The book, The Drive Home: The Youth Athlete/Parent Dynamic (through our lens as Junior Golf parents) by Mark and Britt McKinney is a must-read for junior golf parents – newcomers, seasoned pros and everyone in between.
A portion of every book sold goes directly to Youth on Course to ensure the game continues to grow by providing affordable access to courses.
As long-time golf parents of junior golfers this book resonates, validates and clarifies the complexities of being an effective parent to a young athlete navigating the competitive golf world.
The authors introduce their book with the hope that you will come away with “the understanding of not sweating the small things, knowing what to expect, how to handle the bad days, the horrific days and the great days ….. learning how to best support your athlete, the things to say and when to say them, what not to say … and when a silent hug is the absolute best medicine.”
Let me assure you, there is all this and so much more. We appreciated Mark and Britt’s insights so much we reached out to the authors with the intention of bringing readers of The Junior Golfer the benefit of their concise, tested and real-world advice from the relatively small and interconnected world of junior golf.
Enjoy our Q&A with the Mark and Britt McKinney about how to survive and thrive through the junior golf years.
1. At one point in the book you look back, your child’s high school team State Championship victory fresh in your mind and say: I’m so glad I get to be a part of it, but I wish I had chosen joy instead of worry most of the days in his younger years. I feel exactly the same way but I am also not sure I was capable of changing my emotions easily back in the early days when they seemed to be very much tied to my child’s performance in the moment.
I have realized that, as the very young player sets out to master the game both physically and mentally, the parents may not yet realize it but they too are embarking on a journey that will force them to examine their own attitudes, vulnerabilities, happiness and even sanity at times. Finding joy and calm in high stress (and yes junior golf definitely has its share of such moments) is an individual path that is walked alone.
At some point we figure it out for ourselves, and with luck by the time our player is in high school we are generally in a more Zen-like place and able to find the joy in watching the round a lot easier. This book makes the important point of emphasizing the need for the player to work things out for themselves. Learned in childhood this ability is indeed a true gift.
What was one of the most important things you both did, or came to realize, as parents that set you on your own path to joyfully watching your son, regardless of how he was playing in the moment?
Mark: I would say three key things tipped the scales for me (1) going through the process of writing this book was an eye opener for me - the more research we did, the more I self-identified as a dad who was getting it wrong - so self reflection and finally looking in the mirror, (2) after a particularly ‘bad’ day on the course I was off to myself and did not go directly to Ben (our son) as he came off of 18, which I always had done before. Ben asked him mom, ‘is dad mad about something, he didn’t hug me when I came off of the green like he always has’, and (3) and lastly, and perhaps most sobering, Britt’s 24 year old nephew, Cole, was tragically killed in a plane that he was piloting in September of 2020. We grieved as a family, and I watched his parents going through that knowing they would do anything to get him back - and suddenly, a bogey, or a double bogey didn’t seem to matter so much.
Britt: First, the drive home experience, where our entire family was letting a child’s score on the golf course determine our mood - my motherly instinct knew we were in a toxic moment and we needed to refocus on the things in life that really matter.
Second, my mind has significantly changed on how I think and behave on the course since the death of my 24 year old nephew. I shared with another golf mom that I can’t really worry about Ben’s scores anymore or how he is playing because I realize I am so blessed to be walking the course with him.
2. In our own experience, as very involved junior golf parents, we totally get your point that “children still don’t believe in us parents 100%” and that sometimes introducing a mental coach is an intelligent move. At what age do you think the impact of a mental/performance coach would have the greatest impact?
Mark: Honestly, I think ultimately you just ‘know’ it. You need to know your player’s ‘why’, which our Confidence Coach, Tami Matheny, talks a lot about in the book. If your player has shown and expressed the desire to play competitively, versus socially, then I think the concepts are appropriate as they begin to become their ‘own person’ and begin to own their own game, which to me is those early teen years. Our son started with Tami when he was 15 years old, but knowing what I know now, I wish we would have started when he was 13 or so.
