by Gareth McShea
“Hey junior, how did you go last week?”
Immediately after asking the question I knew the answer, his shoulders slumped, eyes went to the ground, and he started shuffling from foot to foot.
“Not good coach, in fact, I played awful, I’m not sure if I want to keep competing, my parents were pretty upset with me”.
Over the years I have had this conversation with many kids.
The frustration and fear is etched upon their faces.
They look lost.
One of the things which is key to the development of junior golfers is the creation of an environment within which they can safely learn.
So what constitutes a safe environment?
Physically safe requires no further explanation.
However mentally and emotionally safe do.
For an environment to be mentally and emotionally safe kids should never feel judged, pressurized or stupid during interactions. They should know it is OK to have an off day or to struggle initially to complete a challenge without feeling worthless, embarrassed, scared or angry.
In such a training environment junior golfers will feel secure and safe enough to experiment, be creative and attempt new and different things which will be of long term benefit to their games.
Mistakes provide valuable feedback which they will then use to figure out what they could do differently next time. They can trial these in their next training sessions and refine as required. In time they will learn to ask themselves questions which direct them along the path of self-learning and ownership of their games.
This leads to an adaptive creative player who is more assured and less likely to be overwhelmed by any unexpected game time occurrences.
Junior players need to feel relevant and be allowed to evaluate their own performances. If they feel they are contributing to the direction the coaching is going in they are more likely to remain motivated and committed. When their input is treated as valuable and relevant they will tend to work harder with more focus and stay on track, even when they experience a rocky period or initially struggle to develop a new skill.
On the other hand if a junior golfer feels emotionally threatened their brain will activate the flight or fight response. At that point their brain will be “hijacked” by chemicals which shut down the ability to learn or process new material, instead they will be in survival mode. Fear leads to a tightening of the muscles, shortness of breath and poor decision making none of which are desirable on a golf course.
Furthermore it is unlikely a junior will want to return to a place which triggers such negative sensations.
If the player feels extra pressure from external influence-rs (parent, coach, team mate etc.) sustainable progress will not be achieved, as they will be training or playing with a “playing not to miss or lose mind-set.”
Such a mind-set is not compatible with long term desirable performances.
Instead to enhance performances their stress threshold needs to be gradually increased, this is done by setting challenges which are slightly outside their current comfort levels but which are achievable with a stretch.
When they are interested and their curiosity is piqued, attention and memory work naturally and effortlessly to create new learning.
The challenges will be set at an appropriate level which would be approximately + 10% above current performance standards, anything above this can easily overwhelm or disenchant them leading to a downturn in motivation, after all, if the goal seems out of reach or almost impossible to achieve, what’s the point in starting or continuing?
Am I saying that there will never be a time when they need some strong encouragement?
Of course not, there will inevitably be days where they need to be told to get out there and hit some putts, however these days should be the exception, not the norm.
When we are training kids who are seeking to enhance their best results then paradoxically we need to train them patiently with minimal attention on the current outcomes.
By agreeing on the small victories which will be celebrated in advance they can keep their focus on current manageable tasks, not future performances.
As a coach I am always conscious of my task which is to assist junior players to fulfill their potential, but I am also conscious of the fact that very few of these young players will end up playing the game for a living, therefore perhaps I am ultimately preparing them for a lifetime of playing a game they (hopefully) love.
At all times the kids know that, regardless of the score they just shot, they are unequivocally accepted.
Because they are much more than a number on a card.
They are little people.