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An effective pre-shot routine is essential to improving your golf game.
An effective pre-shot routine is essential to improving your golf game. (B.J. Hathaway/TravelGolf)

What the PGA Tour pros know: The importance of having an effective pre-shot routine

B.J. HathawayBy B.J. Hathaway,

Watch your favorite PGA Tour player prepare for hitting any shot, and you will observe a systematic approach to hitting each and everything.

Now the next time you play a casual round with your favorite foursome notice which, if any, of your fellow golfers have any sort of pre-shot routine.

You may not have thought about it before, but your routine can have a very positive affect on the numbers on your scorecard, so let's look at why.

We can all agree that golf requires intense focus and concentration to perform at a high level. Watch the facial expressions of great players like Woods, Nicklaus or Floyd in the heat of competition, and you can't help but see the "look," which is also called being "in the zone."

We can also agree that maintaining 100 percent concentration for a four hour round of golf is unrealistic as it would be mentally draining. If we could develop a routine that allowed us to tap into this focus state, hit the shot and then resume a normal state of mind we would have the best of both worlds.

By creating an effective routine, not only can you access concentration but also the ability to relax, breathe, visualize and then distract the conscious mind to allow the subconscious mind to actually execute the shot required.

The most effective routine begins with a question

The most effective routine does not begin with selecting a club, checking the wind or the yardage, but it begins with a question. Ask yourself, "What does a good shot look like here?" This allows you to change focus from negative thoughts such as "don't hit it into that bunker" and replaces that focus onto positive thoughts.

Questions create images in the mind, and you want to see a clear image of what a good shot looks like. Positive images stimulate feelings that trigger emotions, and you want those emotions to feel good about executing that shot!

Your practice swing

The next step in your routine will be your practice swing. The type of practice swing you take will depend on the question you asked in step one. Does this shot need to curve right to left or left to right? Do you need to hit it high or take it in low? Will this shot need extra spin because the greens are firm? If this is a putt, what is the speed that I want the ball to enter the hole?

All of these questions will have images associated with them, and the practice swing should mimic those images. If this shot requires a high draw then your practice swing may feel a bit flatter than normal, you may feel your hands get closer to your body on the downswing and the club path a bit more in-to-out, with the hands finishing high. You just made the practice swing that will produce a high draw. Be careful that you do not break the swing down into pieces; under pressure, the brain prefers a complete motion rather than a segmented one.

Access your performance state via deep breathing

Now that you are two steps into your routine, it will be necessary to make sure that you are calm and your nerves are settled. In the third step, you want to focus on your breathing (more specifically, deep breathing). Deep breathing is one of the most powerful tools that will allow you to access your performance state. What we want to do is make sure the mind does not jump forward and think, "Well what if I don't hit this one good, and it goes in the water?" Future tense thinking creates anxiety and tension.

Not only does deep breathing help relax you, it helps ground you in the present moment -- the state controlled by images. This form of breathing is not your normal breathe in, breathe out exercise but, rather, a specific type called the Reflex Breath, and it's the opposite of what you would expect.

Begin by completely exhaling all of the air in your lungs, imagine that you are squeezing a sponge filled with air. As you expel all of this air, you will instinctively breathe in a full supply of fresh oxygen. Perform 2-3 relaxing breaths and literally feel like you are blowing out all of the tension.

Clear your mind, then go on automatic

You are getting close now, having picked the club, imagined the shot, made the practice swing and done your breathing, but what if one of those "what if" questions creeps in? Let's imagine a simple exercise that can temporarily shut down the conscious mind and allow of all that good programming to execute the shot for you. This exercise is called a Clear Key and is simply a phrase that contains no action words that keeps your mind occupied while you perform.

It could be something simple like, "I like my swing, it's the thing!" or lyrics from your favorite song, etc. Use any phrase that makes you feel good, just be sure it does not contain actions words such as hit, kill, slide, turn or any words that cause you to think about doing something. Once you have your Clear Key, it's time to "go on automatic." Imagine a line between you and the ball, and tell yourself that once you cross that line you are only in Clear Key mode. Repeat your Clear Key just like a broken record until the ball is gone!

Remember your Clear Key does not have to make sense, its purpose is to distract you from thinking "what if" and let your subconscious mind do its job.

Now you have established a simple but powerful pre-shot routine. It is up to you to practice your routine and make it a part of every shot from drive to putt. Not only will your routine give you a sense of familiarity and calm, it will become part of you, the golfer. Remember that your routine is not just another "thing that I do here" but a very powerful tool!

With this tool you will know that despite the outcome you have done everything that you can do to execute the shot required. You will build consistency into your game and allow yourself the opportunity to perform at levels you've always imagined.

Over the course of B.J. Hathaway's career, he has established himself as the leading junior golf instructor in the Southeast and one of the leading mental golf coaches in the country. While working at Augusta Golf Instruction, he received the prestigious Master Certified Mind Factor accreditation; the first golf instructor in the U.S. to receive this advanced certification.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • clear key

    BJ wrote on: Oct 18, 2012

    The concept of Clear Keys comes from Dr. Carey Mumford and more details at clearkeygolf.com


      • RE: clear key

        RKoskey wrote on: Feb 17, 2013

        This is one of the parts that were missing from my golf game. A simple but powerful tool. I know this will become a special place in my glof game. Thanks for sharing it with others.