For parents and coaches alike, the logic versus the reality of junior development can often be 2 totally different things. Importantly, with dropout rates so high in sport, the messages in this article need forever spreading if we are to encourage lifelong participation in sport. Specifically, I will highlight 3 vital points that I believe all parents and coaches should have a good understanding of.
EARLY SPECIALISATION is defined as “intense training in one sport while excluding others”
Logic – “I must take my child to play golf as much as possible. The more he/she plays, the better he/she will get”
Reality – In the research done on athletes, early specialisation is one of the most cited reasons for DROPOUT in sport. Below are some key reasons for this;
- 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 soon 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 – this is linked heavily 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 as the question now becomes “you were the best 2 years ago, why are you not the best now?
- Performance anxiety – as a child specialises in one sport, competition and also the number of competitions played will inevitably increase. The issue here is that suddenly the motivation to play has changed. “I’m not playing to have fun with my friends anymore, but instead to make Daddy happy as he has brought me to this tournament and wants me to win”.
- Injuries – a child has a child’s body, meaning it can be sensitive to over exertion and repeated exercise.
- Isolation – being away from friends as you are always at the golf club can have a huge social effect on children. Children should be playing Lego and Pokémon, not golfing all week!
- Burnout – this is as it sounds. Too much of one thing and a child becomes burnt out. There simply becomes a time when enough is enough.
The underlying issue with the above is that the motivations of a child 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 crucially for long term participation so why would we harm this?
This tweet from Dr. Martin Toms at The University of Birmingham sums it up perfectly.
But Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy played loads when they were kids. Yes, I get that but understand that these guys are exceptions. For the 1 or 2 that may have followed the above, there are hundreds of children who are now not in the game for same reason. And additionally, there are more hundreds of golfers now on tour that did not specialise as children and came to golf later – Nick Faldo being the best example, not starting the game until 13 years of age.
Do a quick google search on “Oscar Sharpe Golf” – unfortunately Oscar no longer plays golf and is a great example of how early success may not always result in long term success.
Logic – “I can see what’s going wrong. If I tell him/her this, I’m sure they will get better”
Reality – We can keep these realities short and sweet and although they are more parent focussed, coaches can also take note
- A young child cannot mentally process overloads of information.
- Is it fun if someone is stood there telling you what to do, shot after shot.
- Is it fun if someone is stood there telling you what you did wrong, shot after shot.
- When did a young child ever want to listen to dad?
- What top athlete ever thanked their parents for coaching?
- Children do need this, 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 is worthless
- Developing psychological tools/traits is more advantageous than technical work as these will stay with a child forever
THE CAR JOURNEY HOME
Logic – “I need to tell them how bad they are doing, they should definitely be doing better by now”
It can seem logical that being more critical with a child will not do any harm, and instead help them improve. BUT, repeated behaviour like this has been shown in the research to totally disengage the child as they effectively become less focussed on playing/enjoyment and instead more worried about a telling off on the way home.
Reality – The child knows full well if they have performed to their best and I would urge parents and coaches to use some of the following phrases instead of criticising
- “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?”
The truth is that junior development is highly complex and we cannot provide ONE answer. However, what we can do is draw upon the research and use this to guide our actions
- Take care with early specialisation – success too early, injuries and burnout will ruin a child. If your child has a passion for golf, that’s great. And if they are good, that’s also great. But manage their expectations whilst getting the balance right 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 – remember, you are a parent and not a coach
- Parents – on the car journey home, put yourself in the seat of the child before innocently but actually unintentionally pushing your child away from the game they love
Reference – Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport. Jessica Fraser Thomas, Jean Cote, Janice Deaking