In this article, I share insights into one of the most common cases I see in young athletes, and introduce key strategies I teach young golfer and their parents to turn things around and thrive when competing.
The Case: The transition from ‘just for fun’ to ‘more serious’
I see this transition occurring for young athletes around 11 to 12 years of age. In this phase, young golfers start to play more competitively and the expectations and emphasis placed on scoring can increase quite rapidly. Parents typically explain the situation with statements such as, “We have just started taking things a bit more seriously with my sons/daughters golf.”
While the transition from ‘just having fun’ to ‘becoming a serious competitor’, can bring excitement to the game for young players, there are some common mental hurdles that can crop up. It is not uncommon for young golfers to focus more intensely on ‘trying not to make errors’ in the hope of raising their game to the next level. This type of focus leads young players to be more hesitant and indecisive on the course, their emotional control takes a nose-dive, and they lose enjoyment in the game. Before a round they will think about ‘what if’s’ and the negative possibilities with thoughts such as, ‘What if…I don’t play well?”, and “I hope I don’t mess this up.” As a result, performance anxiety increases and preparation for the round is mentally tiring.
This type of case represents the most common psychological challenge I see in young athletes across all sports between the age of 11–13 years. The transition from playing golf ‘just for fun’ to ‘ more seriously’ is a significantly under-researched phenomenon in sport psychology. In sharing this case example with our Laguna community, I believe we can be ahead of the curve when it comes to supporting our future generation of great golfers.
The Dominant Story-line in Youth Sport
After interviewing many parents and coaches about what ‘more serious’ actually means, I have noticed one key feature in the learning environment—a focus on skill acquisition and raising the standard of performance by the scrutiny of mistakes.
During the shift to becoming a more serious competitor in any sport, children quickly adopt attitudes and beliefs about errors and performance that align with perfectionistic standards in the elite sport culture. When I explore this concept in group workshops with young athletes, I ask athletes how strongly they agree or disagree with the following statements:
- In order to have a great personal performance, I must avoid making errors.
- Mistakes that cost us the game deserve punishment (team sports)
- I think about the mistakes I made a long while after my game has finished.
- If I make mistakes early the game it’s a sign it’s not going to be a good game for me.
The younger groups are generally less agreeable with the statements above. The practices, ideas and messages of coaches and parents that support athletes under 11 years old convey the dominant storyline of having fun and trying new things and mistakes are accepted and expected.
Interestingly, I have observed a significant jump in the number of athletes in the 11–13 year age group, who agree with these statements, in particular, the statement that mistakes should be punishable. This perspective goes hand in hand with the common coaching practice within this age group in competitive youth football to bench players following a mistake in matches. It is clear to me that athletes 11–13 years of age take these statements seriously and it is part of the dominant storyline in this groups transition from ‘just having fun’ to becoming a ‘serious’ competitor.
Working on the case
With young golfers at this age I typically design a series of sessions to build skills in mental preparation for rounds, managing the competitive environment, post-game evaluation, and most importantly, adjusting the way the golfer perceives and responds to mistakes.
Here are three keystone skills I introduce to young golfers and their parents to overcome the mental hurdles in the transition from ‘just having fun’ to becoming a ‘serious competitor’, to improve in performance, and enjoy their game in the big leagues.
Feeling Confident and In Control
When expectations on scoring and ball striking begin to rise, it’s natural for golfers to look for ways to feel confident and in control during a competitive round. This is when I see young players gravitating toward a focus on ‘trying not to make errors’ as a way take control over their performance, which unfortunately leads to more problems. In order to effectively take control, all golfers need to develop productive focus anchors that helps them to re-set or refocus for each shot.
One of the strongest anchors is the pre-shot routine.
Most young golfers have a pre-shot routine, however they see it just as an action sequence and aren’t aware of what to think about or focus on mentally inside the routine. I help young players pair their actions and thoughts inside their routine in a way that elevates focus and attention. Sometimes, this involves a more deliberate focus on the target or a swing thought at a particular point in the routine. This is an important step for creating a routine that is like an impenetrable barrier to distractions and effective under pressure.
Debriefing with Parents
The best way parents can support their young golfers’ transition into the competitive leagues is to reduce the scrutiny of errors in their debriefs and discussions after the round. When debriefs solely focus on a hole-by-hole dissection of mistakes this reinforces a focus on avoiding errors in the next round.
Instead, build your child’s awareness of the shots they played well and most importantly ask questions to draw out how they created these shots. This creates a focus on the process and makes way for learning to replicate the good shots, rather than just avoiding poor shots.
Here is an example question you can ask after the round:
When you were having fun and felt happiest in your game today…
How did you approach your game?
What were you thinking about or focused on? What were you saying to yourself?
What did your technique feel like?
What did you do between shots when things were going well today?
Bouncing Back from Mistakes
When working on this case, one big piece to the puzzle is adjusting a young player’s attitude and response toward mistakes. A player cannot be resilient when they focus on ‘trying to avoid making errors.’ This game approach only leads to frustration because mistakes are inevitable, and many tentative shots are produced when your goal is to prevent errors. The new game plan is to raise the standard of how one responds and reacts to errors. This is where true control of one’s game lies.
Excellent emotional control takes planning and practice. A lot of player’s expect self-control just to happen when they need it, but it doesn’t work like that. Whether working with a young golfer or a professional player, we spend time creating a strategy that fits them, and it involves ONE key action and ONE thought reminder to help them process the mistake, let it go, and focus quickly on the next shot.
A simple but powerful technique uses three simple steps to build a positive response to errors.
RECOGNIZE > RELEASE > REFOCUS
RECOGNIZE means recognising the signs that you are losing control such as, a feeling of frustration, an action such as, rushing through your shots, or a thought such as, ‘I just want to get this round over with.’
These cues then lead to a RELEASE plan, which involves an action symbolic of letting the error go. One example is removing your cap and wiping the sweat from your forehead like symbolically wiping your mind clear of the last shot. Some players like to use a “release breath” which, is a deep inhale and a short sharp exhale to physically release tension from the body. Others prefer to REPLAY the shot over in their mind; visualising the desired outcome. Regardless of what the release plan entails, a vital step is letting the shot go before putting your club back in the bag and walking forward.
The final stage REFOCUS, is to set the mind on the next shot with a verbal commitment such as, “let it go”, or hit the reset button by focusing on the pre-shot routine.
With these strategies in place, what can transpire is a young golfer who plays more freely, enjoys competing, embraces the downs not only the ups in the round, and improves their score average in the process.
This is only a snap shot of the skills I introduce to players and their families along the way. But, I hope it gives you some new insights into the techniques I teach, and how you can start to apply them in your own game or start conversations about them with your son or daughter to help them thrive.
Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment with Dr Jay-Lee at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre to master your own pre-performance routine, with or without fans.
Originally written for Laguna Lifestyle Magazine and adapted for Mental Notes.