“Keep your eye on the ball” is a saying that’s been around for years. But a new study found that this advice could actually help you learn new skills like hitting a golf or tennis ball better than by thinking about what your body is doing.
In the study, published Oct. 6 in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, German researchers followed 20 golf novices as they learned how to putt.
Half of the people were told to focus on how they were swinging their arms, what the researchers called “internal” focus. The rest focused externally on the speed and direction of the golf ball.
During three days of training, the external focus group improved the most at putting, both in accuracy and consistency. These results match what other studies have found with ski simulators, golf pitch shots, soccer throw-ins, and tennis backhands.
One thing unique about this study, though, is that researchers also found that practice helped both groups organize their thoughts about putting correctly. Basically, they developed a mental picture of how their actions fit with an expected outcome.
However, people who focused on the movement of the ball had a stronger mental representation. This image better fit with the actual task, and was more in line with how expert golfers think about putting.
While the study was done with golf putting, it’s likely to work for learning motor skills for other sports. The trick is to—you know—keep your focus on the ball.