For parents and coaches alike, the logic versus the reality of junior golf development can often be two totally different things. With dropout rates so high in sports, the messages in this article need to be spread if we are to encourage lifelong participation in sport. Specifically, I will highlight three vital points that I believe all parents and coaches involved in youth golf need to understand.
No. 1: Early Specialization
Logic: “The more he or she plays one sport, the better he or she will get.”
Reality: Research shows that early specialization is one of the most cited reasons for dropouts in sport. Below are some key reasons why.
- Early Success: If a young child is only playing one sport, and playing it quite a lot, I would expect them to get better quickly and potentially become the best in the class. The reality of this, however, is that they can often then struggle with the psychological pressures that accompany this success, consequently leading to frustration and falling out of love with the game.
- High Expectations: High expectations are heavily linked with early success, as the expectations of a child, parents, family, and friends become very high. The issue here is that when a child reaches a natural performance plateau and other children catch up, the child then faces pressure. The question becomes, “You were the best two years ago. Why are you not the best now?”
- Performance Anxiety: As a child specializes in one sport, the level of competition and also the number of competitions played will inevitably increase. The issue here is that the motivation to play can change. Children often switch from playing sports to have fun with their friends to trying to make Daddy happy by playing well and winning.
- Injuries: A child has a child’s body, meaning it can be sensitive to overexertion and repeated exercise.
- Isolation: Being away from friends (as you are always at the golf club) can cause children to pay a huge social price. Children need time for Lego and Pokémon with friends and should not be at the golf course for 10 hours every day.
- Burnout: Too much of one thing and a child will burn out. There simply becomes a time when enough is enough.
The underlying issue with the above is that the motivations of a child can change from starting the game and loving it (intrinsic motivation). The game becomes more than just fun, and too many things outside of a child’s love become important (extrinsic motivation). Ultimately, maintaining a child’s intrinsic motivation is crucial for long-term participation, so why would we harm this? The tweet below from Dr. Martin Toms at the University of Birmingham sums it up perfectly.
“If your child could only study one subject at school, you’d worry about their development and the missed opportunities for them to learn new skills. So why for some sports/coaches is early specialization perceived as acceptable?”
But Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy played loads when they were kids, right? Yes, I get that, but understand that they are the ultimate outliers. For the one or two children that followed what Rory and Tiger did and made it to the PGA Tour, there are thousands of young golfers who quit the game from the burnout that can be caused by early specialization. There are also hundreds of people who came to golf later in life — Nick Faldo being the best example, not starting the game until 13 years of age — and became highly successful.
Further Reading: Do a quick google search on Oscar Sharpe Golf. Unfortunately, Oscar no longer plays competitive golf and is a great example of how early success may not always result in long-term success.
No. 2: Instruction
Logic: “I see what’s wrong. If I tell him/her this, I’m sure they will get better.”
Reality: A young child cannot mentally process overloads of information. Also, is golf really fun for children when someone is standing there telling you what to do, shot after shot? And when did a young child ever want to listen to Mom or Dad? What top athlete ever thanked their parents for coaching them?
My thoughts on youth golf instruction are three-fold:
- Children do need golf instruction, but it must be carefully delivered at the right times. Leave it to a coach you trust.
- Growth spurts can affect coordination in such a way that any previous technical work can become worthless.
- Developing psychological tools/traits is more advantageous than technical work, as these skills will stay with a child forever.
No. 3: The Car Ride Home
Logic: “My child needs me to honestly evaluate their play so they will be more motivated to play better next time.”
Reality: Children know full well if they have performed their best, and I would urge parents and coaches to use some of the following phrases instead of criticizing:
- “I love watching you play.”
- “How did you feel about today’s game?”
- “What do think you can improve for next time?”
- “So, what do you fancy for tea tonight?” (remember, I’m from the UK).
It can seem logical that being more critical with a child will not do any harm, and instead help them improve… but research has shown that consistent criticism can totally disengage a child. They become less focused on playing and enjoying their sport, and more focused about not being criticized on the car ride home.
The truth is that junior sports development is highly complex and we as coaches cannot provide ONE answer to help your child succeed in his or her sport. What we can do, however, is draw upon the research and use this to guide our actions.
Here are three additional tips to pass on to fellow parents. Or better yet, pass on this article!
- Take Care with Early Specialization: Success too early, injuries, and burnout can cause many long-term problems with children, starting with a loss of passion for a sport or skill they have. If your child has a passion for golf, that’s great. And if they are good, that’s also great. Manage their expectations while helping them strike the correct balance between their passion for golf and other activities.
- Coaches: Remember that an overload of instruction is not good for a fully grown adult, so it’s certainly not good for a child. Parents need to remember that their primary responsibility is to be a parent, not a coach.
- Parents: On the car ride home, put yourself in the shoes of your child before offering any criticism or feedback. You may unintentionally pushing your child away from the game they love and put pressure on them that can lead to failure.
References: Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport (Jessica Fraser Thomas, Jean Cote, Janice Deaking).