April 21, 2022

Programming for Younger Ages – Keeping It Positive

By Bridget Ackley, PGA

As a youth development programmer, focusing on skills necessary for an athletic lifestyle is a priority of mine. As coaches, we must constantly adapt to the changing times by forging relationships, adopting innovative technology and developing new ways to train our students.

When it comes to juniors, we need to think creatively and implement new games and drills that keep them engaged. Most juniors spend their free time staring at their electronic devices or playing video games. Sadly, playing outdoors has become a somewhat foreign activity. Understanding this, I structure my lessons around fun physical activities that get juniors building athletic movement patterns and developing golf technique. We are building the athlete before the golfer. I adopted this philosophy six years ago when I encountered a 10-year-old who did not know how to skip properly.

Locomotor movement patterns, such as skipping, should be developed in the early childhood learning phase (ages 2-7), as implementing movement skills improves fundamental motor skill development in children. Warm-up exercises should include locomotor activities that work on balancing, running, skipping, jumping, throwing and catching. Just like with golf skills, remember that skill learning and development depends on the child’s physical readiness. Children might be ready to begin learning some of the fundamental skills as early as three or four years of age, but it might take many months, or even years, to master each skill through ongoing practice. Skill development does not happen overnight. No matter what age we work with, we must remember that we should never criticize the child’s performance.

When working with 5-8-year-olds, a coach can begin to increase the focus on fundamental movement skills. While working with this group, my focus is creating a fun atmosphere and developing speed within the golf swing. The more I focus on “perfecting” the golf swing with this group, the less likely they will become golfers for life. When they get into the 8-12-year-old group, we can introduce more complex skills if the child is ready.

As an example, a 90-minute class might include a 20-minute warm-up activity, two 30-minute segments at various golf skill developmental stations and 10 minutes to do a fun competition at the end of class. The amount of time spent at each station may vary and will be a game-time decision if we skip an activity for the day. I have found that if I create a warm-up activity that the juniors find super fun, they want to play that for an extended period, sometimes upending what I had initially had planned. I never limit the warm-up play period because the juniors are developing athletic skills necessary for life and having fun at the same time. Golf skills will develop faster with improved fundamental movement skills that are part of a well-thought-out warm-up session.

The last vital key to my success as a junior golf coach is the positive energy I bring to the course on a daily basis. Children can read the energy you bring to coaching, so make sure it is energetic and positive.

Educating Parents

Aside from coaching, a large focus of my programming is creating a learning environment for adults, as well. I have caddied, coached, spectated and facilitated many junior tournaments throughout my career, and I believe it is critical for coaches to educate the parents on how to act during tournaments while caddying and spectating. Whether these conversations happen on an individual basis or as a small group, these sometimes-challenging interactions need to happen more often.

Educating parents will improve the child’s experience with every sport they play. I view these education opportunities for the parents as team-building between myself, the junior and the parents. Together we can address needed improvement in various areas of the game in a positive environment. It breaks my heart as a coach when I see a child in tears after a round for fear of how their parents are going to react to their score or decisions they made during the round. Let the child play. Mistakes will be made, but the only way to completely learn is to do so through failure. Making statements such as “I loved watching you play today.” or “You seemed to have fun out there today.” will create lasting positive effects around playing the sport.

A great resource for coaches and parents is the Positive Coaching Alliance. The website provides excellent resources on how to handle various issues while your child is growing up playing sports, but emphasizes that the conversations after practices or games must stay positive.

Bridget Ackley is a PGA Teaching Professional in South Florida. She has been recognized as a GRAA Top 100 Growth of the Game Teaching Professional, U.S. Kids Golf Top 50 Coach and the 2021 South Florida PGA Section Youth Player Development award recipient. This summer, Bridget will be teaching at Lake Forest Golf Club in Ann Arbor, Michigan.