There are few decisions in golf as important as selecting the right shot to hit at the right time. Like most complex decisions, it requires knowledge, training, and practice to get good at it. There are many factors that influence the shot selection process – course setup, weather, confidence – just to name a few. Some of the factors are constant, while other factors can change during the round. Junior golfers that do a better job in this area of the game, have a substantial advantage over their competitors.
In this article, we are going to look at the general approach to selecting the right shot. In future articles, we will delve into more specific parts of the process. To begin with, junior golfers must develop a pre-shot process that includes the following steps:
When young golfers make their pre-shot process a habit, their play is likely to become more consistent. They will create more opportunities and reduce errors. They’ll also get better feedback and an increased understanding of what parts of their game need work. Even with a pre-shot process, junior golfers still can get into trouble when they skip steps in the process, have unrealistic expectations, let emotions influence their decisions, or have poor strategy.
The ultimate goal is to become so familiar with the process that it requires less thinking and becomes automatic. By doing that, the process can be completed in less time and, in the event that there’s a more complex situation, players are more likely to select the right shot.
Each of the steps above need to be trained and practiced so they can be relied upon in a competitive environment. I suggest working separately on each of the steps in the process. I also recommend that younger golfers solicit the help of their coach who can go on the course to review each of the segments and to help refine the overall process.
If you’ve been around the game for any length of time, you’ve surely said or heard, “I don’t know why I can’t seem to take it from the range to the course.” That statement is filled with the frustration associated with hitting the ball better on the range than on the course. Younger golfers, who spend much more time working on the range than do adults, are especially prone to this type of complaint.
The difference between the range and the golf course is obvious. On the range, players often hit the same club to the same target. With enough time and repetition the environment on the range is conducive to finding a rhythm or a groove. The golf course offers an environment that is quite the opposite – no two shots are the same and keeping score creates a mix of negative emotions (nervousness, anger, frustration, etc.) that can affect performance.
So, what’s the trick to allowing the skills a player develops in practice to transfer to the golf course? The key is to have training and practice sessions with the same kind of pressure and conditions that players will experience on the golf course. Players must be engaged in the same mental process during practice that they will draw upon when they play.
Simulate the Golf Course
Even the best ranges lack the characteristics and challenges that the course presents. To overcome this, players need to use their imagination to recreate shots that they find on the course. For example, two flags on the range can represent the edges of the fairway. I also recommend playing an entire round on the range by creating fairways, picking greens, and changing targets and clubs with each shot.
Use Your Entire Process
Routines are the glue of the golf swing. Both pre-shot and post-shot routines need to be practiced and refined so that they can become habits that can be relied upon during competition. Other mental skills can also be practiced while hitting shots at targets on the range. We recommend that young golfers use the 1 in 1 rule – hit one shot per minute – to leave enough time to go through the same process they use on the course.
Practicing with Adversity
Adding adversity to a practice session is one of the most important elements of the transfer process and is also one of the most difficult to implement. We know that the course offers adversity in many forms – difficult lies, hazards, the pressure of counting every stroke. You can add pressure to your practice sessions by engaging in games, creating challenging scenarios, and adding consequences for poor performances. A consequence that involves additional practice time or extra reps can be very effective.
In summary, the basic formula for getting the work you do on the range to transfer to the course is to:
Although there are differences among the best junior golfers, one thing they almost certainly have in common is that, when compared to their peers, they have more tournament experience. The benefits of tournament play are numerous and include:
Periodization and Timing
We like to use a model and a few simple rules to help parents get a better feel for the frequency in which their child should compete. Most high-level athletes use some form of periodization to peak at the right time and avoid over training. In golf, the model below works well for both juniors starting out and for more experienced golfers.
There are four phases within a cycle and the duration of each phase and the time in between each phase can vary throughout the year. Here’s how the timing might work for a young golfer who plays a two-day tournament on the weekend and has two weeks until his next tournament.
Now that you have a better idea of how to manage a competition cycle, let’s go over the specifics of putting together a tournament schedule.
