The Oxford Dictionary defines instinct it as “an innate or typically fixed pattern of behaviour” or “a natural or intuitive way of thinking”. Sporting instinct is specific to an athlete and his chosen sport and it is obvious that it can be trained and improved upon through training.

Changing a pattern of behaviour or their intuitive way of thinking can be difficult but is definitely not impossible. If we consider the golfer who is terrible at holing short putts – he may have been saddled with years of fear of that shot with a resultant period of years of poor putting. But, for the coach to give up on him, and to say that the performance is instinctive (innate) to him, and cannot be rectified (fixed), is to do him a disservice.

So how do you change a repetitively bad part of  your play? Does consciously trying to create new movements work or will the athlete respond better to drills and feel based goals which seek to work with the positives he already has?



Part of the difficulty of golf is the time which you have to think about and execute the shot. It can be up to ten minutes between shots and the fact you initiate the motion of the swing falsely provides the illusion that we have more control over our performance. We can strive for a swing position or feel over and over again, to the extent that when we fail we blame our co-ordination or focus.

Golf has no unique claim on peak performance despite being so different in appearance to others. If you have played sports such as soccer or tennis you will understand what it means to constantly be in a reactionary state, relying mainly on instinct. Almost whole games can go past without much thought about past or future outcomes. The speed of the game and the intense awareness and concentration that is required naturally prevents this.


Do you think a soccer player honestly thinks what his foot should do at impact to create a certain curve of the ball? Does Wayne Rooney have any conscious thought as he volleys the ball in mid air into the top corner in the final minute with millions watching? Does Rodger Federer wonder what angle his shoulders are at as he hits a running forehand down the line at 90mph?

However, when a soccer player takes a penalty, or the tennis player serves on an important point, there is a great similarity to golf in that the athlete decides when the action is initiated. These situations are when pressure is greatest and we often see more fails because the additional thinking time allows for conscious manipulation of an action which should be more instinctive and successful.

Think how silly it would be to tell a tennis player or footballer to change their angle of their racquet or foot by five degrees to get a different result but we do it in golf frequently. Yes the tennis player and footballer can alter their technique but they do it exclusively by feel, not numbers. They test and train their feel, their instinct in practice.



Your instinct is a combination of decision making skills, past experience, confidence, perceived ability and common traits. Making the right decisions instinctively under competitive pressure implies no conscious processing of information. ‘Instinct’ is open to many interpretations, for example if you have just won two events in a row and are faced with a very difficult shot you are much more likely to ‘instinctively’ take it on because your confidence is riding high. High confidence levels change your instinct to be more positive.

TV golf commentators have a tough task to describe the intricacies of performance to the general public who may or may not have a good understanding of the game. The one phrase that gets mentioned more than others at the culmination of events is ‘committing to the shot’. At this stage the golfer has to rely on his instinctiveness in playing the shot which he has ingrained in his mind and swing. He has to overcome the fear of a bad result and has to avoid trying to consciously manipulate the swing.





Successful athletes in all sports, including golf are clearly relying on their training, trusting their instincts and employing a deep level of focus and awareness. Golf is the same. Forget the walk between shots, the nice chat with your playing partner, the surveying of the terrain and the choice of shot. Since studies show that the downswing for an expert golfer takes roughly 0.2 seconds, once you start your swing you can only rely on instinct.

For the long term our training needs to be enjoyable and sustainable. However, this doesn’t mean constant laughter and hilarity, since any improvement will come with its frustrations and sometimes brick walls. Successful training means doing things that engage us. Perhaps you decide you will spend the majority of your time practicing your putting by competing against a friend rather than grooving three footers with a perfect stroke.

Don’t mistake this for recreating the pressure of performance in an event. Nothing in your training will come close to the task of hitting a tournament deciding shot. Again, thinking of other sports, the footballer probably doesn’t feel nervous in training like he would in a match. But is he engaged and testing his instinctive ability and pushing the boundaries of his skill?





  • Play another sport;

Tennis, squash and baseball have a lot in common with the technical elements of the golf swing as proven by biomechanic studies. You would be challenging your hand eye co-ordination, your spacial awareness and your reaction times. Sometimes we are too close to golf, too entrenched in habit to have a fresh or original analysis of our game. Playing another sport is a great way to do this.

(A nice side effect is how regular participation could change your golf fitness – speed, balance and agility).



  • Hit ten balls with no pause between;

Do this a few times and take stock of the level of focus you had and where you placed your focus. How little were you able to process as you hit the balls? Detailed swing thoughts soon evaporate under this speed of performance.

Develop the drill further by adding in different targets for every shot.In a normal round you will make 30 to 40 full swings – every single one to a new target. On top of that the lie is different and rarely flat! How many targets did you have in your last practice session? How many different clubs did you hit? How were your results compared to normal?



  • No practice swings on the course;

No pre-shot routines, no practice swings, no method. Take the safety net of routine away from your performance – how did you play? Were you more committed to the shot? Were you more focussed on the target – could you visualise a shot better?



  • Swing like Happy Gilmore!

Watch this video below of Padraig Harrington swinging like Mr Gilmore. This isn’t just for fun though. It’s something Padraig has practiced regularly for a couple of years now to help train his sequence (firing the hips, chest and arms in a natural order)





Should we numb the mind into submission on the range, rarely experiment  on the course and then subject ourselves to intense tournament pressure and scrutiny with very high expectations coupled with a NEED to play well?

Of course we should spend time developing different techniques and skills, it is impossible to learn new habits under the constant pressure of competition. However, the last thing the average golfer needs is something else to think or worry about during their one second swing.

Instead of searching for ‘the secret’ by trying a different swing thought every day or by trying the latest tips in a magazine, get on the golf course with a reputable coach. Build a relationship with him or her that extends beyond a regular pattern of temporary fixes. Get professional feedback on your overall game, something no playing partner can do however enthusiastic they are.

Make changes to your performance with drills and a focus on feel and make them a habit by training your instincts.

Cultivate a healthy attitude to the game you are passionate about, challenge your creativity, rely on your instincts and lower your score!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *