Wednesday, 4 June 2008

A Lion to Tame the Tiger

In 1997 Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods exploded onto the world of golf winning a ‘major’ championship, the US Masters, in his first full season as a professional golfer, a feat almost unheard of in professional golf. On June 15, 1997, in his 42nd week as a professional, Woods became the youngest-ever No. 1 golfer at age 21 years, 24 weeks. The previous youngest was Bernhard Langer, age 29 years, 31 weeks in 1986. It is fair to say that this amazing rise to dominance shocked the sporting world in a way not previously encountered, Woods became not just a sporting superstar but a worldwide icon.

In his book ‘The Chosen One’ (2001) David Owen cites a story told by Tiger Woods father, Earl as to the moment that he knew that his son was to become a great golfer, Owen relates, “One momentous day when he was still young enough not to have mastered all the finer points of walking, he astonished his father by climbing down from his high chair, picking up a baby sized plastic club and executing a passable imitation of Earl’s quite good golf swing. At that moment, Earl realised he was the steward of an extraordinary talent.”

This account of the development of talent has become the stuff of legend within the ranks of the golf writer. To this extent many within the golfing media have sought to take this narrative as a means to somehow make sense of the phenomenal superiority of Tiger Woods over the game of golf. In so doing, it can be argued that these commentators have created a popular belief that talent is evident in the very young and that this can be used as a gauge for later sporting success. A study into the development of expert performance by Ericsson et al (1993) recognises this popular belief, they write:

“There is a relatively widespread conception that if individuals are innately talented, they can easily and rapidly achieve an exceptional level of performance once they have acquired basic skills and knowledge.” (p. 366)

We have therefore seen that a popular belief has emerged within sport (and especially within golf since the emergence of Tiger) that youngsters with a level of ability at an early age should be seen as potential future champions and a vast amount of interest and support is given to them in the pursuit of this aim.

To this extent we have seen media stories emerge with children as young as 2 years old being touted as the next big thing to hit the world of golf. Golf competitions have emerged which cater for children as young as 5. Parents are taking their children across the country to play in as many competitions as possible and asking coaches for advice on ‘how their 4 year old can take their game to the next level’. Moreover we see coaches jealously guarding their young protégés from the advances of other coaches who purport to be able to ‘help them make it’.

There is a suggestion that this way of thinking has also been prevalent in the wider sporting landscape for some time. A number of sports and their respective governing bodies have been working under the brief that they must ‘grab them young’ in order to develop talent to succeed on the world stage. The emergence of ‘Mini Games’ such as ‘Short Tennis’ and ‘Kwik Cricket’, specifically targeted at primary school aged children and the associated competition programmes aimed at identifying talent which run alongside them demonstrates that these sports are eager to recruit players into their ranks at younger and younger ages.

However, research suggests that this popular assumption may be flawed, Davidson et al (1998) suggested that talent, while to some extent is partly innate is not the only determinant to sporting excellence. Their contention was that early experiences and the availability and opportunity of quality training and practice were the real factors involved in the development of elite level performance. To support this argument one can cite Ericsson and colleagues (1993) who conducted a study which looked at the development of expert performance in a range of disciplines including literature, art and music and identified the ’10,000 hour rule’. They argued that this number of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ was a major determining factor in expert performance. For both of these studies the conclusion to be drawn was that the notion that an individuals’ capacity at an early age should be the key indicator of future ability was flawed, the studies contended that a large amount of time devoted to specific practice activity coupled with a number of other supporting environmental factors were key in producing excellence.

Recently, theories have been proposed within the field of sports development which have challenged this thinking. Balyi (2001) has developed the ‘Long Term Athlete Development’ (LTAD) model which takes an ‘Athlete Centred’ approach to talent development. The LTAD concept rejects some of the current models of young athlete training and competition programmes, which are largely based on chronological age, and instead seeks to identify the developmental stages of young people and develop specific programmes of activity or training matched to these developmental stages.

Balyi’s further contention is that the attempts by sports to recruit young and encourage primary school aged children into sport specific activity can actually be counter productive to the development of talent as it often leaves the participant without some of the fundamental physical and cognitive capacities required for success on the world stage. To this end Balyi’s work seeks to develop ‘Physical Literacy’ within young people as the building blocks for later sports specific skill development.

This thinking is furthered by Côté and Hay (2002a & b) who undertook studies of young athletes and their development, they suggest that the early years of a child’s development through sport should be characterised by ‘sampling’ with ‘specialisation’ in a given sporting domain being restricted to later stages of development. Côté and Hay’s suggestion was that the early years of development should be focused on what they classify as ‘deliberate play’, that is, play structured by the rules and boundaries of organised sports, coupled with a small amount of ‘deliberate practice’ (Ericsson et al, 1993) would do more to develop and nurture emerging talent and ensure that the potential for drop out is minimised. Thus as a child gets older and develops a broader understanding of themselves as individuals and their ability at given activities, then more time can be devoted to practice and the true development of excellence.

Lee et al (1995) offered further evidence against this early ability - early specialisation concept when they suggested that young children’s definitions of themselves and their interaction with the world around them is too underdeveloped for them to be overly focussed on a single specific sport. They contended that as children develop, so does their ability to accomplish tasks and they begin to understand their capacities in relation to others around them. The argument was made that if children are focussed on specific sports too early there is potential for them to become disillusioned with their own standard of performance in relation to others, with the further danger that they may evolve an overly restricted view of their own ability leading either to demotivation, an artificially limited conception of their ability or at worst complete drop out from the sport.

It seems then that there is a difficulty for anybody who is committed to the development of golf in that on the one hand there is a pervasive cultural mindset which suggests that having children start the game young will achieve results and generate a new generation of champions. On the other hand there is a body of research fuelled by academic study of elite sports performers which indicates that this is precisely the opposite method for development. Instead, young people should develop as young sports people through generic sports ability programmes aimed at the development of key fundamental movement skills according to their developmental capacity and that only at later stages should sports specific activity be encouraged.

Golf is still reeling from the phenomenal emergence of Tiger Woods, his example of development and subsequent dominance of the sport has become a powerful symbol to follow by many. Furthermore the emergence of the precocious abilities of Michelle Wie on the Ladies Golf scene has only served to further this thinking and provide evidence for those who would suggest that starting young is the only determinant for success. These examples coupled with the desire for companies who are willing to pay vast sums of money to associate with young sporting talent serves to create an environment which is extremely hostile to suggestions that young people should not become sport specific too early.

What’s the future for our young golfers? I worry that we are we on the edge of a sporting precipice where we are encouraging youngsters, overtly or tacitly (through our delivery system), to get serious early, compete in the ever increasing number of golf competitions as much as possible, get their handicap as low as they can as early as they can so that they are picked up by the talent ID systems of the respective male and female golf governing bodies to better enable their transition into the elite amateur ranks and ultimately into a highly lucrative career as a professional golfer.

More thoughts to follow……