For younger players, the goal is exposure and experience. At this stage, score is unimportant, so parents can schedule several tournaments in a row even if it’s not possible or practical to play practice rounds at each course. For older, more competitive juniors, parents need to be strategic when selecting tournaments because of their implications to national rankings. Parents should lean toward events on familiar courses, with strong fields, and that will allow adequate preparation including playing at least one practice round.
The NTPGA (www.ntpga.com) has a full schedule of nine-hole prep and 18-hole medalist tournaments. These tournaments are a great starting point for players that need experience on the golf course. The TJGT (www.tjgt.com) is a great regional tour that offers competitive juniors the opportunity to test their skills on championship courses and against strong fields. The most serious juniors can consider playing on a national level. The AJGA (www.ajga.org) offers a full schedule of events throughout the country.
My recent blog post "Are You Coachable?" which can be found below contained some content from a published article by Matt Wilson and Corey Lundberg entitled "Coachability: Traits and Tactics of Super Learning Students." In my original article, I failed to site Matt and Corey's article which can be found at www.curiouscoaches.com. I apologized to Matt and Corey for that omission. They are excellent coaches who have worked hard to provide useful information to the coaching community.
I think we can all agree that golf is hard even under the best of circumstances. Young golfers who are striving to get better often put their focus on finding a good coach and working hard. Those are clearly important considerations but an often-overlooked factor in improvement and success is a player’s willingness and determination to follow his or her coach’s instructions and guidance. In other words, are you coachable?
Before you learn how to answer this question let’s first discuss why it makes such a big difference. Assuming you’re like most competitive junior golfers and you’ve found a good coach and are working hard, one of the biggest remaining influencers on your rate of improvement is what you choose to do in your training and practice time. The best golf instructors understand how valuable this time is and are well equipped to provide you with direction and structure to ensure that this time is productive.
Below is a brief illustration depicting two young players who are striving to reach the same goal. Player A on the left, works hard to stay on track and follow the directions of his coach even in between lessons. Player B on the right, has good intentions but often gets off track and then waits for his coach to get him back on track. Player A will clearly make more progress over time.
In golf, where fractions separate the best from the rest, junior golfers can’t afford to get off track and let days and weeks go by without making progress. Heeding the ongoing advice of an experienced coach can literally make the difference on whether a young golfer reaches his goals or not.
Now that we understand the importance of trusting your coach and following his or her guidance, let’s determine how coachable you are. There are several traits that coachable athletes share. Among the most important are the following:
In life and in golf, our most valuable resource is time. When we’re young, we mistake the fact that fewer obligations means we have ample time to pursue our goals but as we get older, it becomes quite clear that success often depends on our ability to manage our time and use it productively. In a long-term specialization sport like golf, where success takes years of hard work, even younger players need to be careful to use their time wisely.
Several years ago, I created the following illustration as a guide to help our students make better use of the time they allocate to golf.
For competitive junior golfers, dividing golf time into three distinct areas: training, practicing, and competing, can accelerate progress and reduce frustration.
Any activity that requires conscious thought is considered training. Almost all skilled activities require training. Think about the amount of training the military, police, pilots, etc. must undergo to become skilled professionals. Often training can be uncomfortable or fraught with failure. During training, it’s important to put aside expectations and judgement – results are unimportant. Here are some examples of training:
Practice is the bridge between training and competing. It can best be described as the time in which you evaluate and test your results to determine if you need more training or are ready for competition. Although we might be aware of our training goals, practicing gives the opportunity to begin to shift thoughts from the conscious to the subconscious state-of-mind. Here are some examples of practicing:
Players are competing whenever they’re on the course and keeping track of score. When competing, results are all that matter. This means that successful junior golfers must understand the changes in both approach and thought process that need to take place when they leave training and practicing and move to the course. Tour players play their best golf when they quiet their mind over the ball and eliminate technical thoughts. That’s typically something less experienced golfers have difficulty doing. Here are some keys to competing:
Junior golfers hoping to reach their potential and avoid long periods of frustration, must be disciplined enough to manage and track their time according to their development phase and tournament schedule. Using the model above and adjusting the percentage of time devoted to each area -- training, practicing, and competing – will provide a competitive junior golfer with a way to get the most from their golf time.
It’s the time of the year when many of us take a look back and assess the previous 12 months to learn and prepare for the next year. It can be a very useful exercise, especially if you follow these simple steps which have been tailored to the needs of junior golfers.
