The most common question asked by parents is ‘when should my child start playing?‘ closely followed by ‘when should they start getting lessons?‘.
There is no perfect time to begin the game. Nick Faldo started at age 13 and won a few majors. Tiger started at 11 months and managed okay also! Golf is a sport you can play for the majority of your life so make sure they play for the many other reasons that are worthy.
Lessons are a different consideration. Some junior coaching is no more than a form of supervised play-time – there is very little a coach can do if the child is too young. Supervised play-time can be great though, but it is important that the parents know what they are paying for.
Group coaching is great at most ages for social reasons. The children must be old enough to be a little disciplined and follow instructions for safety reasons though.
Parents can improve their childs golf immeasurably by taking them on the course regularly and letting them experiment. Don’t try and be a coach to your child and remove their natural instinct for the game.
Try and perceive golf learning as you would for tennis. Juniors will learn so much by simply seeing and copying. If your child has reached double figures and you feel out of your depth in helping them improve and enjoy the game more, speak to your club professional.
As a professional I have over heard many parent – child lessons that are so unbelievably wrong. Seek advice if your child wants to be better, do not force them to take costly lessons they do not want.
Here is a nice quote from the most famous golf psychologist of them all, Bob Rotella. It’s a great reminder for adults that they should not dictate or project their own desires on a childs wishes.
“My daughter, who has played about every sport you can imagine, went undefeated in tennis as a high school freshman. But at the end of that year, she came home and said, “Dad, I’m going to quit tennis and take up golf.” I said, “Fine.” Today she is a junior at Notre Dame and is a member of the golf team.”
PUT THEM IN CHARGE
Juniors need to enjoy their time playing golf otherwise there is very little motivation for continuing. Their time playing golf needs to be a different challenge than the one they face in the classroom everyday. It is a time for expression, creativity, curiosity and fun. Do not teach them a series of mandatory principles.
A general structure can be beneficial but always focus on attending their needs and questions. If they want to use the buggy today that is fine. If they are bored of putting and want to try something else, let them. Obviously a professional teaching a junior group versus a parent taking their child with them to the range has different constraints.
MAXIMISE TIME ON THE COURSE
No doubt it is more convenient to go to the range. You do not have to worry about etiquette or pace of play. But to a junior the range can be a mundane open field with little opportunity for creativity.
Take them to the course as much as possible and show them what the game is really about. Play in the evenings when the course is quiet. Let them pick up on longer holes if they want. But challenge their creativity, play games around the greens.
Like Earl did for a young Tiger Woods, create their own par based on how far they hit it. This gives them a much greater sense of achievement.
KEEP IT FUN
Fun has a purpose. It keeps them engaged and demonstrates that the game is not a series of frustrations. Johnny Miller (Ex Major champion and TV announcer) suggests ignoring the rules some days. Hit balls into the water or the trees on purpose. It makes them creative and keeps them coming back to the game. Celebrate any good shot with a high five!
GIVE THEM THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
It is vital for a junior to use the right equipment. Grips that are too big, shafts that are too long and too heavy make it impossible to get the ball airborne. It can also force them to create faulty swings to accommodate the clubs. Most commonly seen is the reverse pivot due to heavy or long clubs. This might potentially hurt their spine if they play frequently. Here are some examples below.
USE THEIR LANGUAGE
To make a connection with your junior pupil or your child you must get through to them. Kneel or crouch down to them so that you speak face to face. Always be ready to help them with simple tasks like teeing up the ball.
Use the simplist language that you can. Refer to swinging in a circle or thumping the ground. Swing path or launch angle will not register with them.
VISUAL IS BETTER THAN VERBAL
Where possible avoid explanation. In the previous example a hula hoop might be more useful than explaining the circle of the swing. A line in the sand might be more useful than talking about launch angle. Harvey Penick famously taught Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw this way. If they wanted to learn the flop shot he would tell them to try and hit it over a certain tree and learn the method themselves through experimentation.
BE AS POSITIVE AS POSSIBLE
Bob Rotella strongly suggests avoiding any discussion of failure in the juniors development. A junior can lack the perspective and awareness of their performance so you must do your upmost to remind them of the positives. This is not false consolation as you are reminding them of mini-successes or highlighting their strengths. If however you tell them they are the best player all the time and build up their ego you are making life difficult for the future.
CREATE A REWARD
Juniors love to compete against adults. Combine the opportunity of beating an adult with that of also winning an extra juice or a couple of pounds and you will have one enthusiastic junior. This competitive pressure practice directly affects their ability on the course.
Regular competition for juniors on and around the greens will do wonders for their confidence. Tiger and Seve both learnt the game from the green backwards and became known as some of the greatest recovery players in history. If they could get on or around the green they knew they had a chance.
Golf can be dangerous. Set clear rules for juniors when practicing with others or when on the course. Never let them wander out of your vision, they can easily walk into a nasty accident. Setting up stations with cones or rods is an easy way for juniors to respect their fellow golfers space. Make them ask if they wish to leave their ‘zone’.