This is the third edition in the series of articles that 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.
In this edition, we start with a case example. This case study 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: Coping with early achievement
Ben’s coach describes him as a talented player, quiet, hard worker during practice. Recently, Ben has blown his competitors away in local age-group tournaments and has everyone talking about his length off the tee.
Ben walks into my office and sits down in an armchair facing me, looking down at the floor, with his hands in his lap. Ben says, ‘I just don’t want to play nationals, and my mum says I don’t have to go if I really don’t want to, but it would be a shame because I have been doing really well. I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to let anyone down. I like practicing and trying my best. I don’t like tournaments. I get so nervous and I hate that feeling. I just want the competition to be over the moment it starts. And now it’s worse because my friends keep telling me that I am going to win and that I going to be in the best in my age group. Well, I could be, except for this one boy that’s pretty close to me. Now I keep thinking everyone expects to me win, and I am scared I am going to lose, and what will everyone think about me then?’
Within this first few minutes of our meeting, I get a sense of Ben’s personality, which could be prone to anxiety and self-conscious. He might be the conscientious type and possibly eager to please others. I can feel the heavy burden of other’s expectations and the judgments he perceives his friends and family hold. I learn that this burden wasn’t there a few months ago when he was in his own world almost, and said he was ‘playing for fun’ and ‘training to train’.
You might assume Ben’s case is about personality and vulnerabilities to certain types of experiences, such as anxiety or fear of failure in the tournament play. But it is not. Ben’s dilemma is summed up in the following statement.
Ben says, ‘I don’t even know how I did well in the first place, it just sort of happened. So what if I was just lucky or something and now everyone expects me to keep doing it [performing well?]’
This statement describes a phenomenon that is relevant to the psychology of all young athletes, not just for those with certain personal characteristics, but also for the most confident and competitive boy or girl. In this statement, the athlete highlights that they simply do not know how to compete. They have trained and developed the physical skills ready for competing. However, coaches or parents rarely consider the mental preparation for competition that is necessary for athletes of this age.
When young athletes first start competing, expectations to achieve a certain time, place, or score are not set explicitly. Typically coaches, parents and athletes alike, approach competition as a milestone or initial bench mark to see where the athlete stands in comparison to their peers. Without the pressure to perform, young athletes perform well on auto-pilot, relying solely on the body to replicate what it has been doing in training. But it only takes one or two competitive experiences to change the nature of competition. For example, a young golfer can happily hit a ball down the fairway in practice, humming a song in their head or thinking about what’s for dinner that night, with very little consequence to their performance. But when they move to tournament play, the focus on scoring and the impending evaluation from coaches, parents and peers suddenly comes into the picture. Mentally managing these new expectations, not to mention the nervousness they feel, requires a totally different type of focus and set of coping skills compared to the practice tee.
He just needs more experience: Experience in what?
A traditional coaching approach to this dilemma would be to suggest that the athlete just needs more experience in the competitive arena. More experience, in the traditional sense, is about becoming familiar with the external environment, the setting and the people. However, gaining experience doesn’t guarantee that the athlete will become more aware of what is happening in their mind and body from one competition to the next. Athletes can compete in lots of events, over many seasons, without developing an understanding of what is happening in their mind. Building this type of internal awareness requires training and reflection, and only when this happens can an athlete develop skills to thrive and enjoy competing long-term.
If you have heard similar recommendations that your child ‘simply needs more experience competing’, then an important question we should ask is, ‘Experience in what? What is the athlete gaining experience with?’
The two primary experiences the child gains in this ‘sink or swim’ approach to competing in sport are:
- Stress inoculation – Continuous bouts of exposure to the competitive arena that are out of the athlete’s comfort zone, and therefore exposure to new feelings of stress and pressure. This is to say, young athletes are gaining experience with the feelings of being stressed out without having the coping strategies to deal with them. Over time they connect that feeling of stress with competing and the competition surroundings.
- Experience with meeting OR not meeting expectations – This can be in the form of winning or losing, measuring one’s performance against bench marks or goals set by the parents, coach, or young athletes themselves.
Most parents would agree that through these learning experiences, the child gains valuable important life lessons. That can be true. However, parents, teachers and coaches need to understand that learning experiences can only occur if you are ready to capture these learnings through systematic debrief and reflections together in positive ways after the game. Without this step, the child very quickly forms their own assumptions about themselves and the competitive arena. These views are rarely positive if they haven’t met the athlete’s performance expectations.
High performance is Now Expected at a Younger Age
Another challenging factor to acknowledge in this scenario is that the age of the children participating on a highly competitive stage across sports is getting younger. Coaches would agree that a decade ago, this transition typically took place around the age of 14–16 years. Today it is not uncommon to see children between 11–13 years of with a strong result-oriented focus in their sport endeavours. The gap between learning to compete physically and psychologically has increased. Time spent preparing physically to compete is prioritised at 11–13 years of age but psychological preparation or even awareness training prior to competitive events is completely underestimated.
The younger the child is, the more challenging it is for them to self-learn purely by experience. This is because they have not developed skills in positive self-reflection, or coping skills to adapt to the competitive environment.
Start by asking Questions:
As a parent or coach you can facilitate positive reflection that builds your child’s self-awareness and confidence to compete. Start by asking your young golfer questions that captures what they are thinking about, focused on, and what are they are doing when playing the game. It is best to ask the questions in a casual manner with a curious tone.
Most younger athletes aren’t aware of what a peak or sub-par performance actually is yet; they are more in tune with their feelings as an indicator of a good or bad day. This is especially the case if your key message before matches is, ‘Have fun’, and your typical post-match question is, ‘Did you have fun today?’
After the game, the best questions to start with ask about their experience of fun or happiness.
When you were having fun and felt happiest in the game today…
How did your swing feel?
How did you prepare for your shots?
What were you thinking about or focused on? What were you saying to yourself?
How did you walk down the fairway or talk with your playing partners?
What was your reaction to your errors or mistakes like?
You can build excellent awareness of your child’s actions between good and bad days on the course by capturing the highs and lows in their emotional experience. The most interesting contrast you will see is the differences in their reaction to mistakes when playing well and playing poorly. It is valuable for young golfers to realise that they still make mistakes when playing at their best. However, compared to their bad days, their reaction to errors during a good round is far more positive. The good round is maintained through positive reactions to mistakes, not by hitting perfect shots.
When your felt annoyed, frustrated or down today…
Did your preparation for your shots change? What was different?
How did your swing feel?
Was there anything you stopped doing, even between shots?
What was your reaction to your errors or mistakes like?
Tips and tricks for pulling it off:
- Start with questions that tap into a positive emotional experience first.
- Bring a curious mind and tone to this exercise.
- You don’t have to ask all the questions I have suggested; one or two can be enough to bring the experience to life and avoid it feeling like an interrogation.
- With team sport athletes you can still ask all the questions from an individual viewpoint, because they always have their own role to play in the team.
Using this post-game reflection you are will build a two-way conversation that shapes your child’s self-awareness, without being overly instructive or directive. This is the key to helping young golfers learn to compete confidently and independently.
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.