10 Oct 2020 | Clubs & Facilities | Feature stories |

A passion for coaching

by Contributor

Denis McDade image
Denis McDade is one of the best coaches in the world. Photo: Andy Brownbill

By Brian Meldrum, Golf Vic magazine

Walk onto the junior practice area at Yarra Bend Golf in Melbourne, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you must be in the wrong place.

There are lots of toys and equipment lying around, yet very little of it seems to have any relationship to golf. Cricket bats, hockey sticks, soccer balls, hula hoops, you name it.

But as far as renowned golf coach Denis McDade is concerned, they are essential tools in teaching youngsters – kids of primary school age – to become golfers.

Coaches, says McDade, have a huge responsibility to try to make sure that those learning to play golf, no matter how young or how old, ultimately fall in love with the game and want to play it for life.

And in respect to coaching juniors – something he is passionate about – he holds strong opinions as to who should be entrusted with educating them to the game. “Quite simply, those people should be the best.”

McDade is one of Australia’s, indeed the world’s, most respected golf teachers, so is well placed to cast a critical eye over the coaching of juniors or, for that matter, golfers of any age from beginners to talented tour professionals.

He began as a trainee professional in the mid-1980s, gave the play-for-pay ranks a bit of a whirl – “I wasn’t good enough” – and began teaching the game at a pitch-and putt facility in Dandenong in Melbourne's outer-east.

Now he is based at Yarra Bend Golf as one of three principal directors at BannLynchMcDade, a world renowned golf instruction facility, and is head of the Titleist Performance Institute’s (TPI) Junior Advisory Board among other things.

As an elite coach, he is the guiding hand behind some of Australia’s best players, including Marc Leishman and Japan PGA Tour player Matthew Griffin.

“It’s exciting,” McDade said, “but it is also a responsibility. As an elite level coach, the last thing you want to do is turn a great player into a good player.

“I think my role as a coach is to help figure out what works best for them. All you need to do is walk down the line on the practice fairway at a PGA Tour event – there’s no one way to do it.

“The balancing act is to improve one area without detracting from another – improving a weakness but not interfering with a strength. That’s something to always keep an eye on.” McDade said that with players such as Leishman he is always attempting to find the ‘next version’ of them.

But most importantly he works to instil in them the ability to think for themselves.

“If they strike a patch of poor form, it is unlikely to be something new that’s cropped up, unless of course they have intentionally tried something different. Usually it will be something they have fallen back into.

“By walking them through the process, however many times it takes, of what is causing the problem, they become familiar with it and the hope then is that they can resolve it themselves.

“In my opinion, if my players need me on tour with them 25 weeks of the year, then I don’t think I am any good at my job. It means I haven’t taught them anything about themselves. I’d much rather them get back on track by figuring things out for themselves. I think that is a really good place for a player to be.”

As an example of that, McDade recalls a conversation he had with Leishman shortly after the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur in 2018, in which the player told him how he’d driven the ball very poorly on the first day.

“He said, ‘I hit it everywhere. I went out onto the range and figured out for myself that I had my hands too far behind the ball, and I drove the ball great for the rest of the tournament’. And I’m thinking, ‘That’s what I want from my players’. It was the best thing I could have heard.

“Here’s a player entering the prime of his career, who is going to contend in majors, and instead of thinking after that first day at the CIMB, ‘what do I do now’, he knows enough about what he should look like, and the way he should move, to figure it out and go on and win the tournament.

“That’s exactly where I want my players to be.”

Of course McDade does spend time with his star golfers, but the truth is you are more likely to find him out at Yarra Bend, just eight kilometres north-east of Melbourne’s CBD, coaching a bunch of pre-schoolers and primary school kids, or perhaps a sprightly 76-year-old grandma who wants to improve.

“I coach recreational golfers because I enjoy it,” McDade said. “I enjoy building relationships with people; for me there is just as much reward in coaching a junior, or a beginner who wants to get better, as having success with the elites.”

For decades the course at Yarra Bend has had a reputation for being one of Melbourne’s best public courses but it has been taken to a new level by BannLynchMcDade.

The layout has changed, as has the playing order of holes, but the most notable difference is the addition of a state-of-the-art driving range and practice area, plus a 36-hole Adventure Golf facility that has become a huge hit with groups of friends and families.

A recent addition has been a large Santa Ana grass practice tee that is available to all comers, a rare find on a public driving range, and a special bunker that allows the golfer to practise from a number of different lies.

It is an environment devoted to giving all golfers, no matter their level of skill or their commitment to golf, the chance to learn or improve, while at the same time providing them with an enjoyable experience, something McDade believes is at the heart of the game. And that, he says, particularly applies to the very young beginners.

It helps explain the unusual approach McDade and his team, led by James Hartley, have to junior coaching. For instance, the assortment of sporting equipment – much of it made of foam rubber – that they bring to junior instruction has to do with his belief that, just like any other sport, golf requires a certain degree of athleticism.

“Just about any better golfer I’ve come across has been a good athlete before they’ve taken up golf,” McDade explained. “They’ve played footy, cricket, tennis squash, any different number of things, and golf seems to be just an extension of their striking skills.”

McDade points to the fact that children today are becoming more and more sedentary, and not just because they are increasingly drawn to computer activities.

“They get driven to school, picked up, all that sort of stuff. And there is also this fear that they are going to hurt themselves running and falling over, or playing sport, and as a result they are becoming less developed athletically.

“Golf is a difficult game to play if you are lacking some fundamental movements. So we have to get them moving and ensure that those skills are being developed.”

It can be quite perplexing to watch the youngsters at Yarra Bend Golf seemingly just mucking around. “They engage in all of these different activities and games, and they look like they’re just playing,” McDade said.

In fact it has a scientific base. It is called ‘deliberate play’, and is seen as an age deliberate way to develop skills. “For instance when you are a little older, say in your teens, you reach a stage where, if you want to develop a skill, there is some work involved,” McDade explained. “You actually have to stand there and work on the movement to improve it. That is called ‘deliberate practice’.

“What I have seen around the world with the TPI program is the application of deliberate practice to the young demographic and as such it is not fun.”

And making it fun, he says, is essential in retaining the wannabe young golfers.

They also want to make new friends, they want to fit in, and it has to feel good. There are exceptions, McDade says, but for the average five or six-year-old, standing on a practice tee hitting 100 drives in an hour isn’t that much fun.

And finally, ‘deliberate play’ has to involve things they can actually do. “You have to find the level where they feel they can do it, and achieve something,” said McDade.

It is hoped that all of these things combined will encourage the participants to keep moving forward. “These days kids are sampling the game at a younger age, but they are also making a decision as to whether they want to continue playing it,” McDade said. “We as coaches have a huge responsibility to try and make sure they do”.

Harking back to his reference to juniors being coached by the best, McDade says this is often not the case. “Around the world it is often the youngest and least experienced coaches who have the junior program thrust upon them. That, I believe, is a mistake.

“This is a very important demographic we are dealing with here; it requires highly specialised skills. You need to know what you are doing, and how best to teach it. Therefore it is the best trained, the most informed and the best qualified people who should be coaching juniors.

“They are golf’s future – the future club golfers, the future administrators, future PGA professionals and touring pros. They might become fitness trainers, or physios, or something like that.

“To not have the best people coaching them from the start is an error. I’d like to think our junior program is catering for all skill levels, all aspirational levels; that it is in fact a retention tool.”

First published in Golf Vic magazine January 2019. Republished with the permission of Golf Victoria

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