Britt: As an educator, I know that children are often scarred at an early age with a label that is quite often put on them by parents. Sending children too early might make them think they are “mentally” lacking and this isn’t good for anyone. The child has to be able to identify a pattern of some kind that is noticed without help. For us, I remember Ben telling me, “Mom, I just can’t finish. I get excited, I get nervous, I start thinking too much and I don’t know what to do.” It was an easy avenue with this realization that he needed help with how to finish to offer a mental coach. No one knows someone’s else’s mind and how it works. We think we do as parents, but we don’t really know our children’s minds. A good time to send the child is when the child knows they need help. You can suggest it and talk about the services a mental coach offers, but let it be the child’s choice.
3. Junior golf parents have truly seen it all and your section on “The Dads You’ll Meet” is gold. For the most part there are many golfing parents who are magnanimous, gracious and supportive of all players. There are parents who will help find lost balls, smile and impart encouraging words when the world is crashing down. There have also been dads, in the US Kids days when I was mom-on-the-bag for my younger son (dad being with the older) that have been border-line verbally abusive, criticizing every shot – even those that were pretty good in my book. One ex-Army guy, in a regional championship at Pinehurst painfully deliberated with his son on every shot, lined him up (when that was still allowed), talked him through every detail. It was tediously slow, but to try to keep pace he would sprint from green to next tee box like he was storming the beaches of Normandy. A mom of a very good junior player in our area always walks far ahead of her son and “miraculously” finds balls in perfectly executable locations that he has blasted far into the woods and occasionally certainly out of bounds. We played a round with another top junior, when he was 8, who teed off the first tee straight into a fairway bunker. Dad completely lost it – I thought he would have a heart attack there and then. So yes, it’s not always a walk in the park.
Caddying with parents like this is stressful for all concerned. What are your thoughts on how to not let the actions of others affect your own, and your player’s, sanity, focus and enjoyment?
Mark: This is such a microcosm for life in general, right, and an awesome teaching and learning opportunity for both parent and player. We mention in the book that ‘we don’t raise theirs, and they don’t raise ours’ speaking of other parents. In cases like you mention, and we have ALL been there, done that and gotten the free t-shirt, we have used them as teachable moments. All cases are different, but with young players, it is such a good lesson to them about focusing just on the golf and eliminating the distractions of others in the group. Now, as a parent, if it gets to a point where you feel cheating is going on or if the behavior of parent and/or player is crossing the line, it is best to get the tournament staff involved. I always try, and I encouraged Ben at a young age, to deal with any issues head on and in a reasonable way until you see that you are arguing with a brick wall - then, separate yourself from it and have the staff handle it. In short, though, life is about dealing with people who don’t act like us, think like us, or deal with situations like us - we are all different … and this is a great way to get a peek into how we get to choose if and how we engage when things are a little crazy.
Britt: We have often played with unreasonable junior golfers and parents. Ben and I think so much alike that we can give the look and just smile. We wait until after the round to let him vent his frustrations about having to wait on a player for a long time or listening to negativity all day, but I always remind him that he might do things to get on the other’s nerves.
I remember a time when Ben motioned for me to come over to him- I thought he wanted a snack or drink- when I got to him I had the snacks in my hand, but he said, “I just wanted to tell you if I had said all those words he is saying, I would be scared to come home because you would wash my mouth out with soap!” I laughed because I had been thinking the same thing. How our children act on the golf course under pressure is exactly how they are going to act in life when adversity comes along. If I could help a parent, I would tell them to model to their children how to act under pressure because that’s one of the most important things one can learn! Find the positive in everything, and don’t let others ruin your day or round.
4. Our older player is a calm and focused player (although this was not always the case) but as his parents, who have watched him on the course intently since he was 6 years old, we can still see how its going during a round by picking up barely perceptible beats. He would probably deny it, but we feel (and perception is everything?) that we silently send out nervous energy – and as a result in the past few years we have seldom watched him play. And his results seem to justify our absence. He is a D1 college golfer now and we are slowly wandering back into the spectator pool. How do you advise parents to keep their own emotions in check while caddying for their younger player or walking along with their older?
