People roll their eyes when I tell them I am a high school golf coach. “Wow, must be a rough gig,” they say draped in sarcasm. On one end, they’re right. Every day at 4 P.M. I have a golf club in my hand, showing my players how to hit certain shots and making sure they don’t beat me in an up and down contest. It’s my favorite part of the day. Oh, did I mention I get to miss 13 days of school to be on a golf course all day? Seeing Arbor Links, Beatrice Country Club, Yankee Hill, and Champions Run, and coaching my players around them is very soothing to the soul. (although there are many times I want to take their club and hit the shot for them!)
But, as is true with almost anything, there is much more to high school golf than catching a sun tan during school days (actually most tournaments I am wearing 63 layers and a stocking hat). Many people are still in deep sleep when we start our 7 A.M. Saturday morning workouts. Many people are on their second helping of mashed potatoes when we are grinding away at 4 footers after practice or on a cold Sunday evening. Many people reach into their pocket for a mulligan when their drive lands in someone’s living room or give themselves that downhill 3 ft. slider rather than mark it and finish. My players know every shot matters because they are in competition with other schools, but also competition with their teammates to make the top 5 or to compete in the next JV event. Golfing with grandpa is fun, getting a cheeseburger and a coke at the turn is fun. Making 10 4 footers in a row doesn’t go into the same “class” of fun, but winning a tournament because you drained a 4 footer is really fun. The bottom line is, there is more to playing and coaching high school golf than meets the eye. Only those who have done it, or have watched their son/daughter do it, fully understand the grind and the rollercoaster of emotions that this sport we love so much carries with it. I’m now in my 5th year of being the head boys coach at Millard North, and there are a few things I’ve learned along the way. And believe me, I have much more learning to do!
- No matter the age, human beings are mistake prone. My 4 year old wets the bed once in a while. I lose my keys once a week. High school golfers make double bogey. It happens. They don’t mean to hit it in the water. They know the water is there, they are smart enough to know the right miss, but unfortunately we make bad swings and make bad decisions because we are humans. I am done yelling at players for making mistakes on the golf course (provided they learn and grow from them). I do, however, yell at my players if they don’t respond the right way. Too many high school players throw clubs, make excuses, put a “show” on for the people around to let everyone know they don’t usually hit a slice. I want my players to play with fire, to have a desire to do well and be a little bit ticked off when they screw up, but I teach them that when I walk up to them in a round I want their body language to make me say “I have no idea if you are 2 under or 11 over.” Make mistakes, but be a man and don’t act like a child. And don’t let one mistake be the cause of another.
- Saying less is probably the best route as a coach. During a tournament is not a time to invite a ton of mechanical thoughts into an already nervous 16 year old’s mind. I’ve learned, during tournaments, to say less and let my players take ownership of their game. I also learned never to say the words “don’t” or “avoid”. For instance: “don’t go left of the green here, it will all funnel into the water” must be rephrased to “25 feet right of the pin.” Way less talking, and tell them where to hit it, not where “not” to hit it.
- After each round, start by asking them “What did you do well?” James Seickmann (maybe you’ve heard of him) taught me that thinking like a champion means imprinting good shots and positive outcomes more than bad shots and negative outcomes. Most people have it backwards. They make lots of great putts during a round but let the missed 5 footer on 18 linger in their mind. I force my players to start by telling me what they did well, whether they shot 72 or 92.
- Kids have to learn the game from great teachers – it’s extremely rare, actually pretty much impossible, to find a kid who can teach himself the game. Every professional has a swing coach and everyone learns the game from someone growing up. Nebraska’s PGA instruction is so good, and more kids need to get lessons! Even in season, my players get lessons. The good players are getting them on a weekly basis and I love it. I trust the teaching pros to help fine-tune my players’ fundamentals and teach them different shots (i.e. knockdowns because the wind blows 75 mph everyday it seems). If I wanted to learn to play the piano, sure there is Youtube or I could just wing it and try to figure it out on my own, but I am way better off getting piano lessons from a master pianist. The same is true for golf. I still get lessons because it allows me to be a student of the game, even as a 29 year old. That, and I refuse to let my players beat me (too badly). Actually though, if they are beating me, it bodes well for our potential!
- These kids will never forget me. It’s funny how vivid our memory can be when it wants to be. From my experience as a high school and collegiate athlete, my coaches had a far greater impact on me than my teachers. I was more attentive to them, I looked up to them, and I wanted to make them happy. I can remember exact conversations from 15 years ago. I know that my players will always remember me, they will remember what I said, what I did, and most importantly, how I made them feel. Because of this realization, I always tell my players that I am proud to be in the same school van (AM radio, no cup holders) as them. When they miss a short putt or knock one OB, I am stone-faced and tell them to bounce back. There’s no use sighing or turning around in disgust, what’s that going to do to help them? In contrast, though, if they drain a long putt, chip in, or hole out from 96 yards for eagle at State (you know who you are), I have a very hard time controlling my positive emotions. I’ve even been known to get a quick chest bump in there! I want to be their biggest fan and cheerleader, because golf is a pretty lonely, solitary game at times. It’s nice to know your coach is on your side.
I could very well do this job until I am 87 years old, and I’d hope at that point to still be lugging my clubs around shamelessly trying to whip up on high school kids. I love it because every day I see something new or help out a player in a new way. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to get this text: “coach, I’ve been working on what you said and I hit it so much better today. Shot 41, that’s my lowest score ever.” Goosebumps crawl up my arms just typing that because I’ve been there as a player and it makes me so happy to have that impact on someone. I’ve written about 100 sub plans in 7 years, and I’ve driven countless vans at 6:00 A.M with passed out high school boys in the back, only to return home at 8:00 P.M. that night. All coaches do this every day; it’s just what you do. The reward is not the accolades and trophies (well a state title would be nice….). The reward is seeing boys turn into young men and do great things on and off the golf course, making a positive impact on those around them. That makes every last mile on interstate 80 well worth it. It’s not a bad “gig.”