Perform an Annual Review
This process will enable a parent to look back and celebrate the victories (I’m not necessarily referring to tournament victories), evaluate the failures, and decide on the changes or shifts that are necessary to make 2018 more successful for a young golfer. This can best be done by writing the answers to the following three questions.
1. What went well in 2017?
2. What didn’t go so well in 2017?
3. What does your son or daughter need to do differently so that 2018 will be successful?
Create a System and Forget about Goals
Most of us attempt to set some goals but struggle year after year to accomplish what we outline on paper. A far more productive approach is to commit to a process of improvement – in other words a system for accomplishing goals.
Here’s an example:
· Your child’s goal is to win a tournament. Their “system” details what they do at practice each day.
You can keep things simple and reduce stress by focusing on the daily process and sticking to a schedule, rather than worrying about big, difficult-to-achieve goals. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress. Goals are about short-term results. Systems are about the long-term process. Goals suggest you can control things that are uncontrollable. Forget about predicting the future. Build a system that is reliable and signals when adjustments are necessary.
In summary, goals are good for planning your progress. Systems are good for actually making progress.
Prepare Your Child’s Tournament Schedule in Advance
After completing an assessment of 2017 and putting together an improvement system for 2018, it’s time to plan out your son or daughter’s tournament schedule. Preparing the schedule in advance increases the chances that your child will perform well when it counts the most and will help you save on travel and other expenses.
When exploring which tournaments to play, it makes sense to follow these guidelines:
· Register for a mix of tournaments so that your child can be tested by strong competition in some events and then can compete to win in other events. I recommend competing on one of the regional tours like the Texas Junior Golf Tour (tjgt.com). They have a variety of tournaments to test competitors of every level.
· If your son or daughter plays high school golf, be sure to check the team schedule to avoid doubling up on events. Also check their exam schedule. It’s hard to compete when preparation or sleep are in short supply.
· Make sure your child’s instructor knows which tournaments are the most important so that he or she can ensure that your child’s game is peaking at just the right time.
If you follow the three steps outlined above, you will be putting your junior golfer in position to have a successful and rewarding 2018.
In a competitive environment like junior golf where players fight for medals and trophies, there can be a significant amount of pressure to win at an early age. This pressure often leads to younger golfers, under their parent’s direction, training and practicing for many hours a week to develop their skills and gain an advantage over other competitors. It’s not unheard of for parents of even elementary-aged children to hire a team of coaches to guide their aspiring golfer toward the promise of future stardom.
The research and the signs strongly indicate that this approach doesn’t work and is proving to have significant drawbacks.
The best golfers are likely the best athletes.
If you investigate the backgrounds of the top players in the game, you will discover that most exceled in many sports while growing up. Recently, much has been written about Jordan Spieth’s sports background. Before dedicating himself to golf around the age of 14, Jordan played baseball, basketball, and football and excelled as a quarterback and pitcher. There are many more examples of professional golfers, including most of the distance leaders on tour, who played other sports at a high level before turning their attention to golf. Gary Woodland, one of the longest hitters on tour, earned a college basketball scholarship before transferring to Kansas to play golf.
The advantages of early specialization erode over time.
While there’s no denying that early specialization can make a difference in the short-term, there’s mounting evidence that golfers with a diverse athletic background are likely to pass up those that specialize early, and well-rounded athletes have a better chance of competing successfully at the highest levels of the game. On the other hand, early specialization typically produces the opposite effect, young athletes that make the top traveling team and achieve "all-star" status before their teen years but then fail to reach their potential or just burn out and quit. In one important study presented by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, professional athletes specialized, on average, two years later than high school athletes.
Early specialization has several significant risks.
The risks are well documented and include reduced satisfaction, higher rates of burnout, and increased chance of injury. Here are several research excerpts that demonstrate how early specialization may negatively affect your children.
If your goal as a parent is to maximize your child's athletic talent in a particular sport by their late teens or early 20s, then multi-sport participation -- at least through age 13 or 14 -- is clearly the way to go.
