Paralysis by Analysis: One powerful mental technique to prevent it in your golf game

No matter your skill level as a player – beginner, league player, or professional, there is one mental phenomenon that we all fight from time to time on the course.  This phenomenon is the subtle but destructive change in our experience from enjoying the round and playing freely with little thought or tension, to a flurry of thoughts on swing mechanics, and constant tweaks in our swing and set-up from one shot to the next, until there is almost no conscious planning of the shot toward the target.

Instead of playing the game of golf, you end up playing “swing”.  When this happens, your mind becomes paralysed by swing thoughts, your body trapped, and your score suddenly grows exponentially.  Sport psychologists refer to this common but catastrophic experience as “paralysis by analysis.”

In this article, I will provide a behind the scenes look at this phenomenon – the circumstances that trigger it, how our mindset changes, and most importantly share tips to strengthen your immunity to this experience.

There is one powerful mental strategy that I introduce to many players including those as young as twelve, as well as elite amateurs and professionals that can certainly get you back on track when you see the signs of this dilemma taking hold of your game.

When does paralysis by analysis typically start to occur? 

When a focus on your swing is primed:

  • During a round directly following a formal swing lesson.
  • After reading the latest article in Golf Digest that breaks down the technique of the biggest hitters and we head to the course excited to try out the fresh swing pointers.

When the pressure is on:

  • Amidst the experience of a high pressure situation on the course such as a challenging shot, or when a focus on scoring is suddenly heightened by our playing partners or in our own mind.

After a few wayward shots:

  • For some players it’s a string of poor shots and for others it only takes one bad shot before they turn their focus to tweaking their swing, set-up, and grip.

These circumstances are the triggering events or catalysts for paralysis by analysis.

How does paralysis by analysis take shape?

Many players do not realise what they are thinking when they play their best golf.  This is because you play with automated efficiency, there seems to be little thought, the game is effortless, and you are completely absorbed in the task.

However, when there is a hightened awareness of the “feeling” of your swing following a lesson, or the feeling of pressure to score, you experience an elevated level of self-consciousness about performing correctly.  This in turn leads to a more conscious and deliberate focus on the motor skills in our swing as you try with great effort to control each movement in a step-by-step fashion and maintain performance.  The mind is paralysed in thought and you feel uncomfortable over every shot.

How do you change this destructive chain reaction in focus and thought on the course?

In 2008 and 2010 my colleagues and I at the University of Western Australia studied the thought patterns of golf players in high pressure situations.  We found that players were much less likely to choke when they focused on a single word or phrase that captured the feeling of their best swing such as “smooth” or “release”.  The single word known as a trigger word or swing thought can limit conscious processing and self-consciousness.  This in turn enhances clarity over the ball, allowing you to achieve that effortless swing even in high-pressure situations.

Learning from the best in the business

A recent story in Golf Digest revealed how the best players in the world apply the “one swing thought” strategy in various ways.

Adam Scott thought only about getting to his left side on every swing when he shot 62 in the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston to win his first PGA Tour event.

Graeme McDowell fights the hooks off the tee just like the rest of us.  To prevent his hook and put his best swing on the ball his takeaway thought directs his attention on the first three feet of his backswing working the clubhead wide and outside his hands, by repeating the phrase “hands out wide.”

To maintain a powerful swing through the ball Paula Creamer’s one swing thought is “feel tall” so that she can maintain her body position and width of her arms.

Even the best players have something they are working on in their swing each and every day.  To get the most out of your lessons, and keep your head in the game and not on the finer details of your swing, the “one swing thought” strategy can be the best tool in your bag.

Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment to raise your performance under pressure with Jay-Lee at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre.