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The Gift of Junior Golf: How To Introduce Your Child to the Game for a Lifetime

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Golf has been described as “the greatest game ever played” and “the game you can play for a lifetime.” It can be one of the greatest gifts a parent gives their child.

Introducing a youngster to golf and helping them navigate their formative years through junior golf can be both exciting and challenging. Most junior golf parent start with great intent, to give their child the gift of the game. Unfortunately, sometimes this original intention can get lost along the way by visions of potential opportunities golf can afford. Although it would be exhilarating to one day see your son or daughter playing college golf or on television celebrating a professional victory, I believe it’s important to see the bigger picture and stick to your original intentions. When a parent’s primary focus is to make the game a positive experience for their child, junior golfers have the greatest opportunity to reach their potential on and off the course.

Enjoyment of the game is one of the keys to junior golfers developing the motivation to consistently work hard at golf. Genuine intrinsic motivation increases a golfer’s resiliency and ability to bounce back. An inner love for the game also decreases the likelihood of burnout and dropout. Children who find an internal passion for the game will be able to share it with their children. The gift of introducing your child to the game can turn into the gift that keeps on giving; one day, you might find yourself playing golf with your grandchildren. Even with all these positives related to intrinsic motivation and passion for the game, however, sharing it with your child can be complicated. There is good news and bad news.

Bad news first. As much as a parent would like to instill a love for the game in their child, they can’t. Parents can’t give their children a love for the game; they can only give their children the opportunity to find their own love for the game.

Now for the good news. When you give your child the opportunity to experience golf without an agenda, everyone wins. Letting your child pursue sports, activities, and recreation with their personal interest in mind allows them to discover what they love. If it’s not golf, it will be a sport or activity that gives them as much enjoyment as golf gives you. It also allows them the opportunity to enjoy golf enough to do it as a recreational activity, even if it’s not their leading passion.

The following are some guidelines to consider when introducing and navigating your child’s experience in junior golf. These ideas are helpful to junior golfers of all ages and abilities. It doesn’t matter whether your child is 6 or 16, or a beginner or an elite player. These ideas will help lead to both a positive experience and performance.

1. Lead By Example

Children and adolescents are sponges, and junior golfers are no different. A lot of what kids learn and how they act is based on how the adults around them conduct themselves. This phenomenon is referred to in psychology as Social Learning Theory. For instance, if a child sees their parent or coach get angry and frustrated after a shot, the junior golfer will learn that it’s a socially acceptable to get angry after a shot. If junior golfers see their parents and coaches enjoying the game and persisting through challenges, they will have the opportunity to learn that golf is fun and enjoyable. They will also learn how to effectively deal with adversity.

2. Engage Your Junior Golfer In As Many Different Sports And Activities As Possible, Especially Early On

Even though parents would love to see their children play golf, it’s extremely beneficial to expose them to different sports, especially between the ages of 6-12. Participating in different activities helps develop motor patterns, balance, and coordination, which in turn will be helpful to their future experiences in golf. Playing other sports will also give juniors a break from golf, which can help them physically and mentally recover.

3. Focus On The Positives And Seek Solutions

There is a common practice among golfers to focus on the negatives. It’s important to be the mature voice of reason around your junior golfer. Parents should focus on the positives surrounding their junior golfer’s performance and encourage them to do the same. When juniors are experiencing genuine challenges, it’s important for parents to help them seek solutions instead of indulging in the negative aspects of the challenge. Optimism is a skill that can be learned; it’s important that parents help their juniors develop this skill.

4. Focus On Process Over Outcome

It is natural for junior golfers to focus on outcomes like score and the leaderboard and where they finished. Focusing on outcome can be a good way to build confidence. Unfortunately, many junior golfers have the tendency to cast their score and performance in a negative light. It’s important to help junior golfers realize what they did well when they are not happy with their outcome.

Juniors can focus on a range things relating to their process such as their: effort, attitude, preparation, decision-making, persistence, and sportsmanship. Focusing on their personal processes can give them positive takeaways and also help them learn how to effectively manage their responses.

5. Let Your Junior Golfer Choose To Participate

It’s important that junior golfers feel they are the one choosing to play golf. Feeling like you are being made to do something takes the enjoyment out of the activity. It’s always better that junior golfers feel they are choosing to play and compete. This promotes autonomy, self-reliance, and motivation. I am not recommending that you allow your kids to stay home playing video games (it’s important they participate in outside social activities), but let them choose what activities they participate in. Worst-case scenario, give them options to choose from: for example, golf camp or summer camp.

6. Hold Your Junior Golfer Accountable Once They Sign Up

Junior golfers should have the opportunity participate in the decision-making process and provide input regarding golf camps, clinics, and tournaments in which they wish to compete. Once they make a commitment, however, they should be required to stick to it. This will help them learn important values like responsibility and accountability.

There are effective and ineffective ways of holding your junior golfer accountable. Saying, “You signed up for golf camp, that’s the end of the debate,” in a loud voice is not typically the best approach. Explain to them before signing up that after they commit it’s important that they follow through and give a 100-percent effort. If your junior golfer says they don’t want to participate after signing up, tell them they can choose to not participate next time, but they have already made the commitment this time and it’s important to honor your commitments.

