Phillip Akers has a dream – ten years from now he is standing on the practice ground at The Open Championship watching juniors he’s coached tuning up for a shot at the Claret Jug.
It’s the dream that drives him on in his new role as the director of junior golf at The Belfry’s National Training Academy.
“I want The Belfry to be the best,” he said. “If that happens, who knows what we can achieve. But I would love nothing more than to one day see youngsters I watched take their first shots, playing in the British Open.”
Akers was brought in from Oulton Hall Golf Club in Leeds because of his impressive record of achievement coaching young golfers. Now all that energy, expertise and insight is focused on The Belfry.
“Fifteen years ago there were around 500 youngsters being developed here. When I arrived there was just four,” he said. “So the challenge now is to get as many young people involved – and it’s already happening.”
In a matter of weeks the junior programme has swelled to 49. The adult Start Golf numbers are even better going from 0 to 420, with 60 per cent women.
“That was a surprising figure when take up in the women’s game is so low,” Akers said.
But it is junior development which matters most to Akers who has used Facebook and social media, Groupon deals, mail drops and free lessons at local schools to whip up enthusiasm.
Akers was lured to The Belfry due to the Future Elite (FUEL) Golf Programme he created at Oulton Hall.
It became one of the most successful junior coaching systems in the country – and that’s what he is aiming to recreate at The Belfry.
“If we want young players competing one day at The Open, we have to grow the base of the pyramid. We have to make the sport more accessible, get more young people involved, enjoying the game and that will create the opportunity for more youngsters to do well.”
Akers was recruited specifically by the Academy director Rob Spurrier. They share the same vision – but what really makes Akers stand out is his refreshing and an innate understanding of how to inspire young people.
“For me the priorities in coaching are developing the person first, the athlete second and the golfer third.”
Watching a session for under eights, it is quick to see how Akers achieves this – through imaginative games, which challenge his young charges with the award of credits for achievement.
“We set constant goals, there is a grading system – similar to a sport like karate. We also reward a gritty attitude, youngsters who are prepared to take on challenges and hard work.”
But it is a love of the game and golfing environment that Akers is keenest to nurture.
“At six, I am not too worried about technique. I am more worried that a child is loving the game so they are still playing when they are 26.”
While the sessions seem relaxed and enjoyable, there is a very definite development plan in place to ensure kids stay engaged and, as they grow, get the right support.
So, whether their aim over time is to play golf as a pastime or a profession, the coaching will be designed to fit. The final element in Akers master plan is training the trainers to ensure all the coaches have the right blend of skills and understanding to feed the youngsters’ imaginations and enthusiasm.
“Some youngsters will enjoy golf socially, others will want to take their game to another level,” Akers said. “But making sure they are still loving the game in 20 or 30 years, that’s what matters.”
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