A simple process to gain focus and cut the tension

By Tom F. Stickney II, G.S.E.D.


The “Pre-Shot Routine,” how many times have you heard that expression, yet how many people do you know that have one?  Your Pre-shot is nothing more than a mental state of mind where you focus on getting yourself mentally and physically ready to make the best shot possible- it frees your mind from negative thoughts and allows your body to stay relaxed by keeping physical motion constant.  By moving through this dance step regiment you are doing all you can to become “ready” to hit your next shot like it was your last.  In this segment of your swing, you should have made all your qualitative decisions long ago and your mind should be FREE of all thoughts except for the target in mind.  How many of you are standing over the ball until you take the club away and are still focused on extraneous things like. . . what the wind is doing, do I have the right club, hey, there’s the beer cart, and the like.  While the Pre-shot Routine focuses your mind on the present process you must not the future or even the result of the outcome cause your mind to wander, if you become process orientated and not outcome-focused it WILL reduce your anxiety and tension level greatly!

Your Pre-shot should be a series of mental and physical “dance steps” in order to get you fully focused and ready for this shot.  Not only should you do this before each shot but also it should ALWAYS take the same amount of time.  A study was done years ago on Jack Nicklaus and his Pre-shot Routine, but it was virtually forgotten about until Greg Norman’s unfortunate fall at the Masters this year. 

A psychologist timed Nicklaus from the time he pulled the club out of the bag until he hit the ball on each shot from number one tee to eighteen green during one of the important majors- it was said that Jack’s time period from #1 to #18 NEVER varied more than ONE second.  That is amazing!  The same psychologist measured Norman at the Masters and low and behold his Pre-shot got faster and faster as the round progressed.  Do you get quicker when you are rushed, pissed off, or tense- I do, we ALL do!  This means is that it makes no difference if you are doing the same mental and physical motions during your routine if they take varying times!  It all must be consistent- Period!

Just what are the steps in a routine and how do you develop them?  (1) Well, everyone has his or her own internal pace of readiness over a shot, so that is the first clue- Never hit a shot until your clock is ready for you to go!  If your internal clock is slower than your partners don’t hold them up just start a few seconds earlier and things will be fine. (2) How many times should you look up, waggle, and shuffle your feet?

  To me, it has a lot to do with how high-strung you are and even how much nervous energy you have, but it is mostly related to the point above.  How and what you move can only be determined by you, but Never hit a shot until your mind and body are ready together! (3) What is the procedure for clearing my mind?  This is the enigma of the whole situation- but things like focusing on the step-by-step process of your Pre-shot and deep breathing exercises will help dramatically.  It has been studied and proven that the more relaxed you are the fewer thoughts that you have running through your mind at a given time- you know fewer brainwaves moving at a given time. 

Basically, this is a lower level of extraneous awareness cues, lower personal anxiety levels, and just a more content state of being.  The whole idea is to develop a way to become mentally focused, physically free of tension, and ready for all systems to fire and knock down the pin! (4) How do I focus on my target?  Look at where you want the ball to land or start depending on the situation.  Dr. Bob Rotella, the leading golf sports psychologist, says the smaller your target the better chance you have of hitting the green.  He uses the example of darts- do you aim at the board or the bull’s eye? 

If you just aimed at the board how many times would you get lucky enough to hit the center?  Not many!  It is the same with a shot to the green, if you aim at the right front quadrant, etc. I guarantee you WILL have a much higher percentage of greens in regulation that day!


I want to give you an example of my Pre-shot, not because it is the best or anything like that, I just want to show you the things I’m thinking about so hopefully it will shed more light on this intangible process. . .

  1. I have made all decisions concerning the present shot and have got the correct club in my hand so there are no more thoughts of what needs to be done with this shot. (Unless the wind gales unexpectedly etc., then I would back off my shot and then reassess the situation!) I’ve eliminated all extraneous analytical thoughts except the process of my pending Pre-shot Routine.
  2. I stand behind the ball, pick the line of the flight I need, and I will then take two practice swings, the first one is designed for the people who MUST use swing thoughts on the golf course. It is used to try to feel a mechanical process or difference of a swing flaw that I am trying to eradicate during my swing (I ONLY use this when I am swinging erratically!) the second and most important practice swing is done with the feeling and effort of the shot that I’m required to hit.  This will help my body to feel what I need to do as well as gives my mind the time to visualize the shape and trajectory of the shot at hand.
  3. Address the ball from the sidelining the clubface with my intermediate target line that I picked from stage 2, and finally, take my stance.
  4. Now I will prepare to focus on the target line I desire and become as tension-free as possible, both mentally and physically. . .one waggle, look up at target; two waggles, look up at target; and on the third waggle I will look at my target to hone my focus on my positive plan of action, then I place the club down behind the ball and Go.

This is my routine that I go through on every full shot, you also need a short game and a putting Pre-shot Routine as well- those also take the same time.  Develop your own way to “get into” your process and free your mind and body.  Watch the Tour professionals the ALL have a set, defined, and timed Pre-shot Routine.  It will eliminate the analytical thoughts of the shot at hand that are natural to our human nature- I will say this if you have thoughts of the swing at this stage then it will only make the target smaller to hit.  If the professionals have a Pre-shot, why don’t you?



Editor’s note: Stickney is the Director of  Golf Instruction at the renowned Club at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo. He is ranked by Golf Magazine as a "Top 100 Instructor" and by Golf Digest as one of the "Top 20 Teachers Under 40." For more information, visit