I wanted to share insights into the most common cases I see in young athletes, and introduce key strategies I teach young golfers and their parents to turn things around and thrive in the journey. This post is written for parents of Teen Athletes in particular, to be able to help support positive progress. I hope you find it valuable.
(The case study that follows is not written about one actual person; it cannot be identified as one athlete or individual. This is a composite example that represents a specific dilemma and experience I have witnessed over the years.)
The Case: The Teen Athlete Transitioning from Sub-elite to Elite Ranks
Athena is fifteen and has just begun home schooling to dedicate more time to golf. She trains 25-hours a week and travels frequently for tournaments. Lately she has let her emotions get the better of her on the course.
“I’ve been feeling great in training and I know I’m close to having some break-out tournaments, but it’s not coming out. I get frustrated and rather than taking my time, I tense up and make poor decisions. I start racking up poor scores and I just spiral down from there. I am training so much because I think I’m expected to play better, and everyone thinks I should be a much better player now. I do feel more pressure now that I’m home schooling to play well, and I feel worse when I can’t meet these standards. My parents are spending so much money on me and have invested so much, I should be playing better.”
For so many young athletes who are transitioning to the elite ranks, or have just turned professional, it is common to develop a results-only focus. When I ask athletes who are in a similar position to the case of Athena what it means to be professional, they say it means error-free performances, constantly perfecting their swing, high consistency and accuracy.
From my perspective, instead of these perfectionistic expectations coming to the fore at this stage in their sport journey, a stronger emphasis on professional habits is actually required. They include managing emotions and focus, and being rational and resilient in the face of errors and set-backs. Unfortunately, instead of developing a stronger emphasis on further developing or refining these skills that facilitate top performance, it is left in the background. The dominant attitude is that these habits should be there already; somehow ingrained in the athlete.
I observe that these habits are rarely emphasised in training, matches, or included systematically in post-match debriefs. Nor are they individually prioritised in goal setting and development plans. As a result, athletes transitioning to the professional ranks have low expectations around the use of these important habits that support high performance. The case of Athena represents the common patterns I see in most athletes at this stage in their development. They march out onto the course with high expectations, ready to demonstrate their technical prowess, expecting to hit perfect shots, and intending to make as few errors as possible. But the intent around managing emotions or reactions to errors, along with consistent routines and re-focusing effectively between shots, is not at the forefront of their mind going into the match (because this is a given right?).
What happens with this imbalance is that as soon as the flaws begin to show, emotions rise quickly, attitude and body language drop fast, and the moment the possibility of a good score seems doubtful, they will tank the game (give up on it). The athlete will revert to a pattern of actions in competition that is considered to be unacceptable behaviour, such as emotional outbursts that result in penalties or disqualification. They end up looking like an immature athlete with a big ego and a bad attitude. Far from the professional they are told they are close to being. Many athletes in this transition to the professional ranks, often feel they their playing is worse than before they started to train significantly more hours. This can be an unsettlingly place to be, because the usual advice to “train harder” suddenly doesn’t apply. I believe it is the imbalance between performance expectations and expectations placed on professional habits that is creating this dilemma.
One way to see this dilemma is that the value and importance placed on perfectionistic striving, error-free performance and good results is higher than the value placed on the actions or habits that support and facilitate high performance that sit inside the category I call the performance process. You cannot achieve high standards and lofty goals without placing a high value and emphasis on all the actions and habits that support high performance.
The Performance Process
The Performance Process involves all the mental and physical habits the athlete performs in training and competition that lead to particular outcomes. These habits are like ingredients in baking your ultimate cake for peak performance. The list of ingredients in this recipe can become very detailed and specific to the sport as your child develops to the elite level. Below is a general list of the base ingredients or habits for building a strong foundation. These things shouldn’t really change in importance from sub-elite to elite in your child’s development in their sport. They should remain all-important.
- Positive self-talk
- Positive reaction to mistakes
- Post-game reflections that support confidence and motivation
- Discipline in the form of exceptional focus and managing distractions
- Pre-game rituals to activate the mind and body
Coaches and athletes at the top level would describe these habits as the “little” things that make the difference. I prefer to talk about them as the “big ticket items” that matter the most.
When an athlete has low expectations in the performance process, it means they don’t take much care of these habits. These habits are an after-thought. Activities or discussions to develop these habits are not integrated into training. Strategies to engage these habits in the competitive environment are not prioritised in the mind of the athlete before or during the match. Instead, most athletes will solely focus on the technical or tactical approach for the match. In reflections following a match, I frequently see athletes and coaches highlighting one of the factors in the list above (i.e., emotional control), to be the primary cause of their loss or down-slide in performance, but it is rarely set-up proactively as a priority to take care of during the match.
