There has been a lot of talk recently in this country about youth sport and in particular Sport New Zealand’s approach to this topic.
In a nutshell they are suggesting that youth sport be about ensuring a quality experience for all involved, irrespective of their level and supporting our young people to play multiple sports while avoiding early sepcialisation.
There are other aspects as well and I firmly believe it is a great initiative from Sport New Zealand, despite all the negative feedback that launched on social media after the press release (click here if you want to know more).
Now it has to be said that I have no formal education in this area, I do have some practical knowledge having worked for New Zealand Golf as national coach over the last 10 or so years in varying capacity. so these thoughts are simply my opinions, from my observations.
Some of the issues talked about in early specialisation revolve around the body, both in injury awareness/prevention and motor skill acquisition, with research suggesting that those who play a variety of sports will prosper due to increased exposure to a variety of movements therefore enhancing their ability to organise their body and complete the task.
Again I agree with this and with my own experience have seen this first hand with a number of talented sportspeople, both adults and kids who adapt to golf quicker than those who have not played other sports.
However, I have also seen some pretty good players who have only ever played golf and not sampled other sports who have also excelled, so there is no hard and fast rule and we need to be aware of the survivorship bias.
Survivorship bias is essentially using Tiger Woods as the model of how to bring up a champion athlete. There could have been 1000 people who were brought up like this, who never made it to the same level, but as they don’t have the profile we don’t hear of them. Therefore we can be fooled into thinking that Tigers way must be the recipe for success, despite the other 999 who didn’t make it following the same recipe.
My thinking is that I would love everyone to play golf for life, the biggest tragedy is the junior golfer who won everything in their age group but no longer plays the game, and I don’t think golf has the monopoly on this issue.
If I go back to the motor skill development of playing multiple sports being beneficial to golf I think there is another point that is often overlooked and that is the cognitive learning that is also going on while playing other sports. Every sport has a problem that needs to be solved. whether that be to get the ball in the hole or goal, or over the try line and we need to learn to solve these problem's, in fact we need to learn to learn and any sports field could be a great place to do this.
The reason I say could is that it is not always a great place to learn. I know a number of people who think children need to learn to win and lose and this approach of Sport NZ is making us a country of softies and I couldn’t agree less.
We don’t need to learn to win or lose, we need to have a solid set of values that underpin our behaviour and enjoy the challenge that comes with competing, while at the same time appreciating that you might win and you might lose and this is not a reflection of your worth as an person or as the parent of the athlete.
I believe we need to allow our kids to fall in love with sport, whether they play 1 sport or 10 different sports and celebrate this as this is what will foster their learning and growth, not some vigorous periodized plan at 12 years old so you can peak for the National Under 13 Title.
Geoff Ogilvy, one of the best golfers on the planet, recently said in a podcast he would play on Christmas day if he was allowed, not because he wanted to get better, but because he just loved playing!
If you are motivated by playing the game and growing your love of it over winning trophies, you will likely have an attitude where you are willing to try new things and perhaps fail. You will probably also have an attitude where you want to train and practice because you love the mastery of the skill and testing yourself and these attitudes will likely lead to increased skill and enjoyment.
A stark contrast in my opinion to the young player who has been brought up to think winning is important and is often too scared to try anything in case they lose, they play within themselves which robs them of some of the best learning opportunities for their sport but also life.
Life isn’t about winning or losing and kids don’t need to learn this, I would love a nation of kids who love to move, love to play sport and compete and love the to develop their own skills, both motor skills and cognitive skills. This mindset is (in my opinion) what we should be teaching our youth, not striving for a plastic trophy or empty cup, lets instill a desire for mastery of their craft while growing their love of it.