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Golf coach uses own health scare to inspire and motivate wounded, injured and sick service personnel

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Sarah Bennett 1

  • Hopefully, Sarah Bennett’s empowering story will inspire more women to get involved in sports coaching.
  • The Golf Fore Recovery project was Sarah’s brainchild, and shows the important role sport can play in helping people recover from serious illness.
  • Sarah is passionate about attracting more women into golf, having set up the pilot GolfingGirl programme seven years ago in Essex, which has seen an increase year on year in new players coming into the game.
  • A recent injection into the junior game has seen her set up the Junior Jubilees and a county-wide family event, which was all self-funded.
  • When it comes to coaching style, Sarah says mental preparation and effective practice are more important than finding that quick fix. 

As any psychologist worth their salt will tell you: What doesn’t break you makes you stronger. 

Or as former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once put it: ‘There is no education like adversity.’ 

Sarah Bennett can relate to both statements. 

The PGA Head Teaching Professional at Three Rivers Golf and Country Club, near Purleigh in Essex, has suffered hardships that would have broken many people. 

She has managed to turn those testing times into good times, describing a tumultuous few years spent recovering from a neurological condition as ‘a blessing in disguise’. 

Sarah spent two decades as a professional golfer on the Ladies European Tour before being struck down with a viral infection that changed the course of her life. 

Her eventual transition from player to coach, which had seemed inevitable before her impromptu retirement, became inconceivable following her annus horribilis in 2005 – when she was told by doctors she would never play golf again. 

The road back to a healthy life led her to the doors of the various British Army Recovery Centres where, by working with wounded service personnel, the rewards of remaining positive in the face of adversity began to emerge.

Life in a spin 

Sarah was living the dream as a professional, travelling the world, playing the game she loves. 

As a latecomer to the game at 14 years of age, she quickly progressed to a +4 handicap – one of the lowest achieved by a female golfer – spending endless hours practising all elements of the game in the five-year transition between amateur and the paid ranks. 

She played representative golf for England prior to making the leap to professional status. 

But when she developed a serious balance disorder at the age of 36 in 2005, the career she had worked so hard to establish came to a shuddering halt. 

A chronic viral infection attacked Sarah’s inner ear canal, a condition known as vestibular neuritis. In normal cases, the nerve becomes inflamed and produces vertigo-type symptoms. In Sarah’s case, her nerve was completely destroyed by the infection. 

‘It was horrendous,’ recalls Sarah, who at times could not even stand up due to her balance being so badly impaired. The dizziness, nausea and sensation of spinning and swaying every time she tried to walk left her bed-ridden for four months. 

‘Every time I tried to get up, I kept falling over and being sick,’ she says. ‘It was like being on a Disney Tea Cups ride. 

‘It hit me hard as golf was my life. 

‘It was the Cawthorne Cooksey excercises that kept me going. Each day, I would try to improve on my previous achievements. There was a loss of 95% of balance, which was very significant. I had to retrain my brain, which was hard graft.’ 

Sarah has to live with the prospect of future flare-ups as there is no cure. The rehabilitation is simply a means of keeping the debilitating symptoms at bay. 

Time has been a great healer, but she is careful not to overdo things. 

Despite having her career sabotaged by illness, Sarah does not look back in anger. In fact, she describes what she went through as a ‘blessing in disguise in many ways’. 

‘It gave me the nudge to offer my experience and then set up the now annual Golf Fore Recovery national event,’ she says. 

Call of duty 

Sarah wanted to use her experience to help others and entered into dialogue with the Recovery Centres, explaining how she wanted to use golf to assist the rehabilitation of wounded service personnel and veterans. She has also assisted those with strokes. 

‘Those with head injuries have carried out similar exercises, which bring on the dizziness to recalibrate the movement patterns and neural pathways. 

‘And with golf bringing out your competitive nature, it can ignite a spark in someone that is sometimes hidden while the traumas are still very raw.’ 

‘The Golf Fore Recovery event has been fantastic. We’ve had players competing from all over the country, and this year, I saw a 75% increase in participation.’ 

For she’s a jolly good Fellow 

The outdated impression of a club professional is a ‘man’ sat behind a till in the pro shop handing out scorecards, who, from time to time, will break off to take a coaching lesson. 

Needless to say, the life of a modern-day pro is nowhere near as straightforward, or stereotyped, as that. 

Sarah explains: ‘I was brought into the club to set up the coaching side of things but I also sit on the club committee and the WPGA committee, as well as the Ladies European Tour Players’ Council. 

‘I look after the ladies’ section of the club, even offering full club repair service for the membership and visitors. I am responsible for my own marketing initiatives and promotional work, which is the most demanding area.’ 