Separating the performance process from the results, here is a list of the various outcomes that generally fit into the results space of your child’s sport.
- Winning OR not losing.
- The Score (or playing at or below their handicap every time).
You might be thinking right now, yes I know this, I value the process. But, do you emphasise it in your conversations as much as you do the results? When your athlete approaches 11 to 12-years of age and moves to competing competitively, they fall into a results-only focus very quickly. Until now, they have been reinforced and praised for their results and scores over and over. To add to that, progress comes quite easily when they are younger. They are not really aware of these key habits in the process as much as we think. Unfortunately, this is the transitional phase when attaining consistent results or high performance is suddenly emphasised more and more by you – the coaches, parents, and teachers. And still, they do not have a solid awareness of the things that actually help to achieve this so called expectation of consistent high performance.
Shaping True Confidence and Control
One of the most important points to understand as a parent is the degree of control your child has over these components when training and competing. The performance process, hands down, is highly controllable. As your child learns skills to develop, refine, and control activation of these habits in the performance process, they are 100% accountable for performing these actions when competing. The results are a different matter. Your child has a low degree of control over the results and outcomes. When competing, the result is a future-factor, and your child can only truly control what exists in the present moment (i.e., their thoughts, feelings, and actions in the performance process). The desired result is not a given, even if your athlete is training well or competing against a less experienced opponent.
The message here is that a desired result isn’t something that “should be” or “should happen”, or described as an expectation. When parents and athletes have high expectations for the results, without much consideration of their performance process, it can be called a results-only focus. The athlete will think about the results they want to achieve days or weeks in advance, but usually not in a way that creates excitement or confidence about the event. The athlete with a results-only focus will feel pressure and anxiety, because the degree of control here is low. They run through what-if scenarios about playing poorly. Their thoughts gravitate toward hoping they will perform well, hoping they won’t mess things up, and trying not to make mistakes.
Athletes can perform well under pressure, but only if they have strong anchors in their process that effectively draw their attention away from the possibilities of the match and the nerve-wrecking feeling of being outside their comfort zone. Anchors that help them feel immersed in the task at hand, and feel the flow in their skill execution just as they have trained.
Place as much importance on the process as the results
In our conversations about performance with our athletes, we need to place equal importance on the results as well as on all the habits that make up the performance process. In order to establish value and importance around the performance process, it has to be tangible; we have to see it and feel it and bring to life. But often the ingredients in key habits check-list are not so obvious until we to start to talk about them more, think about them more, and look for them when your child is competing. When you watch your child play a golf round, the natural tendency is to observe with no real intent in mind and you notice the mistakes or less optimal actions first. This approach feels valuable because our brains pick up on the errors easily; you feel engaged because you can provide specific and immediate feedback in the form of instructions to correct the errors, or encouragement to show your support.
Creating a Process Focus with your Athlete
Step 1: Together with your child, write down a list of all the professional habits you value in their sport. Focus on the actions; the things you can see. It is easy to gravitate toward listing qualities such as determination, and work-ethic. Characteristics such as these are related, but they are harder to see, so write down the actual action or habit that you want to see the athlete demonstrate on the course.
Step 2: Now together describe what you would see if you were to watch out for this habit in action on the course; what would you observe them doing. Think of a recent scenario when you witnessed your child showing this habit really well. This is the first step in building your awareness around the habits and actions that you both value greatly in sport. Developing some of these habits might be why you wanted your child to play golf in the first place.
When you have a clear picture of what these habits look like in your child’s sport, you will be better able to watch out for them when observing your child perform – not just the errors and not just the results. Knowing what to look out for, and being prepared to provide specific feedback about these positive behaviours following every round, will bring to the fore just how important these habits are in directing positive performance, in both your mind and your child’s as they grow in the game.
Example in Golf
|The habits you value most when competing.||Now describe what this looks like, as if you were watching through the lens of a camera, what would you see if they demonstrate this habit when competing?|
Effort. Not giving up.
|Consistent pre-shot routines on every shot. Taking your time, not rushing. Selecting a specific target. Holding the finish.|
|Bouncing back from mistakes or set-backs.||Excellent preparation for the next shot following a mistake. Head up, eyes up. Positive stride down the fairway.|
|Excellent Preparation.||Building a systematic routine to warm-up and get the mind and body ready for every round.|
|Having Fun, self-encouragement, and encouraging playing partners.||Positive gestures when executing a great shot. Connecting with playing partners on the walk, and good sportsmanship.|
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.