By David MacKenzieSpecial to Lone Star Golf
Having been a mental coach to many junior golfers throughout the past 10 years, I’ve had plenty of experiences witnessing how a parent of a junior golfer can adversely affect a player’s ability to access their potential when the pressure is on.
I’ve seen junior players virtually in tears during rounds because they are not playing to the high expectations set by their parents, coaches and themselves. It doesn’t have to be this way, however. As a parent of a junior golfer, you can help take pressure away and watch them play with confidence when it matters most.
From what I’ve experienced, junior golfers under-perform for the following reasons:
• High expectations put upon them by parents, coaches and themselves
• Heavy emphasis on outcome and what that will mean for them in the future (which includes making their parents happy)
• What it will mean if they don’t play well (fear of failure and disappointing parents)
So many parents of junior golfers think they are helping their son or daughter progress, when in fact their behavior is causing mental weakness in their child during competitions. In this article, I’d like to show you a few of the areas in which you can improve your approach if you are a coach or a parent of a junior golfer.
Goals and expectations are two different things. Setting attainable goals, which represent improvement, is a good thing. Expectations to go out and shoot a good score are not. This is why performance in golf is usually cyclical – a player will shoot a low score, or win a tournament, and then expect that same success in the next round or tournament. The bar gets raised and finishing below it is viewed as a failure.
Unrealistic or implausibly high expectations create pressure and often put too much focus on the result and future outcomes. Too much focus on results can increase pressure and tension and create panic or performance anxiety.
When a parent of a junior golfer tells their child: “I think you’ll win today,” they think they are helping them feel confident. But what they’re actually doing is increasing expectations, and the chances of a poor performance.
Try setting goals that have nothing to do with score. Similarly, make the measure of success independent of your child’s score. When a player sets out to achieve these kinds of goals – instead of shooting a certain score or winning a tournament – the results are significantly better.
One of my students called me before a tournament last week, and told me he was afraid of not playing well in front of the dozen or so Division-I college coaches that were going to be watching.
I reminded him that who was watching and the final outcome were out of his control. I told him the only thing he needed to focus on was the process goals we set, controlling his nerves and staying present in between shots. Through the confidence we had built in this process over the past year, he was able to stay focused on what was most important. And he succeeded! But who knows what the college coaches took away from it.
When you find your junior focusing too much on what will happen if they play well or poorly, it’s important to remind them that they can’t control the future and instead to focus on those things that they can control.
Many parents of junior golfers invest heavily in their child’s game, both emotionally and financially. There’s obvious frustration when they don’t see progress in the results. I know one parent who spends in the region of $60,000-$70,000 on his son’s golf game each year (coaching, equipment, travel, hotels and tournament entry fees).
Hence, I hear this often: “Coach, I know my son is way more talented than most of the other juniors in his age group, but they always beat him in tournaments. We need to change this!”
Kids are smart and can sense this frustration. The time that it’s usually most apparent is during the car ride home. The parent’s frustration of yet another disappointing tournament – after all the time, money and energy that goes into it – is more often than not, guiding the conversation and untimely criticism.
“Why is it you can’t play like you do in practice during these rounds?” is a question many parents often ask. The junior typically withdraws, gets more frustrated and feels even worse than they do already.
The best thing a parent of a junior golfer can do in these situations is let the junior initiate a conversation about their performance. If they want to talk about it, that’s great. If not, allow them to change the subject to something that will make them feel better. If they want to talk about the round, try to be as compassionate as possible and listen!
Allow them to feel frustrated and don’t try to fix anything. Constructive feedback is better received the next day when the emotions have subsided.
What’s most important is to not allow a junior to feel like they are letting you down by their play. It’s isn’t about you, the parent. If a junior ties your happiness to how well they play, this will massively increase pressure, and they will struggle to perform to their potential. It’s far more important to ask them what they learned than focus on their score.
Learning how to overcome adversity and cope with (or reduce) performance anxiety is an important part of the process of succeeding in tournaments. We can use the feedback from their rounds to improve these skills, but they can also work on it during practice.
The practice sessions I set up for my juniors involve focusing more on the process and routines. I put them under pressure to improve how well they control tension, heart rate and their focus when under pressure on the course.
Tiger Woods’ dad, Earl, would try to distract Tiger and put him under pressure when trying to hit shots in practice. The goal was to increase Tiger’s focus and ability to handle pressure on the course. (Safe to say it worked.)
“I put Tiger through a mental training program that I built from scratch, using my experience in Vietnam, prisoner of war interrogations and psychological warfare,” Earl Woods said. In my opinion, Tiger’s mental game was undoubtedly why he was so successful.
I often spend hours with a junior until they complete “pressure practice drills,” such as 20 up-and-downs or 10 consecutive putts.
If you work on the above four pieces of advice, I’m confident you’ll see an improvement in your junior’s performance in tournaments.
About the author: David MacKenzie is a mental game coach and teaches his highly acclaimed “Golf State of Mind” training system to golfers of all levels. Find out more about how his coaching can help you or your junior.