In a competitive environment like junior golf where players fight for medals and trophies, there can be a significant amount of pressure to win at an early age. This pressure often leads to younger golfers, under their parent’s direction, training and practicing for many hours a week to develop their skills and gain an advantage over other competitors. It’s not unheard of for parents of even elementary-aged children to hire a team of coaches to guide their aspiring golfer toward the promise of future stardom.
The research and the signs strongly indicate that this approach doesn’t work and is proving to have significant drawbacks.
The best golfers are likely the best athletes.
If you investigate the backgrounds of the top players in the game, you will discover that most exceled in many sports while growing up. Recently, much has been written about Jordan Spieth’s sports background. Before dedicating himself to golf around the age of 14, Jordan played baseball, basketball, and football and excelled as a quarterback and pitcher. There are many more examples of professional golfers, including most of the distance leaders on tour, who played other sports at a high level before turning their attention to golf. Gary Woodland, one of the longest hitters on tour, earned a college basketball scholarship before transferring to Kansas to play golf.
The advantages of early specialization erode over time.
While there’s no denying that early specialization can make a difference in the short-term, there’s mounting evidence that golfers with a diverse athletic background are likely to pass up those that specialize early, and well-rounded athletes have a better chance of competing successfully at the highest levels of the game. On the other hand, early specialization typically produces the opposite effect, young athletes that make the top traveling team and achieve "all-star" status before their teen years but then fail to reach their potential or just burn out and quit. In one important study presented by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, professional athletes specialized, on average, two years later than high school athletes.
Early specialization has several significant risks.
The risks are well documented and include reduced satisfaction, higher rates of burnout, and increased chance of injury. Here are several research excerpts that demonstrate how early specialization may negatively affect your children.
If your goal as a parent is to maximize your child's athletic talent in a particular sport by their late teens or early 20s, then multi-sport participation -- at least through age 13 or 14 -- is clearly the way to go.
It’s an all too frequent occurrence for competitive golfers. A single stroke can make the difference in whether a player misses a cut, finishes outside the top 10, or comes up just short of winning a tournament. When it happens, it’s so easy to look back and find all the lost opportunities and the wasted strokes. So how can a seemingly frustrating experience help your game? Because it’s in these disappointments that golfers learn the valuable lessons that can change the trajectory of a young career.
The trick to benefiting from competition is to recognize that every tournament provides, apart from the results, the following important information:
Irrespective of how many hours players practice or train, only the feedback gained under the pressures of a tournament can pinpoint the areas of a young golfer’s game that need to improve. It’s often in the tournaments in which players perform poorly that you can learn the most and understand what changes need to take place to improve play in the future. As a coach, I’m always interested in understanding the factors that lead to poor play, as well as the details surrounding a good tournament. Therefore, I highly recommend that junior golfers make regular use of a statistical analysis program that objectively captures and identifies strengths and weaknesses. At our Academy, our students use ShotbyShot.com.
Rating of Preparation, Decision Making, and Mental Toughness
At the completion of every tournament we ask our players to rate their preparation, decision making, and mental toughness. We’ve noticed a strong correlation between high ratings in these three areas and low scores. This focus helps our students commit their attention to activities that are highly controllable. Each and every tournament provides an opportunity to work on these important skills.
Better Understanding of In-Round Adjustments
One of the biggest differences between good and great players is the ability to adjust to all the factors that change during a round. We like to divide them between external factors (wind, green speed, etc.) and internal factors (fatigue, anxiety, etc.). The best players in the world almost seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to recognizing these in-round changes. They also have a deep understanding of their game and know the correct adjustments to make when it matters most. Less experienced golfers, especially younger players, are slow to pick up on the changes and then often compound these errors by choosing the wrong adjustment.
It’s normal to be motivated by and to concentrate on the potential outcome of a tournament. Unfortunately, it’s just not the best approach to take if the overriding goal is long-term improvement. Instead, I encourage young golfers striving to play at a high level to compete frequently and to turn their attention to learning more about their game each time they play.
Jeff Isler shares his observations, insights, and experiences on the game of golf and those that play it at a high level.