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.
In the hands of a competitive junior golfer, the right equipment will speed up development, lower scores, and add to the overall enjoyment of the game. Poorly fitted equipment, on the other hand, will contribute to poor contact, erratic ball flight, slow progress and, ultimately, discourage younger golfers. Therefore, as parents and coaches, it’s essential to make sure juniors have equipment that works for their game.
In recent years, the options for younger juniors has increased but it still is limited relative to the options available for older juniors and adults.
Buying the right clubs is a challenge especially for growing and developing junior golfers. The investment, physical changes, and shifting golf swings only add to the challenge. Thanks to the experience from hundreds of fittings, we know the steps to take and the mistakes to avoid to help you make a good club-buying decision. The list below is a quick summary of the recommendations we make to the parents of students. These recommendations are geared towards younger players.
The goal of every golf parent should be to act in a way that increases the likelihood of having a positive golf experience with his or her young golfer. In last month’s blog post, we introduced the first five of 10 Keys to Being a Great Golf Parent. In this month’s article, we present the second half of the list. We encourage you to use this list as a guideline for raising your junior golfer.
6. Calm the waters. Golf is an emotional sport, especially for competitive juniors who are trying to manage their own expectations and do the best they can to impress and please their parents and coaches. Parents that understand this, would be wise to react calmly to the natural peaks and valleys of competition. Steadiness from parents will enable young golfers to focus on long-term improvement, a requirement for those will high aspirations.
7. Memorize the magic five words. After watching a round of golf for 4-6 hours, most parents can’t wait to share their advice (and sometime their criticism) as soon as the round is over. But take it from me, this is the worst time to offer feedback. Instead, I recommend memorizing and repeating the following phrase: “I love watching you play.” That means being engaged and present and looking for opportunities to catch them doing something right rather than pointing out mistakes and second guessing them.
8. Hold your child accountable for his or her effort. In golf, coaches and players only get to spend a small fraction of time together. Therefore, it’s up parents to ensure that their child is following the directions of their coach and investing an appropriate amount of time on their game. I can tell you firsthand that our number one priority with students is to establish a supportive and trusting relationship. We can remind students of what’s required to play high level golf but we have limited control or leverage over how they actually spend their time.
9. Make school work and family responsibilities the highest priorities. As parents and coaches, we should be most concerned with raising young man and women of high character and strong values. The best way to do that is to assign appropriate priorities to school work and family responsibilities. By their over-the-top reactions, too many parents unknowingly present golf as the #1 priority. On a related note, most young golfers are over committed and struggling to get enough sleep and recovery time. It’s up to parents to enforce appropriate bed times and impose necessary restrictions on social media.
10. Forget about the score. That’s right, I said forget about the score. In a sport that takes years to master, your son or daughter’s record will be filled with bad rounds and poor scores. I urge you to keep your eye focused on the long run. This will help encourage your child to do the same. Improvement and good scores will be your likely reward for taking a more long-term view.
When we embark on the journey with our children, we assume that playing competitive golf will be filled with exciting times and great memories. But as a late specialization sport in which even the best players lose much more than they win, the ride is filled with unexpected challenges and pitfalls that can test even the closest of relationships. Here’s the good news. By paying attention to some guidelines we’ve developed over the years, you can greatly increase your chances of having a positive junior golf experience.
In this month’s blog, we’re going to introduce the 10 Keys to Being a Great Golf Parent.
1. Make it fun and keep it fun. In the early years, kids play sports to have fun and if it’s not fun, they lose interest. Instead of worrying about technique and other issues more appropriate for older kids, do everything you can to keep things fun and simple. One simple trick is to associate golf with another fun activity (e.g. getting ice cream).
2. Understand the stages of development and key milestones. Many parents underestimate the complexity of the game and the length of time it takes to build the skills necessary to shoot low scores. Each junior golfer develops at a different pace and it’s unfair to compare your child’s progress to another player’s progress, even if they’re the same age. The focus should be on long-term improvement and reaching appropriate milestones.
3. Select and experienced coach that specializes in junior golf and can commit time and attention to your child. This might be the most important factor in your child’s ultimate success. Experience with juniors and their unique development cycle is a key requirement. It makes a big difference if the coach has successfully guided other juniors through the entire process. Finally, make sure the coach you select has enough time and energy to make your child a priority.
4. Support your child’s coach with your actions and words. Great coaches work hard at their craft. They know it takes a mix of experience, knowledge, and interpersonal skills to be effective. When you find the right coach, he or she deserves your complete support. Without realizing it, parents can undermine their child's coach in subtle ways. For example, giving your child the "okay" to quit an assigned task or criticizing your child's coach in front of them weakens the coach's standing and credibility. I recommend supporting your coach's decisions even if you would do it differently.
5. Familiarize yourself with the sport and have realistic expectations. Regardless of their skill, we can’t expect junior golfers to play at PGA tour standards. On a practical basis, it’s important to note that the pros typically have a 12-shot spread between their low and high rounds. With that much variation in the scores of the best players in the game, it is important for your son or daughter to acknowledge the difficulty of the sport and expect the same fluctuation in scores.
In next month’s blog, we’ll look at the next five on the list. If you’re anxious to see the rest of the list before it’s published, feel free to contact me directly.
We talk to many young players and their parents who are under the misconception that if you want to be a great golfer, you need a great looking golf swing. That is, the style of your swing is what matters most. When style is the focus, you’ll hear things like, “your club face is closed at the top”, “you’re not on plane”, or “your finish isn’t high enough.”
