Are we listening to the future of our game?

By Dominic Sainsbury
New Zealand PGA General Manager

How young is too young to specialise in one sport?

To answer the question we first need to ascertain why children play sport.

In recent Sport New Zealand studies the overwhelming feedback is that children play sport for fun and to socialise with friends. Focusing on the fun and social elements of a sport leads to developing a passion and excitement about sport.

It’s undeniable that a variety of fundamental movement skills are key to the game of golf for our youth — from stability to manipulative skills.

However, these skills, amongst others, are transferrable and can be picked up in a variety of sporting environments.

Adapting to other learning environments can also have a positive psychological effect increasing versatility and resilience – traits that we should encourage in our young players and traits that will set up a child up for whatever path they take in life.

There is nothing wrong with kids playing multiple sports. In fact, in our view, it should be encouraged.

The correlation between childhood and adult success

There are a multitude of studies showing that childhood success does not directly correlate with adult success, yet we as a sporting society still encourage it.

A proven aspect often ignored by parents is the distinct rise in overuse injuries that early specialisation is creating.

Children are constantly growing and their bodies changing, so when repetitive motions such as the golf swing are applied to joints that are not yet fully formed, unnecessary additional stresses are caused.

Alongside the physical pain there are other detrimental psychological effects. By setting an unrealistic bar for our children to reach in pigeon-holing them into a single discipline, we are in turn letting them take these stresses on board themselves and assuming they can cope.

These pressures go on to manifest into anxiety and depression with many labelled ‘child superstars’ burning out and dropping off completely.

In knowing this we should be adapting our own views and creating safe and encouraging environments for our youth to experiment and branch out into other areas, rather than continuing to push the ‘choose a sport and focus’ mentality.

Decline in sporting participation

New Zealand, like so many other countries, is seeing a decline in sport participation numbers. The masses of misguided parents, teachers and coaches that are talent-scouting from a young age, who believe children must specialise early to receive any reward, are indirectly adding to that decline.

If sport is no longer enjoyable for our youth because we fail to let them experiment and have fun, then why would they want to continue? We’ve instilled a fear into our children of not being good enough.

This same notion is amplified by businesses that are cashing in on the early specialisation environment we have fostered, applying further pressure to children and parents alike.

With professional sport becoming more publicised, many envisage the heights of highly covered sports infamy as a goal for their children and are subsequently willing to spend ludicrous amounts of money at young ages, in the hope it’ll help their child to attain this goal.

The next step in the right direction

Instead of focussing on creating the next major golf champion, we should be praising our kids for all the things they’re doing right, from the social skills they’re developing, to the emotional strength and resilience they’re exhibiting.

Those who don’t make the top cut tend to give up because we’ve (often unintentionally) instilled in them that they’re not good enough, or indeed denied them the opportunity to play and have fun with their mates, because in our eyes they aren’t in the same league.

Instead, if we had nurtured both a love for the game and sport overall in a safe and welcoming environment, perhaps they may have gone on to develop a similar level of skill and talent at a later stage in life, or at the very least they would still be playing today.