It’s an all too frequent occurrence for competitive golfers. A single stroke can make the difference in whether a player misses a cut, finishes outside the top 10, or comes up just short of winning a tournament. When it happens, it’s so easy to look back and find all the lost opportunities and the wasted strokes. So how can a seemingly frustrating experience help your game? Because it’s in these disappointments that golfers learn the valuable lessons that can change the trajectory of a young career.
The trick to benefiting from competition is to recognize that every tournament provides, apart from the results, the following important information:
Irrespective of how many hours players practice or train, only the feedback gained under the pressures of a tournament can pinpoint the areas of a young golfer’s game that need to improve. It’s often in the tournaments in which players perform poorly that you can learn the most and understand what changes need to take place to improve play in the future. As a coach, I’m always interested in understanding the factors that lead to poor play, as well as the details surrounding a good tournament. Therefore, I highly recommend that junior golfers make regular use of a statistical analysis program that objectively captures and identifies strengths and weaknesses. At our Academy, our students use ShotbyShot.com.
Rating of Preparation, Decision Making, and Mental Toughness
At the completion of every tournament we ask our players to rate their preparation, decision making, and mental toughness. We’ve noticed a strong correlation between high ratings in these three areas and low scores. This focus helps our students commit their attention to activities that are highly controllable. Each and every tournament provides an opportunity to work on these important skills.
Better Understanding of In-Round Adjustments
One of the biggest differences between good and great players is the ability to adjust to all the factors that change during a round. We like to divide them between external factors (wind, green speed, etc.) and internal factors (fatigue, anxiety, etc.). The best players in the world almost seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to recognizing these in-round changes. They also have a deep understanding of their game and know the correct adjustments to make when it matters most. Less experienced golfers, especially younger players, are slow to pick up on the changes and then often compound these errors by choosing the wrong adjustment.
It’s normal to be motivated by and to concentrate on the potential outcome of a tournament. Unfortunately, it’s just not the best approach to take if the overriding goal is long-term improvement. Instead, I encourage young golfers striving to play at a high level to compete frequently and to turn their attention to learning more about their game each time they play.
As coaching and training methods improve, the ranks of skilled junior golfers has grown steadily over the years. Just a few short years ago, it was uncommon to see younger players with tour level club speed and regularly shooting under par scores. That’s no longer the case. At our Academy, we have several high school players who swing as fast as the pros and I just came from a tournament in which there were 30 scores of 69 or lower. Therefore, junior golfers must look for and take advantage of every opportunity to separate themselves from the pack.
One of the easiest and best ways of gaining important insight on your game is with the use of a well-established statistical analysis program. The best among these programs will enable you to do three important things.
Identify Strengths and Weaknesses
A very basic feature of a good stats program will be to clearly identify a golfer’s strengths and weaknesses. The best golfers in the world know exactly how and why they play well. They no doubt attempt to lessen the impact of their weaknesses but they are typically more concerned with making sure they can rely on their strengths for scoring. In contrast, we see junior golfers spending too much time on their weaknesses with little benefit or reduction in scores.
Direct Your Practice Time
Once strengths and weaknesses are accurately identified with the help of a stats program, it’s easy to come up with an improvement plan that strategically divides up a player’s training and practice time. As an example, for a player struggling off the tee, it could make sense to allocate the bulk of practice time to this part of the game until there’s noticeable improvement in the stats. Better players with clear strengths and known weaknesses, still must be careful to spend enough time on all parts of their game to stay sharp and tournament-ready.
Pick Up on Trends
Because stats paint such a clear picture, they’re enormously helpful when it comes to spotting trends that could impact a player’s game in the future. Young golfers tend to focus too much energy and emotion on an occasional poor shot and often miss the bigger picture. By comparing statistics from one tournament to another or even from one season to the next, players can spot trends an act upon tendencies before they have a big impact on their game.
I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it is for a competitive junior golfer to be using a good statistical analysis program. As a coach, I insist that our students enter their stats after every round. I use the information to determine what changes need to be made to improve a student’s performance. There are several good stats programs from which to choose. We use ShotbyShot.com but also like the DECADE system by BirdieFire.com. Both rely on strokes-gained analysis, the same approach used by the pros.
Jeff Isler shares his observations, insights, and experiences on the game of golf and those that play it at a high level.