Indeed, on the day I phone Sarah, she is designing a light-hearted Black Friday and Christmas voucher scheme to be distributed among club members. 

‘You’ve got to be so much more diverse as a golf pro nowadays,’ she adds. ‘I teach a high number of Get into Golf sessions, combined with GolfingGirl – working hard to achieve a very high membership conversion rate. I guess you could really say I am doing a Director of Golf job.’ 

Sarah was recently involved with the inaugural This Girl Can Coach programme run by sports coach UK, bringing female coaches together, which she described as ‘a tremendous experience’. 

And she was recently awarded an upgrade to Fellow status on her current membership level by the PGA for her commitment and development work. 

Sarah had to complete an Accreditation of Professional Achievement and Learning (APAL) form, outlining the projects she had been working on (‘You should have seen the size of the folder!’) before waiting to hear if she had been successful. 

‘The PGA looked through that and all the work I have been doing on attracting women into the sport, the charity events I have organised, setting up the Golf Fore Recovery programme, promotional work in the media and playing records. There were an awful lot of criteria to meet. The board of directors meet to decide if an upgrade should be awarded. 

‘It’s not something I’ve set out specifically to achieve. My philosophy remains the same, which is to learn and continually improve as a coach, and to provide my clients with the most effective learning environment for them to reach their specific goals. 

‘My objectives remain the same for young players through to the 87 year old I coach. The pace and delivery of the content of the lesson will be different, but as long as it’s pitched at the correct level and suitable for enhancing learning, then I know I have done my best.’ 

Sarah Bennett 2

LADIES' DAY: Sarah Bennett, third from left, having fun on the golf course

Onwards and upwards 

By her own admission, Sarah does not hang about when she puts her mind to something. 

After graduating with a degree in Golf Management Studies at the University of Birmingham, she won the PGA Trainee of the Year title for three consecutive years. 

She qualified as a PGA professional in 2010, and her first head coach role was with the Essex Ladies and Girls team. 

For the last three years she has been England Under-18 East Region Head Coach, and she has held the Head Coach role with the Essex Girls Elite and Development squads for five years. 

Four of the young boys she started in her Junior Jubilees Saturday group have progressed to county level, with five from the county squad having passed through the girls Under-16 England Regional squads. Essex, meanwhile, has won the Girls Inter-county Finals for the past two consecutive years. 

‘My goal for my under-18 girls and boys is to give them the chance to get noticed for full England roles,’ says Sarah. ‘I am in contact with England Golf and hope this provides an effective platform to progress.’ 

Barrier to participation 

Sarah is passionate about attracting more women into the game and has utilised her own experiences to progress this area with GolfingGirl.

As a woman determined to make her mark in a predominantly men’s world, and having grown up in an environment where she was often the odd one out, she knows just what emotions are going through the minds of her female clients when they enter the sometimes intimidating setting of a golf club. 

‘Confidence is a huge barrier to women and girls getting involved in golf,’ says Sarah. ‘It takes a lot of courage for a lady to walk into a golf club on their own on a Saturday, when the clubhouse is full of golfers reminiscing over what should have been. 

‘One lady said to me: “I know this is going to sound ridiculous but I would never have had the confidence to go up and use that shoe cleaner.” She didn’t know how it worked and was too embarrassed to walk over there to figure it out.’ 

Sarah says helping women relax and feel comfortable in their new surroundings, and quickly develop friendships in the group, is her first priority as their coach. 

‘It is surprising in a group how many of the ladies’ goals are the same,’ she says. 

She can relate to their lack of confidence and apprehension, and recalls an incident when she was a teenager that emphasises how intimidating the environment can be. 

‘I walked into a club and was yelled at by one man: “What do you think you are doing in here? You’ve got your golf shoes on!” I had to go running out through the men’s locker room. 

‘I am pleased to say this is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, which is where I believe we need to start to grow the game. A client will know within the first five seconds if this is a venue they feel at ease in or not. I really place a high emphasis on placing those nervous players at ease. 

‘I communicate outside of the lesson, asking the ladies how they enjoyed the session and how they are getting on with their practice, even how they fared in their first game on a golf course. This to me is critical.’ 

Sarah sees the same process at work in her mixed England under-18 squad sessions. 

The girls can lack the confidence levels of the boys when they first join, but after some team-building exercises aimed at encouraging social interaction, they soon come out of their shells and start mixing. 

‘I’ve had parents come up to me, saying they have never seen their daughters so motivated in their golf, and I think being in that mixed environment does help at that age,’ says Sarah. 

