Coaching Through Failure

Posted on by Ben Bryant WGCA contributing writer

At the high school where I coach, a golfer named Dylan recently came out for the golf team.  As a six-foot-one 14-year-old, Dylan was an excellent athlete. His parents had gotten him involved in tennis at a very young age, and by the time he was in middle school, he had a state ranking and was beating kids four and five years older than him.  He had only been playing golf for a little under a year and was already shooting par.  He’s exactly the kind of player you want on your team. But Dylan faced a lot of adversity when he began playing competitively in high school. As a tennis player, he was used to being the best, and even though he was already an excellent golfer, he was by no means the best.  Even though his golf scores were excellent by most standards, he typically lost his matches against better, more experienced players. This was a big adjustment for Dylan, and he found himself in a situation he was unaccustomed to – failure.

Most well-adjusted adults understand that failure is part of life.  My favorite idiom on the topic is that failure is not an option; it’s a requirement.  The game of golf is no different.  For some players, understanding failure is easy.  I’ve coached plenty of golfers who are thrilled when they finally break 100 and understand the value of their early struggles to the learning process.  By contrast, Dylan had so little experience with failure, due to his success on the tennis court, that he let his frustrations get in the way of making his golf game better.  As I thought of ways to help Dylan deal with adversity, I realized that many of these strategies can be applied to every golfer.

Help Your Players Define Success

Success in golf does not have to mean perfection. It does not have to mean shooting under par and winning each match.  It’s up to the coaches and players to define what success can be.  For a player like Dylan, it can mean hitting every fairway in regulation.  It can mean avoiding costly mistakes like three-putts.  For others, it can be not hitting a ball into a lake for an entire round or making par on a single hole.

Let Your Players See You Fail

As teachers and coaches, the expectation is often that you don’t mistakes.  It’s sometimes especially difficult for younger players to understand that you aren’t perfect.  Sharing personal stories of how you faced similar failures and how they helped you improve your game can be a great way to help players deal with their own circumstances.

Don’t Let Failure Breed Complacency

Establish an expectation with your players that while you don’t expect them to be perfect all the time, ultimately you want to win.  Failure shouldn’t be brushed off like it’s no big deal.  Don’t allow yourself to become part of the “everything’s OK and everyone’s a winner” mentality.  Always use failure to reflect on how your players and team can improve so that next time the outcome will be different.

The great thing about golf is that no matter how poorly you play one day, you can always try again tomorrow.  Dylan did eventually change his mindset when it came to competitive golf and got over the hump. He’ll likely be playing at the collegiate level, where once again he won’t be the best player around.  The lessons he learned while as a freshmen dealing with failure will hopefully serve him well at the next level.

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