Article #12 - Process-Focus versus Outcome-Focus: A Crucial Distinction in Sports

For most of you involved in golf or other sports, the ultimate goal is to improve how well you perform.  You strive to hit more fairways and sink more putts.  You try to lower your scoring average and improve your handicap.  You want to establish a new all-time best score.  You work toward better finishes in your competitions.  In any sport, the bottom line is that you are always working toward improving your outcomes.

Anytime I consult with a golfer or other athlete, they’re depending on me to come up with the best mental techniques to help them improve their outcomes.  They want to know what mental strategies will lead to better scores and improve their ability to compete.

So, what are some of the best mental strategies to help you improve your outcomes?

It turns out that the answer to this question is quite paradoxical and counter-intuitive.  The most powerful mental technique I know to improve your scores is simply letting go of any concerns about the outcome and instead focusing solely on the process of preparing for and executing each shot!

Let me give you an example of what I mean by focusing on the process and letting go of any concerns about the outcome.  Suppose I have a rigid steel beam that is one foot wide and fifty feet long.  I lay the beam on the ground and challenge you to walk the length of the beam without falling off.  This is really a very simple task, and anyone with normal coordination would find that they could easily walk those fifty feet without stepping off the beam.  If you were faced with this challenge, I’d bet that you would be very confident in your ability to complete this task.  You’d simply focus on the process of placing one foot in front of the other, and you’d trust in your ability to successfully complete the task.

However, suppose I take that same beam and now put it up on posts that are 100 feet up in the air.  We lift you up those 100 feet and deposit you on one end of the beam.  Again, I challenge you to walk those fifty feet without falling.  How confident would you be that you could successfully walk to the other end without falling off and likely getting yourself killed?  Most people would have virtually no confidence and would absolutely refuse to even try walking across that beam.  What happens is that you are no longer focused on the process of completing the task and instead are very focused on the potential outcomes!

The reality is that whether the beam is on the ground or way up in the air, the physical task of walking across the beam is essentially the same.  What makes trying to cross the beam so difficult when it is high up is that rather than simply focusing on the process of taking a short walk, all of our attention instead becomes focused on the implications of the outcome of our performance!

Let me give you an example of a process-focus versus an outcome-focus in golf.  Suppose you have a mid-iron approach shot over water.  A golfer who maintains a process-focus will check the conditions (wind, lie, change in elevation, etc.) and make a decision about which club to use.  They’ll identify a small precise target at which to aim.  They’ll think back to a similar situation in which they successfully executed their shot.  They’ll retrieve memories of some of the best shots they’ve hit with the club they selected for the shot at hand.

The process-focused golfer will take a practice swing or two to get a comfortable feel for the swing they want to put on the ball.  They will develop an image in their mind of properly executing the exact shot they want to hit.  They’ll address the ball, making sure they have the proper stance and alignment.  And as they become ready to swing, they’ll have a single thought in their mind, such as “perfect” or “smooth.”  And once they have this thought, they simply allow themselves to swing, having absolutely no concern about where the ball is going to go!

Their focus has remained on the process of preparing for a good shot and working toward executing a good shot.  Because of this excellent preparation, and allowing their bodies to do what they know how to do, the process-focused golfer allows none of his attention to be devoted to concerns about where the ball is going to end up.

The golfer who is more outcome-focused may go through many of the same steps the process-focused golfer went through.  They’ll assess the situation, select a target, take practice swings and may well try to imagine the type of shot they want to hit.  But the big difference between the process-focused golfer and the outcome-focused golfer is that when it is time to swing, a significant portion of the outcome-focused golfer’s attention will indeed be devoted to concerns about where the ball is going to go.

Concerns about the outcome of the shot can come in many shapes and sizes, but none of them are good.  Those with an outcome-focus may question whether they really have the proper club, worrying that the ball will go too far, or not far enough.  They might have concerns about how a poor shot will affect their score or standing in a tournament.  They may be worried about what other golfers will think if the shot isn’t pulled off properly.  The golfer might not be 100% certain of his alignment, leading to some type of attempted correction during the actual swing.

Each of these outcome-focused thoughts will interfere with your ability to hit the shot you want to hit.  Concerns about the outcome distract you from staying in the exact here-and-now moment.  They cause mental and physical tension.  They bring forth doubt and impair your ability to make a confident swing.  When any part of your attention is directed toward concerns about what might happen, it diminishes your ability to focus on what you are doing at the present time.

Although it seems quite paradoxical, the best way to increase the likelihood of a good outcome is by not focusing on the outcome!  Instead, focus on the process of preparing for the shot, committing to your preparation, and then simply allowing yourself to hit the shot!

In golf, once the ball leaves the face of the club, you no longer have any control whatsoever over where that ball is going to end up.  This is a fact.  That’s why (even though most of us do it) telling a ball to “go’ or “sit” or “come on back”  has no effect on the  ball at all.  Our control is over.  We have no more influence.  As far as the ball is concerned, it’s “Hasta la vista, baby!”

When you are out on the course, always maintain your focus on those things you can control, and let go of concerns about what you cannot control.  What you can control is your preparation for the shot, the commitment to the shot, and the execution of the actual swing.  That is all you can control.  Let go of all of your concerns about what might happen.  Have no worries about what the outcome will be.  Focus on the process, not the outcome.

Golf is only a game.  It’s not life and death.  But the next time you’re getting ready to hit a shot of any kind, think back to my example of trying to safely walk across that fifty-foot beam.  When you just focus on the process of walking, trust you can safely put one foot in front of the other, and have no concern about the outcome, crossing that beam is a breeze!  But once you start to worry about what “might” happen, or what the consequences will be if you don’t make it to the other end, you hugely sabotage the chance of a successful crossing.

If your ultimate goal is to improve how well you perform, remember to stay focused on the process and let go of concerns about the outcome!


Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP

Las Vegas Sport Psychology
5037 Portraits Place
Las Vegas, NV 89149