7. Let Your Junior Golfer Choose To Specialize In Golf

There is a lot of debate within sport science whether junior golfers should specialize and focus solely on one sport or play multiple sports. Junior golfers are specializing more often and at younger ages than ever before. Parents and juniors are feeling pressure to specialize in fear of being left in the dust. On the surface, specializing sounds like a great idea, but it’s an important decision that deserves further examination.

Jean Cote, Joseph Baker, and Bruce Abernethy have been researching this exact topic for more than a decade. They’ve found that specializing too early can lead to more challenges than positives, especially for sports like golf where athletes peak later in adulthood. Cote and colleagues make two important assertions regarding specializing in sport:

  1. Children should be the ones who choose to specialize and focus on a single sport.
  2. The earliest this choice should generally be made is between the ages of 13-16.

With that said, I understand that college coaches are recruiting earlier than ever, and parents may have concerns relating to getting a golf scholarship. I believe a positive balance can be struck.

Junior golfers younger than 13 can still focus largely on golf while still being engaged in other activities. It’s also important for parents of junior golfers to pay close attention for signs of overtraining and burnout, especially since burnout can lead to many negative outcomes including dropping out. Remember, it’s impossible to play college golf if you stop playing golf. Many of the concerns surrounding burnout are alleviated when parents follow the other suggestions in this article and stay focused on the No. 1 priority: making junior golf a positive and enjoyable experience.

8. Support More Than Coach

Being both your child’s golf coach and No. 1 supporter is a difficult balance to strike. With that in mind, I recommend that parents don’t coach their junior golfer outside the basic fundamentals. And even during this time, there primary focus should be that their child is enjoying the time with mom and dad.

I recommend finding a coach once your junior golfer decides to start competing and taking the game more seriously. There are success stories that contradict this philosophy, but the negatives generally outweigh the positives. There are many great junior golf coaches, but a junior golfer only has two parents. Being a parent is one of the most important responsibilities in life, so it’s imperative to do everything we can to succeed. When your child has an opportunity pursue the game of golf and spend quality time with mom and dad, everyone wins.

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Dan Vosgerichian Ph.D. is owner of Elite Performance Solutions. Dr. Dan earned his doctorate in Sport Psychology from Florida State University and has more than 10 years of experience working with golfers to maximize their mental game. His clients have included golfers from The PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Web.com Tour, PGA Latin America, as well as some of the top junior and collegiate players in the country. Dr. Dan has experience training elite golfers on every aspect of the game. He served as The Director of Mental Training at Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy, as well as a Mental Game Coach for Nike Golf Schools. He’s also worked as an instructor at The PGA Tour Golf Academy and assistant golf coach at Springfield College. Dan's worked as a professional caddie at TPC Sawgrass, Home of The Players Championship, as well as an assistant to Florida State University's PGA Professional Golf Management Program.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. drknowital

    Jul 25, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Whenever Doctors get involved all hell breaks loose. They label everything… I’m almost 60 and grew up with very stern parents and being the youngest of 4 brothers, well people my age know what older brothers do… I’ve raised 4 beautiful children and have been married to my best friend for over 30 years. Parents just need to guide their kids in the right direction, and if they fail that’s a learning experience. Today it seems children are in control… My opinion…

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Instruction

How-to Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

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Lucas Wald How To Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

This is the first installment in our How To Series — follow this plan to master the movements of the hips on the backswing!


Watch the series introduction here

This new series is all about helping you improve your golf swing quickly. We’re going to break the swing down into its component parts and give you specific practice direction — master these key elements of the swing and you’ll see improvement fast!

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How “long arms” at the top of the backswing can help you hit the ball farther

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One of the hardest things to do as we get older is to make a big shoulder turn with extended arms at the top. It’s the swing of a younger golfer! However, every one of us can add width at the top so we can hit it farther, but few know how to actually do so. In this article, I will use MySwing 3D Motion Analysis to help you understand how beneficial long arms are at the top.

As you examine the swing of this particular player, you will notice that the lead arm is “soft” and the hands are close to this player’s head at the top. This is the classic narrow armswing to the top that most older players employ. And as we all know this position leaves yardage in the bag!

Now let’s look at the data so we can see what is actually happening…

At the top you can see that the shoulders have turned 100 degrees which is more than enough, but the arms look jammed and narrow at the top. Why?

The answer lies within the actions of the rear arm, the lead arm is only REACTING to the over-bending of the rear elbow. As you can see at the top the rear elbow is bent 60 degrees. In a perfect world, when the rear elbow is at 90 degrees (a right angle) or more, the lead arm will be mostly straight — depending on how you’re built.

Something to note…in this position the hands are just past the chest and the shoulders have turned almost 90 degrees. However, when this player finished his backswing, he added 30 more degrees of rear elbow bend and only 11 more degrees of shoulder turn! What this means is that for the last quarter of the backswing, all this player did is allow the hands to basically collapse to the top of the backswing. This move is less than efficient and will cause major issues in your downswing sequencing, as well as, your transitional action.

As stated when your trail elbow stays at 90 degrees or wider in route to the top, you will have a much straighter lead arm.

One last thing to note when comparing these two players is that this player two had a shorter backswing length but a BIGGER shoulder turn with WIDER arms at the top, giving this player a short compact motion that resembles Adam Scott — which seems to work for he and Butch!

Therefore, the thing to remember is that if your lead arm is soft at the top and your arms look crowded at the top, then you must fix the over-bending of the rear elbow on the backswing. And if you have wider arms you will have a more solid “package” to become a ballstriking machine!

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Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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