Having been the head of two international sporting bodies and coached juniors and professionals for 19 years, I’ve been lucky enough to experience the ups and downs of the careers of 100s of athletes.
Juniors at the national and international level experience an incredible amount of emotions as they try to navigate their way from the junior ranks to the pros. It can be exciting, challenging, and rewarding for both junior athletes and coaches. But what about parents? How do they deal with the ups and downs knowing that their child has set their mind on becoming a professional athlete?
As a coach and a parent, I can tell you it’s not easy. Knowing when to lend advice, when to show support and when to discipline are just a few of the dilemmas that parents of athletes face on a daily basis.
I must admit I’ve seen junior players absolutely distraught during tournaments because they are failing to live up to expectations, not expectations that they placed on themselves but expectations, often unrealistic, that their parents have set. It’s heartbreaking and doesn’t have to be that way.
In my experience, there are three main reasons juniors regularly fail to live up to their talent and potential.
- Unrealistic expectations placed on them by parents and coaches
- Emphasis on the outcome and not the process
- Fear of failure or disappointing their parents and coaches
As a parent and a professional coach, I feel it’s my duty to pass on my experience and provide parents with tips and strategies to help navigate the roller coaster ride that is parenting a junior golfer.
Helping Junior Golfers To Manage Their Expectations
When it comes to goals and expectations, it’s important for parents to realize that they are two completely different things. Goals that are set for the future, for example, can help junior golfers strive for improvement in all areas of their game. On the other hand, expectations are far more detrimental to junior golfers because they add extra pressure to an already-packed mindset.
As a coach, I know that the ups and downs are just an inevitable part of junior golf. A junior will go and shoot the lights and win a major event and then expect to back it up the next week, but more often than not, they cannot live up to the expectations placed on them by parents and coaches.
The bar or measurement for success is raised to a certain extent, and parents, not juniors, get ahead of themselves and start to view their child as the next big golfing prodigy. I’ve seen the word “prodigy” wreck so many promising juniors’ prospects of turning pro; it’s heartbreaking, and as a parent, I sincerely mean that.
Expectations are detrimental to junior golfers’ development because they emphasize the outcome rather than the process. It’s cliche, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. As soon as parents and juniors get ahead of themselves, their performance plummets, along with their results. Ultimately it leads to a loss of confidence in the child, and they lose their passion for the game.
By placing expectations on their child too early, parents unwittingly put performance anxiety, stress, and pressure firmly on their child’s shoulders, who at this early stage of development doesn’t have the necessary cognitive ability to handle the situation.
A perfect example is when parents say something like, “you’re playing great lately; I really think you’re going to win today.” It’s a seemingly harmless comment, and the parent thinks they have instilled confidence in their child. Yet the unfortunate truth is, to a junior golfer, it only helps to confirm the expectation that they “should” win today. In effect, the parent’s seemingly harmless comment has now placed unwanted expectations on their child.
As parents and coaches, we must remind ourselves that they are still only junior golfers; they don’t yet have the experience and emotional capacity to deal with the pressure of having to perform. It’s our job to reinforce the philosophy that focusing on the process rather than the outcome is the best pathway for genuine improvement.
When junior golfers learn the importance of focusing on the process, their results are significantly better.
Helping Junior Golfers With The Uncertainty Of Outcomes
In my coaching career, I’ve been lucky enough to coach a number of players from the junior ranks all the way through to the professional tour. As a coach, seeing golfers progress from the juniors to the pros is one of the most rewarding aspects of the profession. The time, dedication, and commitment required by players, parents, and coaches is a 365/24/7 responsibility.
Nearly every junior I’ve coached at some stage or another has said to me, “Coach, I’m super nervous about the National Championships; so many people are going to be watching, and it’s going to be televised; What if I play poorly?”
In this situation, it’s easy for parents to get carried away and pump up their child by telling them how great they are. But as I mentioned earlier on, this is the last thing you want to say because it places unwanted expectations on them. Instead, this is the perfect opportunity to reaffirm to them all the hard work they’ve put in with their coach, and if they trust the process, things will fall into place.
Juniors don’t yet understand the adage, “control the things you can control and forget those you cannot.” In my experience, this is one of the most valuable expressions in the development of junior golfers. Juniors are not “silly;” once they’ve been told something, they generally get it pretty quickly. The mental game is the most critical aspect to the outcome of success.
By redirecting your child’s focus to the process rather than the outcome, their chances of playing to their maximum potential are significantly boosted. Remind your child to focus on what they can control, not who will be watching. If they have done the hard work, things should fall into place.; if not, back to the practice range to make the necessary improvements.
Supporting Your Child After The Round
One of the remarkable facets of junior golf or junior sport, in general, is the amount of money some parents are willing to spend to make their child’s dream of becoming a professional a reality; unfortunately, many times, it’s the parent’s dream, not the child’s.
I know several parents who spend well in excess of $100,000 a year on hotels, travel, flights, tournament fees, equipment, and coaches. One of the most common issues coaches have when dealing with parents is unrealistic expectations. Parents come to coaches and say something like, “Coach, my kid is 100 times better than the other juniors; why do they continue to play poorly in tournaments? C’mon, man, we need to make some changes.”
As a coach, this is an incredibly frustrating part of the profession, but as adults, we can put it behind us and move on; as for juniors, they can sense the frustration from their parents, which only leads to worse and worse performances. The sense of frustration and disappointment is usually felt in the car on the way home or, in some cases, as soon as the junior walks off the 18th tee.
A parent might say, “why can’t your hit the ball like you do during practice? It’s such a waste of talent.” A comment like this quickly leads to the child becoming more withdrawn and disappointed than they already are, and their confidence tanks; as I said, it can be heartbreaking to watch.
