her team on how she could be the best in every area. To shoot 54, you must be the fittest, strongest golfer,   the most mentally strong, the best driver of the ball, the best putter, have the best emotional control, etc., etc.

When Annika shot 59, the first and only women to do so in a PGA event, she thought of it just as one step closer to a 54.

At a recent High Performance Camp, I arranged for Olympic Champion Herb Elliot (a very keen golfer and now successful businessman) to address the athletes. His engaging and inspiring speech enforced the notion that mental toughness was the most important attribute to develop to succeed in both sport and life. He encouraged the thinking that he focused on two specific concepts that guided his life.

  • To better himself every day
  • To win

The winning was always the secondary goal and was an outcome of doing the first. He trained improving his mental toughness every day, explaining that every person in every field he has ever known had the little voice in their head telling them they didn’t deserve it, or were not got enough.

Never letting that little voice win was the key to mental toughness and to bettering yourself. Certainly a clearly defined FOCUS. 

Guy Leech, World Champion Ironman also sees this as a defining trait of elite performers. Guy explained during a recent round of golf that he never understood why he achieved so much in his sporting career, being the world champion in 3 different athletic disciplines, until he started training other successful people from all walks of life.

“They were just like me.” The focus and discipline they had at the expense of all else was a common theme.  From seven-time world champion surfer, Layne Beachley, to Madonna, to top businessmen and women, they all were incredibly focused and determined individuals to better themselves every day in every way. 

Interestingly, he said they all have the little “gremlin” as he calls it, sitting on their shoulder, telling them to cut corners or that they are good enough. He said that the little gremlin can NEVER WIN. He will never be quiet forever but you learn ways of quietening him more often and more quickly through training. The training was always way harder than the race. In fact he used to be to get incredibly nervous before training in anticipation of how tough it would be.

This philosophy is the keystone to the success of the national golf program. It is known as KAIZEN.


Poor performance or poor shots create curiosity and hence greater motivation on improvement. Not frustration or anger.

This FOCUS is the underlying theme in everything we do.

I recently returned from a trip with the national team on an international tournament in Abu Dhabi. Coming into the last day we were 15 shots behind the leaders and were a man down due to illness, meaning all of the team members’ scores would count toward our final total.

At a team meeting prior to the round we spoke about the focus and mindset we would need for an optimal performance. Being an individual sport, each athlete had the chance to reveal how they were going to produce their best.

Player 1 wanted to know exactly what he had to do, what the other teams were doing and how his team mates were going. Player 2 said he did not want to know or see anything. We devised a game plan for him to keep him more in the present. The game involved him breaking the 18 holes up into 6 lots of 3 holes. His goal was to shoot 1 under or better for each 3-hole stretch and then forget about it and go onto the next 3 holes. One player ended up shooting 64 (8 under par) and the other shot 81 (9 over par). Can you guess which player was which?

Player 1 shot 81. He learnt that for his optimal performance he must focus on the things he can control and ask the right questions to focus his mind.

Questions in your head direct this focus. Powerful questions create images. Powerful images create the focus necessary for optimal performance. The right questions are very powerful, just as poor questions will produce unsupportive images that will lead to poor focus and poor results.

Questions like;

  • What is my strategy for this hole?
  • What is my Target?
  • Where is my focus right now?

These are all questions that keep you committed to moving forward onto the next performance.

FOCUS is therefore a critical component of elite performance and the best way to learn to focus is to ask yourself the right questions.

Dean Kinney
National Coach, NSW High Performance Manager
Golf NSW, Golf Australia