Some golf coaches are guilty of this same kind of thinking. But the best coaches know better. The simple truth of golf is that the way in which your swing works (how it functions) is the key to better ball striking and lower scores. One thing we know for sure about the players on tour is that there are a lot of different looking swings – some pleasing, others not so much – but they all function at a very high level.
Since the golf ball only responds to the physics of the collision between the ball and clubface – what we call impact, it makes sense to focus on things that actually influence that small moment in time. With the help of technology like TrackMan, we now can measure the impact interval (which is only about 450 microseconds) for the full swing, short game, and putting and thus, have a better chance of influencing how the club and the ball interact.
That means that no matter how much time you spend working on your setup or your backswing or your mental game or your decision making, better ball striking depends entirely on controlling impact. So, if you’re a young golfer wanting to hit 300 yard drives, laser-like iron shots, or chips that grab and stop on the green, you better be able to identify and improve the following:
1. Where and when did I contact the ground?
2. Where did the ball strike the clubface?
3. Where was the clubface pointing at impact?
4. What was the path of the clubface at impact?
In summary, you must be able to connect your ball flight to impact by knowing the answers to the questions above. Once you do, you’ll be in position to start to change and control your ball flight like the best players in the game. As experienced coaches with the right technology, we can be a big help in guiding you through this process.
It’s been almost six months since I originally wrote this blog and I felt that it was important enough to publish it again. There’s absolutely no doubt that if parents follow the simple guidelines outlined below, they can help their children have a positive sports experience. On the other hand, over-involved parents that ignore the advice of experienced coaches and advisors can have the opposite effect on their children.
Here’s the original blog published on December 4, 2016.
I'm the first one to admit that it's hard to figure out the appropriate role to take in helping our kids navigate youth and competitive sports. If you're like most parents, you struggle to find a balance between being helpful but not overbearing. You want your kids to experience success but you know you can't do it for them. It's hard to see them fail but you know that life is tough and challenges provide valuable lessons.
Take comfort. if you're willing to consider and address the issues I've listed below, you'll be on your way to becoming a better sports parent. These guidelines have been developed from the latest research and almost two decades of experience in coaching youth sports. I hope they're helpful.
Playing competitive golf comes with certain obligations. In addition to making sure physical and mental skills are sharp, players must be prepared for the course and the conditions. Younger competitors rely on their parents to help with tournament preparation. Older, more serious competitors need to assume responsibility for their own preparation. This is good training for college, where golfers are expected and required to handle these responsibilities on their own.
Here are the basic steps all competitive junior golfers should employ in preparing for an upcoming tournament.
1. Check the tournament information page to confirm yardages and tee times. Tours like the TJGT do a great job of providing important information in advance of a tournament.
2. Play one or more practice rounds preferably at least a week before the start of the tournament. Develop a course strategy and identify the parts of your game that will need work (e.g. low cuts, long bunker shots). Be sure to spend extra time during the practice round getting used to course conditions like the green speed, bunker texture, rough length, etc. Also, do not keep score in practice rounds. It limits your view of the course and reduces your opportunity to hit a variety of shots.
3. Check the weather forecast, especially the wind direction and speed. This can affect strategy and club selection.
4. Create a yardage book that includes notes on wind direction, lines off the tee, targets around the green, and trouble areas to avoid.
5. Create a daily practice plan leading up the tournament and reduce the focus on technique several days before the tournament. Instead, spend more time on the course working on important skills like tee shots, controlling trajectory, and lag putting. Practice the par-3 distances and other shots that are unique to the course and its design.
6. Get your bag ready by cleaning your clubs and checking to make sure you have balls, gloves, and tees, and other essential items.
7. Because of busy schedules and distractions, many junior golfers struggle to get enough sleep. It’s vital to get plenty of rest in the days leading up to a tournament. The research is clear that rest has a big impact on physical performance and mental acuity.
Tournament performance is dependent on many factors but there’s no doubt that the right kind of preparation can make a big difference in scores.
Let’s face it, golf is a difficult sport to master. It often requires weeks or even months of work before we can recognize progress. It’s not unusual for progress to show up as a quick burst of improvement followed by a small decline in performance and then a long plateau. That means that if we’re intent on making lasting improvements, we must tackle our work with a long-term mindset. This approach works well for developing juniors who tend to work hard over time and be patient.
This chart displays the pattern more clearly.
While it’s hard to predict the timing of these breakthroughs, we can create a daily environment that makes them more likely to occur.
Here are some guidelines for doing so:
1. Identify the areas of your game that need to improve and that will produce the biggest change to your scores.
2. Have a thorough understanding of the changes you need to make and the work you need to do to correct your weaknesses.
3. Commit to working hard enough and long enough for improvement to take place and to be recognized.
4. Separate your work time from your course time. Many junior golfers get this confused and insist on working while they’re competing. This is a poor approach that will delay progress.
5. Avoid an outcome-based focus and instead concentrate on gradual but steady improvement.
A former tour player and friend of mine once told me that he never knew when a good round or good tournament was going to happen. His approach was to put himself in the right state of mind so that he would be ready for it when it came.
We encourage our competitive juniors to utilize a similar plan by minimizing the importance of the score (or outcome) and instead concentrate on the process and areas of their game over which they have complete control.
The three most important are:
1. Pre-tournament and pre-round preparation.
2. Strategy and on-course decision making.
3. Mental toughness and emotional control.
As always, it’s imperative that junior golfers find a qualified and experienced instructor who can help them with a long-term plan and the skills outlined above.
Jeff Isler shares his observations, insights, and experiences on the game of golf and those that play it at a high level.