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7 rules every golf parent should follow, according to actual golf parents

golf parent with daughter

Welcome to Golfer-to-Golfer, where we try to learn from all different kinds of avid players, in hopes that the rest of us can take away something that might improve our own games.

This week, we’re hearing from Mark and Britt McKinney, whose new book, The Drive Home: The Youth Athlete/Parent Dynamic (through our lens as Junior Golf parents), dispenses advice on how to spark and nurture a child’s love for the game.

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We are ordinary people and run-of-the-mill golf parents. Nearly 10 years ago when our son Ben started playing the game competitively, we had no idea what to expect from him, or from ourselves.
 
Little did we know how much we had to learn.
 
Being the parent of a junior golfer is, like golf itself, by turns exhilarating, rewarding, frustrating and nerve-wracking.
 
Sometimes, it is all of those at once. Watching our kids compete can create amazing bonds, and it can also damage family relationships. The journey is meant to be enjoyable for everyone involved, but it can easily go awry if there are mismatched goals or unrealistic expectations. Few dynamics are more combustible than those that develop when parents “want it more” than their children do.

Ben McKinney at 6 years old.

Courtesy McKinney Family

A decade after we embarked on our adventure, we can’t tell you how to raise the next Tiger Woods, but we can share something we believe is more valuable: advice on how to be the best golf parents you can be.

The 7 tips below are distilled from our new book, The Drive Home: The Youth Athlete/Parent Dynamic, which draws from our experiences as golf parents — our mistakes, our successes and everything in between — as well as on the insights and expertise of leading instructors, sports psychologists, PGA Tour parents and other prominent figures in golf and business. Our education isn’t over. We’re still learning. Our hope is that these hard-earned lessons will help you in your own journey as golf parents, whether on the course or on the drive home.

1. Know your child’s ‘why’

Do your motives match? Along with his team at Operation 36 Golf, a pioneering golf development program, Ryan Dailey has identified four distinct tracks in junior golf: exploratory, social, recreational and competitive. Ask yourself why your child is drawn to golf, and then pose the same question to yourself. If the answers aren’t in sync, the disconnect stands to cause a world of stress and tension.

Parents may live and die with every shot, dreaming of a golf scholarship, while the golfer might simply be out to enjoy a walk with friends. As a parent, it’s your job to make sure the ‘whys’ align. Why are you in the role you are in as it pertains to your child’s athletic journey?

Keep that ‘why’ in front of you. Say it to yourself first thing in the morning. Repeat it to yourself before attending your child’s competition. It will help you evolve and get through the uncertainty. When you understand the ‘why,’ the how becomes easier. Don’t sacrifice the why for short-term results.

2. Don’t let your child think their value to you is their score

This one may seem like an easy problem to avoid. After all, a bad round would never diminish your love for your child. But when the wheels fall off in a competition, a junior player watches the reaction of their parents. It took us a long time to realize that any grimaces or negative reactions to poor shots were the first things our son saw. 

In our hearts, we never ‘assigned’ our son’s value to his score, but our actions and reactions told a different story. Living vicariously through your child’s on-course performance is a recipe for disaster.

As Scott McNealy, father of PGA Tour pro Maverick McNealy, told us, “Live for your children, not through them.”

Consider the childhood experience of Jeanne Sutherland, who today serves as associate women’s golf coach at the University of Nebraska. “My parents never treated me like my score. They were happy for me, not with me, when I played well. They were disappointed for me, not in me, when I had rough days,” Sutherland says. “Our supper table was rarely about my results, but often about who I played with, how her mom was doing, who else I saw and what was fun about the day. For my family, sports were about relationships and stories.”

Mark McKinney with son Ben says raising a junior golfer can be “by turns exhilarating, rewarding, frustrating and nerve-wracking.”

Courtesy McKinney Family

3. Let your child know that you love to watch him or her play

As part of their work at Proactive Coaching LLC, where they help coaches and parents navigate the world of recreational and competitive sports, Bruce Brown and Rob Miller interviewed hundreds of college athletes about their worst memories from high school sports. The most common answer was, “the ride home from games with my parents.” When asked about their most positive memories, the same respondents said that it was when their parents told them, “I love to watch you play.”

Brown and Miller also found that grandparents often are more content than parents to simply sit back and enjoy watching the kids play. Kids pick up on that.

Don’t just tell them that you love watching them play. Show them. Hug them as they come off 18 with the same embrace, whether they shot 72 or 102.

4. Leverage the 24-hour rule

This guideline is exactly what it sounds like: Don’t talk about the round until 24 hours later. Not a peep. Biting your tongue can be tough, but it provides valuable time and space to ensure that feedback is constructive, desired and delivered in a manner separated from the moment.

As tennis professional and author Hernan Chousa puts it, “Our words have a significant impact on kids. They add or subtract. But they are never neutral.” Weigh them carefully, instead of rushing to get them out.

Weigh your words carefully, instead of rushing to get them out.

5. Stop playing against perfect

Over the years, on more occasions than we can count, we watched our son get frustrated when he missed putts of 15, 20, even 30 feet or longer. It wore on him. Often, we let it wear on us, too.

That is, until we became acquainted with Mark Broadie’s work. Broadie, the statistical guru known to many as the father of the Strokes Gained category, is also the author of Every Shot Counts, an invaluable guide that doubles as a study in realistic thinking.

Did you know, for instance, that over the course of a four-day competition, the average Tour pro sinks 1.5 putts of over 21 feet.

Broadie’s research is filled revelations that provide a new definition of success and failure. When you stop chasing (unattainable) perfection, it changes how everyone — parents and players — approach the rounds.

Top amateur shares his best advice for aspiring junior golfers
By: Luke Kerr-Dineen

6. Preach integrity

The legendary coach John Wooden had it right: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” In every junior golf circle, people know who the kids are that you “need to watch” because of incidents that happened on the course. 

Reputation, character, and integrity are vastly more important than a golf score. Let your player know that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a moment to destroy it.

7. Embrace adversity

Like death and taxes, adversity is inevitable. Golf offers more than its share of it. The question is: Will we let our children meet it head on? While it’s tempting to play the role of lawnmower parents — mowing down the rough patches in our kids’ way — we’re better letting them face the struggle. It can be difficult to watch but learning to overcome challenges on their own is a path to growth. 

Interested in learning more? The Drive Home: The Youth Athlete/Parent Dynamic is available on Amazon. A portion of every book sold goes to support Youth on Course, which provides kids access to more than 1,700 golf courses for $5 or less, along with learning opportunities and scholarship programs.

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