And what about the boys – are they comfortable having a woman as their coach?

‘Being a female coach, I did worry slightly what the boys might think, but it’s been fantastic, and I really enjoy coaching them. 

‘I received a call from one team member worrying over a major tournament that was coming up, asking if I could help their preparation. That call took a lot of courage. It was great to be able to assist with his mental and on-course questions. Communication can be all too easily lost these days.’ 

Showing sexism the door 

Golf has worked hard to shed its sexist image. It certainly had its work cut out, so entrenched were the views of the establishment. 

Fortunately, and not before time, the antiquated tradition of not allowing women members in clubs is fading fast. 

Last year, 85% of Royal and Ancient Golf Club members voted in favour of admitting women members for the first time in the club’s 260-year history. Times they are a-changing. 

Sarah remembers the old days. 

‘I remember women members were unable to play until after midday on Saturdays. 

‘I know this still exists in some clubs, but overall, issues are being addressed. 

‘One knock-on effect is the encouragement of promoting more women to take up coaching and other managerial roles within golf. The percentage of female coaches is growing, and we have numerous highly respected teachers.’ 

Nobody can disagree that there is a lot more room for improvement and that sexism does still permeate society – as illustrated in light-hearted fashion by this often-used adage cited by Sarah.

‘You know the one. You are sitting in the plane waiting to take off, and you here a woman’s voice on the loudspeaker: “This is your captain speaking”. A stunned silence.’ 

How many men would, privately if not publicly, utter ‘Oh, no!’ if that scenario did actually come to pass? Be honest, chaps. 

Brain training 

Sarah admits that, when it comes to her coaching philosophy, it is a combination of mental attitudes and management over too much mechanical input. 

‘Golf is one of the few sports where we tend to spend most of the time practising away from our playing arena. New players would like to “play” the game, not spend all the time on the range,’ says Sarah. 

‘Players need to get out and learn from their experiences. I’m there to guide them, not overload them with technical information. Golf is one of the most mentally demanding games; new golfers do not need to be thinking of a “jigsaw” golf swing.’ 

The ability to reduce negative thoughts is often a more valuable weapon in a golfer’s armoury than the latest high-tech driver. 

Imagine being able to control your mind and shut out negativity so that one mistimed fairway shot does not lead you into a re-enactment of Basil Fawlty thrashing his broken-down car with the branch of a tree. 

So having a coach who can help you banish counterproductive thoughts and remain focused throughout even the most topsy-turvy of rounds is akin to having your own professional caddie at your side. 

‘Yes, golf can be the most frustrating sport, but the sense of achievement, the social side and the desire to keep improving are why I love it,’ says Sarah. 

‘You may have played the worst 17 holes of golf of your life and be threatening to give up the game, but then you land your fairway shot on the green, hole your birdie putt, and suddenly, you’ve forgotten the rest of the round. It is this “fatal attraction” to the game that people love. 

‘Golf is a mental roller coaster, which is why the mental part of the game is so important. You need to keep a level head and not show too many external emotions.’ 

Talking of mental roller coasters – she may not have known it at the time, but the psychological resolve Sarah perfected to a tee on the golf course proved to be a godsend in her hour of need. 

When she was struck down by serious illness, she was already in possession of the coping mechanisms that enabled her to remain positive in the face of adversity. 

It was an ironic twist of fate, but Sarah was grateful for small mercies.  

sports coach UK’s Reach campaign is aimed at attracting more women into sports coaching. Read more empowering tales from women like Sarah on the Reach website or follow @Reachcoaches on Twitter.

Sarah’s top tips for mixed abilities

  1. Preparation is key: Arrive early enough prior to your game for a gentle warm-up, either starting with a few wedges then working your way up to the full swing or some dynamic warm-ups in the locker room will work just as well.
  2. Check your spikes are not worn and are in tip-top shape ready for winter golf as the role your feet play for stability in the golf swing is vital. Think about the great John Wooden. What did he coach his basketball team to do first and foremost?
  3. Remember to practise as if you were playing. The use of skills tests for monitoring and placing yourself in pressure situations is essential to recreate the situations faced on the course.
  4. Remember to play to your expectations. The phrase ‘Play golf, not exhibition golf’ will help to reduce your overall score without any specific technical changes.
  5. When practising your pace putting, a good idea is to walk to the hole, estimating the length of putt then equating the length of the stroke and the tempo. If this is carried out on a regular basis, a ‘distance’ library can be built up.
  6. Winter golf is ideal for calibrating carry pitching distances so set some specific targets, and aim to achieve 10% proximity to the hole relating to the overall distance. The proximity to the hole can be increased depending on the level of expertise.

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