How to coach a junior golfer

Had an interesting email exchange with a client during the week. He wanted to know my thoughts on coaching his young son. While this article refers to a beginning golfer, the same rules apply, whether you’re coaching a junior golfer, or an adult who is new to the game.

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Coaching isn’t about you. It’s about your pupil. So don’t go ramming as much information/content down your pupil’s neck (replace pupil with wife, nephew, student, child etc). This is probably the number one mistake rookie coaches make when trying to help someone play better golf. It’s especially true when helping someone new to the game.

While it seems like the right thing to do, it isn’t. So please refrain from teaching your pupil about the grip, stance, backswing, downswing, power, rotation, pressure, swing plane, pivot and the follow-through all at once. It’s just not going to work.

The chances are you’ve probably tried to play golf the same way (with lots of information and instructions) and it has failed you. So if nothing else, learn from these mistakes and let’s work together to change the way our future golf champions are introduced to the game.

So what’s the best way to coach a junior/beginner?

I want you to see yourself as a mentor rather than a teacher. A teacher tells someone what to do – a mentor’s role is different. They are there to guide, challenge and gently push those learning in the right direction. A mentor is also there to learn something too. It’s win-win. A teacher just tells you what to do (maybe this is why a lot of us didn’t like school).

Here’s one of my all-time favourite lesson stories.

A while back (about 2008) I was giving a lesson to a rank newbie. The girl had never played before (which was strange because she worked in a golf shop) but was keen to learn because her boyfriend was into the game. We started slowly by getting her to make a few swings – nothing too serious and absolutely no expectation on results, power or competing on the LPGA Tour.

Sidenote: I always try and make golf fun and lighthearted. You may not realise it but learning golf can be intimidating for many. Golf has a stuffy reputation (especially here in Australia) and some golfers are worried about doing something wrong. But not with me – I quickly make the pupil comfortable by highlighting there is no right or wrong. Just fun and learning.

Forward.

It was quickly apparent my star pupil was struggling. She couldn’t hit the ball (read: she couldn’t strike the ball with the clubhead at all. There were lots of airswings). I acted quickly as there’s no need to punish and frustrate the student further. The goal now was to change the game. Here’s what I did.

One of my best teaching aides is a block of foam. They come in handy for all sorts of things but are especially useful for helping newbies. I replaced the ball with the foam block and gave this simple instruction,

“Please hit the foam block with the club”.

That’s it. This is known as an objective based lesson. I gave her a task that is easily comprehended and has a measurable outcome. By the way, telling someone to, “swing back on plane and rotate the club into an open position while shifting your weight is not an objective lesson”. Way too much going on there but it sounds impressive doesn’t it?

Her first attempt was a failure. This is not a time to panic, jump in and bombard with more instruction. I repeated my request, stood back and watched.
Her second attempt was a beauty. She smashed the foam block with the club. But I knew she could do better. I replaced the foam block and repeated my request. The third strike was successful but not overly so. She barely hit the top of the beefy block. And this my friend is where the formal lesson ended.

Why?

Because I knew there was nothing else I could tell her that would be of any help. Her homework was to take the foam block and club and practice for a few minutes each day (or for however long she could manage). At this stage of her development that’s all the coach can do. I’ve repeated this story to many a golf pro and been hounded by their feedback.

“you should have taught her a better grip”
“what about working on her posture?”
“what a waste! You should have kept her there for an hour and charged her full price”

Remember earlier how I mentioned coaching is not about you? Well this story is a case in point. I absolutely could have told her all about grip, stance and swing theory. I could have molded, prodded and forced her into uncomfortable positions and then asked her to hit the ball (has this ever happened to you?). But I didn’t. Because the lesson is not about me – it’s about her and helping her learn the game as quickly as possible.

Are you listening because this is important?

Good coaching is NOT telling the student what to do. They need to feel, learn and explore things for themselves. They need to experience golf in a way that suits their current level of ability. Modern society and schooling believes that an information dump is the only way. It isn’t. The typical way is outdated and should be replaced. It’s also boring. Boring for both the pupil and teacher (can you imagine teaching in a way where you repeat the same rules over and over again? Again, isn’t this what most school teachers do? Is there any surprise our school system is struggling?). This is the way most of the golf professionals have to teach. There’s no room for creativity or magic. Sad really.