Mark: I got this wrong so many times, and you will get more details in the book itself - and I got it wrong because of wrong expectations. Early on, when I carried Ben’s bag, I felt like it was my ‘job’ to make the decisions, fix any swing faults, impose my will on him to do what I thought was best in the moment. In turn, what that did was ratchet up my emotions when he didn’t agree with me or when things started going off the rails. What I learned later on, was that when caddying, I should have (and now do when I get to) treated it like a job - my job is to carry the bag, shoot yardages, rake traps, etc … I can provide my thoughts, when he asks, but it is HIS rodeo, not mine. When we started that type of relationship on course, it changed everything.
Regarding keeping emotions in check, whether caddying or walking along, I will share what a great friend and fellow golf parent shared with me early on ‘they are always watching for your reaction and your body language does not. lie.’ I always thought I was outsmarting Ben because I would walk ahead of him where I thought I was out of sight and he could not see me, and I would grimace or react to bad shots - newsflash, they look for you, and they can see you.
The Senior Director of the SCJGA shared the following thought, and it stepped all over my toes ‘Your junior golfer is not trying to play badly, hit a bad shot or get nervous but that’s part of growing and learning this game. The moment they begin fearing your response to their failures you’ve added another layer of difficulty to this already difficult game.’ … and to the question, I realized that by NOT keeping my emotions in check, I was adversely affecting his play, thereby … a self fulfilling prophecy.
Kids, at least ours, want us to be present - they want us there and they don’t expect us to fix everything. I once thought after every bad shot I had to find a way to telepathically tell Ben what I had seen in his swing. Once I let that go and focused on enjoying watching him do what he loves, I found myself more relaxed.
We included a quote in the book from Pete Carroll who said ‘during and right after competition, coaches and parents need to be the best cheerleaders or poker players’. Be present. Be a poker player.
Britt: I focus on the good when things are good in the round. I say “wow” a lot, clap for remarkable shots, and try my best to smile the entire time. When Ben is having a hard day, I try to focus on other things. It’s all a strategy. I ask him about what he wants to eat when we finish, I ask him if he likes a shirt someone else has on, or I ask him if he needs something when I’m tired of hearing the moaning and complaining. My intent is to refocus him. To get his mind on something besides the bad shots he has hit.
5. When a player is a little older, talking to them during a tournament round is generally not allowed – but if you have a rare opportunity to say a few words, what do you suggest?
Mark: As I alluded to earlier, I used to try and find ways to telepathically send Ben swing thoughts, give him Jedi mind stare in hopes that he got it … and that stressed both of us out. What I found to be most impactful and that we enjoy more now is to simply flash him the sign language symbol for I love you … when things are going well and when they are going poorly - I will make sure he knows that I love him.
Britt: In all honesty, I quite often talk to Ben. Not about golf because I couldn’t help him if I wanted to, but he knows if I clear my throat or smile real hard with my teeth showing he better straighten up. I let him mumble and complain a little because his mental coach says he can do that from one shot to the next, but I don’t let that linger on and on. I’ve learned if I get emotional it sets him off. I try so hard to walk with the same speed, the same posture, and the same purpose throughout the day. Children feed off their parent’s emotions. Parents need to keep their emotions under control or everyone is going to be out of control.
6. The tone for the tournament is often set, in the parent’s mind, on the range. I know I have almost written off a round based on a dismal warm-up. But I realize now, with a little experience under my belt that a poor range warm up can often result in an excellent round (at least that’s what I tell my player) and more importantly - the warm up needs to be just that - an opportunity to loosen the muscles. Yet there are parents who will spend an hour on the range standing right next to their players during warm up perfecting club after club like it’s a lesson. In one US Kids regional parents even showed up on the range with a $25k trackman! What is your advice for parents on the range before the tournament round?
Mark: This is another area where I was ‘that guy’ in the early years, and the easiest way to answer this is right out of the book below. In short, get the heck out of there (unless they are really young and you need to stay with them so they don’t run off).
Perhaps the most tangible transformation that took place across my realization of how much I was trying to control the situations was the range time before events. In the beginning, I was there for his warm-ups 95/5 - I talked to him about the course, about his swing, watched each practice swing and offered guidance for poorly struck ones (little did I know, I was ratcheting up the stress for both of us) … as I transitioned through this learning process of being the best and most supportive dad I could be, I watched that mix go from 95/5 to 80/20 to 40/60 … and ultimately where it sits today - probably 5/95 (and I will only go to the range now if he texts me to say he needs something or has a question.)