One of the best but also one of the hardest strategies to implement is allowing the child to speak first; let them initiate the conversation. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Bob Brett, who, as a coach, won 9 Grand Slams. He would never speak to his players until they all sat down for breakfast at the hotel the following morning.
It’s a great way of allowing yourself some time to think about what to say, but more importantly, it adds no extra pressure or disappointment to the child who is already upset enough. Bob was exactly what parents should be looking for in a golf instructor.
Be compassionate when they talk and open up to you, listen intently, and try not to interrupt their flow of thoughts. Remember, at the end of the day, they’re still kids; they are still learning how to communicate effectively while dealing with their emotions. They may feel embarrassed by their performance or, more often than not, that they’ve “let you down.”
Resist the urge to provide feedback after the round or in the car on the way back home to the hotel. Leave it to the next day unless, of course, your child opens up earlier; then, by all means, get the conversation started.
The most critical component of the parent/junior relationship is to ensure your child understands that they have never “let you down.” Juniors are much smarter than we give them credit for. If they somehow feel that your happiness is directly linked to their performance, the chance of them achieving success is significantly reduced; significantly.
Pressure During Practice Is A Good Thing
So I’ve been speaking about taking as much pressure off the junior golfers as is reasonably possible, but it’s not really “pressure” so much as it is the “expectation” to perform. One place where you can “add” extra pressure is during their practice sessions.
For junior golfers having the ability to overcome adversity and thrive in the face of it is as important as any physical skill they will ever develop; as a matter of fact, I’d argue it “is” the most critical skill. Learning to cope with pressure will be part and parcel of their career, especially if they want to play on the professional tour, so the quicker they learn to deal with it, the better their performances and results will be.
Developing a solid practice routine requires coaches and parents to watch how their student or child performs during pressure-packed tournament play.
- Are they nervous on the first tee?
- Do they play well from behind?
- How do they react after a bad shot?
- How do they react when their playing partners are performing well?
- What’s their attitude like after the tournament?
- Are they disappointed? and
- If so, how long does it take them to get over it?
These are just a few of the signs to look out for before, during, and after their round. How your child responds to certain situations is invaluable information that the coach can use to develop a practice plan.
If, for example, your child is nervous standing over three-foot putts, the coach can implement drills designed to help them overcome the fear of missing. A simple exercise like making 10 three-footers in a row before they leave practice is one example that can teach juniors how to deal with pressure. There’s nothing worse than making 9 putts in a row only to miss the last one and having to start again.
Probably the most well-known case is the pressure that Earl Woods put on his son Tiger during his junior golfing days. Earl would stand directly behind Tiger and deliberately try to break his concentration. by jingling his car keys during Tiger’s backswing. Word has it that it used to infuriate Tiger, but one could argue that the strategy Earl implemented was quite simply genius.
Earl is quoted as saying, “I put Tiger through a mental training program that I created from scratch, using my background in Vietnam, prisoner of war interrogations, and psychological warfare.”
There is no doubt that adding pressure to a junior’s practice program can pay big dividends in the long run.
If the coach and parent work together, they can develop practice sessions that are not only effective but pressure-packed. Remember, practice is the perfect time to add a little extra pressure; after all, nothing is hanging on the result of a few missed putts or shanked drives during practice.
Helping To Set Goals During Tournaments
First and foremost, when it comes to setting goals for tournament play, they should NEVER evolve around the score. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Far too many parents set scoring goals for their child, so instead of focusing on the process, the junior golfer now becomes “obsessed” with achieving the goal set by his parents.
The fact of the matter is that goals should be set around the process and never the outcome. If the player, coach, and parent have done the hard yards, so to speak, then the result hopefully falls into place. The reality is, though, in sports, anything can happen. Your child might play their best golf of the year only to be outperformed by another junior who simply played better on the day.
Focusing on “one shot at a time” is a cliche that rings true for golf, and the sooner your child learns this valuable lesson, the quicker their emotional capacity to deal with pressure will improve. When it comes to sport, specifically golf, trying to “force the win” only results in disaster. Forcing the win creates added pressure to an already pressure-packed situation.
Setting goals during the round or tournament play should be process-driven. Here are some examples of goals you can set during the round to help your child’s performance.
- Focus on their pre-shot routine
- Keywords to help their swing tempo
- Maintaining a positive attitude and mindest
- Bouncing back from disappointment
- Positive self-talk
- Enjoying the game
Having your child focus on these goals is much more beneficial than saying, “today, let’s aim to shoot 71.” The great thing about process-driven goals is they hold your child accountable. Did they focus on their pre-shot routine? If their answer is no, you can reinforce the importance of sticking to the process.
Remember, as a parent, the last thing you want to be saying is, “today, let’s aim to shoot 71, “All this does is further contribute to unnecessary expectations and put more pressure on your child. Instead, say, “You’ve been nailing your pre-shot routine in practice lately, so let’s focus on continuing that today.”
These goals are much more rewarding in the long run and help improve your child’s attitude, grit, and emotional awareness, and most importantly, allow them to enjoy the wonderful game of golf.
The 18th Hole
As you can see, being the parent of a junior golfer is a balancing act that requires you to be compassionate yet demanding. Most juniors react badly to poor shots or bad performance, just as I’m sure you did when you were younger. Give them a break and let them find their own way.
Reinforce the value of focusing on the process and not the outcome; this advice goes for the parent just as much as it does the junior golfer. Remind your child or student to concentrate on things they can control, such as their pre-shot routine, attitude, and body language.
Bad shots and even worse performance are all part of the game of golf, and the sooner parents accept this, the quicker they can see their child reach their full potential. The important factor is how your child learns to “deal” with the adversity and the inevitable setbacks of junior golf.
Finally, they’re still just kids; so let them enjoy the game; after all, golf is a game for life.