Do you want to hear how my pupil ended up?

She came back a few weeks later and had gotten very good at hitting the sponge. By now she was able to hit it with considerable force and get it airborne. I replaced the foam block with a golf ball and asked,

“Can you hit the golf ball with that club please?”.

She took a swipe and smashed the ball. It wasn’t a perfect shot. She actually topped the ball but had successfully completed the task (she hit the silly white ball). For the next few minutes we zeroed in on the bottom of the ball and she learned to hit her first few “perfect” golf shots. It was magic.

This might not seem that remarkable to you but that lesson has stuck with me. This young woman had virtually no pattern to strike a stationary object with a stick. She had never done it and it would have been easy to destroy her with all of the swing rules and regulations that abound the golf world. But I had the courage to keep my mouth shut – to give her just enough information to let her actually learn something useful (swing a stick at the ball). Like all humans, her natural learning system took over and it wasn’t too hard for her to make significant progress.

I can hear my critics screaming, “what about her grip and her stance?”. My response? It doesn’t matter. At least not yet.

In time (if she keeps playing) she’ll develop more strength and power and will naturally adjust these things to suit. But the worse thing is to force a beginner into positions that inhibit her natural response to move the club. This is the priority and should never be compromised. Does it really matter how she holds the club in these early stages? No. Is she going to pick up bad habits that will never be corrected? Nope, not a chance. This way of coaching actually helps learners enjoy the game and stops them from getting bogged down.

The belief that ALL golfers should adopt a perfect “everything” from the first moment is archaic . Seriously outdated and needs replacing as soon as the establishment can get out of their own way long enough (I’m not holding my breath).

What happened to my pupil?

I don’t know. I stopped coaching at the facility and haven’t heard from her since. She did say the lessons were a lot of fun and she was surprised at how well and quickly she learned to hit the ball. My job was done – I did absolutely everything I could and know I helped, not hindered, her progress.

If you’re teaching (I prefer the word coaching actually) here are some guidelines,

  • It’s not about you. Coaching is not a competition about how much you know. So please don’t dump a lifetime of tips, techniques and ideas onto your pupil. (this point especially goes out to all those men out there that like teaching their wives and kids)
  • Get them to swing the club and hit the ball (or any object) first, before worrying about their grip or stance. This is an almost impossible request for the average golf pro. They feel naked without imparting this information. But it’s not about them. The only time I would ever mention the grip in the early days would be if the pupil gripped the club from the wrong end – but haven’t seen that happen yet.
  • Keep the lessons short. Don’t be afraid to stop after a few minutes. It takes courage, but I know you can do it.
  • Don’t be afraid to let them make mistakes. A few mistakes are fine. If your student can’t get anything you say to happen then it’s time to stop, or choose a simpler objective.
  • Demonstrations are not always necessary. Remember, it’s not about you. Clear and simple language is usually enough. If you can’t explain something with words then you are probably making it too complicated
  • Let them go where their instincts are telling them. E.g. most kids will use a reverse grip – there’s nothing wrong with it. Actually makes it easier for them to swing the club (which is the objective here). It kills me that most parents (or instructors) will want them to change right away.
  • Don’t expect miracles just yet. Just because you can drive it 250 yards doesn’t mean they can too. So celebrate the victories, no matter how small they may be. Getting the ball airborne can be a huge achievement for someone starting out.
  • Less really is more.
  • Know when to shut up. This is probably the hardest lesson for any coach and I’ve been saying for a long time that it takes a lot more skill and courage for a coach to say nothing than it is for them to go into motor mouth mode.

It’s not really that hard to coach but it’s easy to stuff it up. If you’re going to err do so by saying less and not more. Make things fun and don’t be afraid to let them explore the game in a way that suits them. Remember? It’s not about you.

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If you’d like to see my latest and updated thoughts on coaching and making golf simple, you can check out this page. If you’d like to come see me for a golf lesson and see what I can do for your game, please contact me.

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