As simple as that sounds - it is a freeing feeling for both of us - for our entire family (early on, in the 95/5, I would report to Britt after each range session and say things like ‘it’s gonna be a long day, he’s not hitting it solidly’ which then freaked her out … and it set a completely stressful tone for the day).
Britt: Stay away- I don’t think this story is in the book, but a few years ago when Ben was about 14, a parent was talking to me while the boys were warming up. The parent said, “I guess I need to go on over and help my son warm up and make sure he is okay.” I said, “Why don’t you sit right here and talk to us until he comes over and asks you for help? He has a phone, he knows if he is struggling, and you and I both know you can’t do a thing to help him.” He laughed and confirmed I was right.
I just don’t think it helps the child or the parent for a bad warmup to set the tone. Like you said sometimes a bad warmup results in excellent play. An argument or disagreement about the cause of bad balls on a warmup could ruin the entire day.
7. There are junior golfers who are superstars at 10 years old, who struggle to maintain their momentum and rankings at 15 years old. What advice do you have for the parents here?
Mark: We live in the upstate of SC, and there is no shortage of amazing talent. We have witnessed many superstar junior golfers either fizzle out or hang it up all together due in large part to simple burnout. My advice, and again, I am simply a dad with no alphabet soup behind my name … make sure they have other things to get involved in - other sports, church, friends and hobbies. When talent is super high, you hate to see the passion go away from simply going 100 mph with no other interests.
Britt: I think with golf and life we all need to know we aren’t going to shine all the time. You will often hear me tell Ben “it’s not your turn”. Just this summer he had a really bad season. Nothing was going right for him. As he sat in the golf cart and crossed his arms with his lips poked out, I kindly reminded him it wasn’t his turn. I told him he had done great things during the high school season, but now wasn’t his turn. I saw his eyes click and he realized he needed to get his act together. He worked hard and has already started to come around. I think another thing we can tell our children is “you haven’t peaked yet”. Let your child know they can get better and more consistent. Knowing that working hard produces results is a great lesson in golf and life.
8. What are some of your best memories of caddying for your son in the early days?
Mark: Just being there - as parents, we know nothing fills our hearts like our kids wanting us to walk side by side while they are doing something they enjoy. I count it a blessing just simply to have been there. In addition, the chest bumps and fist bumps are priceless - when they know that you are so proud of them for either achieving something awesome or for getting kicked in the gut and still standing strong, that fist bump is worth millions.
Britt: First of all, it would be a miracle for me to caddy. I would need another name like club carrier or something like that! I do have fond memories of watching him around the course in numerous rounds. My heart explodes when I see him smile, when I see him make a big muscle motion, or when I see him tell another player ‘good shot’. The etiquette of golf brings tears to my eyes. When I see players help each other, when I see those hats come off on the 18th, and when I sit with the boys and listen to their interpretation of the parents I often have tears of laughter and joy. I don’t have a favorite memory because there are so many good memories. We have laughed as a family, cried as a family, and made lasting memories to build a great bond for home. I am fortunate that my children talk to me about their struggles and worries, and I believe this has been done in part based on constantly being with each other and discussing so many things.
9. In your own child’s junior golf career, what are you most proud of?
Mark: I would say his growth - getting to watch him evolve from this 9 year old dressed in Ricky Fowler garb from head to toe to now this old young man who better understands the game, who sees joy in spending time with and meeting other players, and who has let the lessons from the golf course infuse his daily life - integrity, character, and accountability. In addition, from day one to now his ability to handle and overcome adversity has grown light years and that is amazing. One round in particular when he was older, he was 6 over through 5 holes and it looked for all the world that we were on pace to shoot ‘a thousand’ as Britt’s dad used to say. He found this ‘something’ deep down inside of him and played the next 13 holes in 4 under par. Now some folks saw 73 (par 71 course) and were like ‘Meh’. Britt and myself knew something special happened … and adversity had not won that day.
Britt: I am most proud of the lessons I think Ben has learned with golf.
