Sept. 25, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
The season has started off well with a runner-up finish at the Carpet Capital Collegiate and a win at the DICK’S Sporting Goods Collegiate Challenge Cup so Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler might feel like he’s on the right track with his youngish team. The Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 3 in the nation.
It’s not like Heppler to think that way, though, so he’s coaching as much or more now – even though the Jackets don’t play this weekend – as when competing.
With four freshmen on a nine-man roster that has two returning regular starters, Tech’s lineup changed notably from the first tournament to the second, and the prospect of such change will likely remain constant.
So, the head coach has a different kind of work than with last year’s squad.
This is a different deal.
Where May graduates Bo Andrews, Seth Reeves and Richy Werenski – two fifth-year players and a former early enrollee – required little hands-on maintenance for sake of their experience, current freshmen James Clark, Jacob Joiner, Chris Petefish and Michael Pisciotta are very much works in progress.
While the youngsters, including Whaley, have much to learn about college and collegiate golf, Heppler and assistant Brennan Webb have plenty to learn about them.
Student-athletes respond differently to coaching and structure, and the coaches will for a while be trying to figure out how to keep each young man on task and in the fold.
“There’s no question it’s a lot more time,” Heppler said. “There was some auto-pilot [last year]. The fun part is trying to figure out the message for each different person. What you’ve got to say to Chris to get him engaged is not the same as what you’ve got to say to James because they’re different people.
“That’s kind of the fun part. Early in their careers . . . trying to figure out what those things are instead of throwing a bunch of mud on the wall and hoping it sticks on somebody. That’s the art of coaching: how do you reach each person?”
The Jackets will next play Oct. 6-7 in the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate at the Old Overton Golf Club in Vestavia Hills, Ala., and through that tournament and beyond the Tech coaches will continue assessing not only golf swings, but the ways in which their golfers react to the game and each other.
That includes figuring out how to prompt each student-athlete, how to counsel, when to push, when to pull, when to remain quiet and more.
In most situations, Heppler and Webb are not out to re-make a player’s methods, but to tweak and fine tune. It’s not quick work.
With the freshmen, “You’re guessing because you have so little information. You study, and you watch and try to figure it out. Maybe for a little while you just shut your mouth. With a kid who thinks he’s got everything figured out, which at the end of the day is the optimal situation, you don’t need to start tearing down.
“You can take some belief away when you try to jump in there too fast.”
There also is the matter of fostering team chemistry. It is more art than science.
Heppler can set guidelines and put in place certain structures – like having all nine players live in the same dorm spread out over three units – yet he cannot be certain that alone will create a warm, fuzzy and synergetic atmosphere.
Most of these players were the top dog on their high school teams, and few if any had to deal with competing so hard for a travel spot on their team only to lose. Some (maybe all) freshmen are dealing with that for the first time.
With that competition for travel spots there is potential for friction, and/or wounded psyches and feelings and tears in team fabric.
The fact that these young men are living with the same people whom they’re competing against makes this a study in sociology and psychology.
Golf is not the only part of this project. That became apparent when the head coach recently engaged players on rules of the road for golf and life.
Verbal guidance is included in the pursuit of team chemistry and success.
“We went into the whole wedding and marriage thing. I said, `I know you all think you’re the most wonderful person in the world, and when this pretty girl saddles up to your side and says yes, and every night when you come home from work it’s going to be perfect,’ ” Heppler recalled.
“She’s going to love wherever you leave your socks, and wherever you drop your dirty underwear . . . it’s all going to be good because you’re Mr. Wonderful.”
As the coach pointed out after his sarcastic set-up, all is not what it may seem.
In reality, no wife is likely to be mirthful about dirty socks and underwear. It will take work to maintain a happy and functional household.
The same goes for a team, where feelings are involved — albeit not those to be found in marriage.
Golf is largely an individual sport, yet the team format that marks the college game requires certain off-the-course skills in order to work and those same skills – specifically the notion of co-existing with others – will be essential in life.
Where these players would after high school practices and events go their separate ways to different homes to celebrate or sulk, now their reactions can impact the teammates they live, work, and play with just about every day.
That has a lot to do with team chemistry, and how a team performs as a whole.
“I said, `The reason why we encourage the dorms is because not all of you are going to [play professionally], but all of you are going to get married and have children, and the fact is these same skills have to do with that stuff,’ ” Heppler said. “So when you understand the family dynamics, then you can tolerate and work with somebody a whole lot better.”
Here, from the team’s standpoint, is Heppler’s bottom line as explained to players: “Understand we’re all in this together. When we win, everybody gets a ring; it’s not just the five who happen to be at the tournament.”
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