Working with National Teams — One Proponent Member’s Perspective

Jul 11, 2023 | News

As the USGA’s national team project continues to develop, Proponent Group is doing all the research we can about that form of coaching and what it entails. Toward that end we spoke with longtime member Iain Highfield about his experience with the Canadian women’s national team and got some very helpful insights and observations.

Iain’s interactions with team members, as facilitated through the Women’s Head Coach for Team Canada, Sal Mussani, is quite specialized—that’s often the case for this type of role. He fills the spot on the roster where performance analytics meets training technique with some customization based on the individual athlete’s personality. Other staff coaches cover fitness/wellness, classic sports psychology, golf swing, short game, etc. His duties have included some early sessions in which Highfield took what the coaches were doing with their Upgame stats and added new levels of diligence to it. In turn, that extra seriousness was to be extended to the players, if possible.

“There was a very significant buy-in on the part of some players, though not all of them,” says Iain. “From some players we were getting amazingly detailed reports, covering factors such as Task Variability on the range, and all the ways they were making practice more game-like.”

It didn’t happen across the board, which is the sort of outcome an adjunct coach on a national team ought to be ready for. It’s natural to feel you’re there to be a change agent, but you can’t fly in, alienate players or coaches, then fly out. It’s not a formula for extended success. “You can’t forget to be respectful of the players’ core beliefs,” Highfield adds. “Anything major that you put into the program has to be backed up with proof. And make sure to clearly say, ‘I don’t know’ when you’re asked about something you haven’t yet researched.”

The compensation for this particular gig “isn’t that great,” admits Iain. He has similar arrangements with some college programs, where the pay is from $3,000 to $6,000 a year and the work requirement involves one or two in-person camps and four group conference calls a year. There can also be a set number of hours allotted for one-on-one calls with players. Travel expenses, obviously, are absorbed by the universities.

If you’re going to do some of this work, “you need to have an understanding employer,” Highfield says. “KOHR Golf, outside Boston, where I’m at now, is great that way. They understand the value to parents of having an academy head who works with the colleges.”

As for how he got the job in the first place, the opening came as Highfield participated in a Canadian PGA education forum in British Columbia. His topic was ‘Effective Practice in Golf’ and the audience was 200-plus professionals, the biggest crowd he had ever presented to. “When it was over,” he recalls, “the first person who came up to me was Sal Mussani, saying ‘I have to bring you in to work with the women’s national team.’”

There’s another bit of proof that it pays to travel to events like this, especially when you’ve got uniquely interesting material to present.