He has learned to communicate with others. When we walk into a room of adults, he speaks, he carries on conversations, and acts like he is interested in the person is talking to. He learned this on the course from playing with players he doesn’t know.
He has learned to be a friend playing golf. We played with a little boy recently who shot over 100. I watched as he struggled with hitting the ball in the bunker on his first shot on a par three. The other player hit the ball over the green to the other bunker. We could all see the disappointment on his face. Ben told him to go ahead and get set up for your next shot and I’ll rake for you. My heart burst with pride because I saw my child take initiative to help someone without being prompted by me.
He has learned “life ain’t easy”. I can’t name the number of times I have discussed with him things going on in life and I tell him it’s just like golf. Some days you get good breaks, some days you get bad breaks, and some days you have no break at all.
10. What are you most grateful for in the junior golf world?
Mark: I mentioned it earlier, but in general, the fact that the game of golf is such a metaphor for life - and how clearly it shows you that some days will rock, some days will flat out suck rocks, but through it all - we are learning at every stage, we are getting stronger at every stage. Golf turned our little man into a gentleman who knows the value of integrity, a handshake, being held accountable, and why standing up straight, tucking your shirt in and removing your cap inside matters.
That, and the relationships and friendships that this journey has given us - we have laughed, cried and prayed with families on fairways and in parking lots, and would drop everything we have on our plates if those players or parents needed us, and vice versa.
Britt: No one will believe me when I say this, but I’m most grateful for the adversity we have been through on the course. Our time at local golf courses is much like dealing with people in life. There are some people we enjoy being around and doing life with, and there are some people we just wish we could get through the day and move on. The courses that seem to be Ben’s friend to how he is playing have let him know there will be good days. The courses where he struggles have taught him not to quit, to keep trying, and to realize after 18 holes we get to start all over with a clean card! Isn’t that what we need to teach our children anyway… there will be struggles… don’t quit… keep trying… and once you get through this problem you can start over!
11. If you had to embark on the junior golf journey again, what would you change about yourself?
Mark: I would get myself out of the way and focus earlier on the fact that this is his journey and not mine. My job as a parent is to support him, not eliminate all obstacles. I would tell myself about all the silent car rides home after a bad round and how much time I wasted not talking when I could have been the dad he needed. I’d be different. Yeah, I’d change myself.
Britt: If I could change anything, I would do my best to make a connection with each parent I met. There are nerves when the children tee off and you can read that some parents do talk and some don’t. After a few holes, I wish I would have talked with parents instead of letting the first holes dictate the rest of the day. I’ve met some great people through these conversations, but at the beginning I was afraid to talk to others because I didn’t want to be the overbearing mother.
12. If your son had to do the junior golf journey again, what do you think he would want to be different?
Mark: I think he would want us to know as parents that he appreciates us simply being present. I think he would want me, as a dad, to know early on that this stuff is not life or death and that my stress becomes his stress. What I wouldn't do for a time machine. Lastly, I think he would love to go back with the perspective he has now that bad rounds don’t last a lifetime … they last a moment, and then they are gone. That perspective only comes by living through it, though.
Britt: I think he would want me to be honest with him at an earlier age. I followed the example of other parents who would say good putt after a five putt and get the look of death at me. I didn’t know any better! Now I would just probably say I’m going to be quiet and not say anything on those five putts. I also think I would make sure at an earlier age that I told him I enjoyed watching him play. I didn’t do that enough when he was younger. I remember a few summers ago he told me to just go home because he was playing so bad. I smiled and told him I was his mother and would be there if he shot 169 or 69, so get back over to the tee box and focus. He realized he wasn’t going to change my mind.
13. One of my favorite sections of your book was the “What the Kids Say.” It was particularly very helpful for me to read “When I am upset on the golf course the best thing my parent(s) can say to me or do for me is” and “What is the one thing you wish your parent(s) would stop doing at your tournament”.
I know that one of the things that annoys my younger son tremendously is when I say (and I can’t help myself sometimes) – “Great Shot” just after the ball is struck and it looks to me like it’s line is just perfect – until it curves mid flight and lands in the woods. “It’s not a good shot,” he says. “Don’t say ‘good shot’ when it’s not”. I did it when I was mom-on-the-bag (when dad was with older brother) and I continue to do it just walking along watching.
My younger son is very outgoing and vocal about what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I imagine a lot of junior golfers are less communicative with their parents. What is some advice for opening lines of communication between parents and their players?
Mark: One of my favorite parts of the book is the section that presents the survey work done by Bruce Brown and team at Proactive Coaching where over 12 years and millions of responses they learned that what youth athletes hated most about sports was the car ride home after a game or match and the thing they liked most is then parents told them “I love to watch you play”.
So, start with that - let them know you love them, let them know you are proud of them, let them know you love to watch them play and give them the room to decompress after a round. We reference the 24 hour rule in the book … no talking about the round or giving feedback for 24 hours (unless they ask or initiate it and even then, don’t be critical). Don’t be negative and don’t let them ever think that their score on a day represents their value to you. Tami Matheny, Confidence Coach, adds that when we tell our players we are proud of them, we should be specific.
So, let them know you enjoyed watching them … and keep in mind the words of Hernan Chousa, Tennis Professional who shares “...our words have a significant impact on them (kids). They add or subtract, and they are never neutral.”
Britt: I talk a little about this in the book. When teaching English to middle schoolers, I learned that in order for them to give me some insight into the books they were reading I had to ask open-ended questions. I do my best to not ask a yes or no question because they are usually going to answer with just that. Some questions I ask are when you hit xyz on the 5th hole what did you think about that? I always start with a positive shot. Then after he starts talking I will ask him if there were any other shots to talk about. We are open enough now that I say things like “What in the world was xyz shot on 7?”... and I will laugh when I say it. Then he will elaborate. Let the child know there are no perfect rounds.
It’s better to do this with the parent who doesn’t know that much about golf. Ben tends to tell me all these things because I can’t argue club selection or course management with him because I don’t know. Our children want to be heard. Just let them talk.
14. What are the three most important things you want parent caddies of young junior golfers to know?
Mark: (1) it is their journey, their round, you are there to support them, (2) negativity breeds negativity, and tension breeds tension, (3) these are some of the most amazing times you will EVER have with your child … and they will fly by, enjoy the walk and don’t screw it up by trying to fix everything.
Britt: 1: Your children’s abilities on the golf course aren’t a reflection of you, but their actions are. Don’t allow foolishness. 2. Be on the 18th green to hug your child, tell them you love them, and tell them you enjoyed watching them play and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. If you don’t feel that way… it’s okay… you might want to let the other parent be there to say it. Don’t lie. Children know when our statements are genuine. 3. Keep a journal. Write down funny things your child says, write down funny things that happen, and write down crazy stories. This can be a great opportunity to talk to your child later. I guarantee he or she will eventually tell you to write something down because they want to remember it. I have scorecards from when Ben first started. I have found him sitting on the floor laughing and remembering days from long ago. The night before his state championship final round he asked me to help him find a card where he finished strong. He wanted to carry it that day. Those cards - the good ones and the bad ones- are like trophies- full of memories.
15. What are the three most important things you want parents of competitive high school golfers to know?
Mark: (1) I will cheat off of the question above and share, it is their journey, (2) the relationships they are building now with teammates and playing competitors will last a lifetime, (3) their score today isn’t going to matter in a year or two years or 20 years … (think about your own high school career and games - does anyone care now that you scored 25 points in a basketball game one night? - no, they don’t).
Britt: I think it’s the same answers as those above. One thing I like to tell Ben is that golf is special. Unlike football, baseball, soccer, and other sports, the day after the state championship your team can all go back out with your golf shirts on and keep playing together. Golf is a lifetime sport — you can play from five to 105 and enjoy the time together. Parents should foster those relationships and help those children build bonds that will never be forgotten.
We all walk our individual journeys. Our players stand on the tee box alone. Yet we drive home together.
The Drive Home by Mark and Britt McKinney reminds us to not live vicariously through our children. They are not your ticket to happiness, nor your future meal ticket.
The Drive Home is a joyous, open-minded, and at times hilarious look at how to be a great golf parent and raise a junior golfer who can navigate their individual journey with confidence and an eyes wide open approach to life.