Tiger Woods’s recent DUI arrest seems another step in a well-documented downward spiral. Kickstarted by his tumultuous divorce and the revelation of his infidelities, his mojo seemingly vanished, leading to his injury-ridden exit from golf. While Tiger’s childhood has been held up in the past as an example of how to raise a professional athlete, all that’s happened in recent years to this golf legend should be cause to reexamine what may have led to this breakdown.
Tiger’s first golf swing came at 10 months old. By age 2, he was playing golf with his dad every day. At age 4, he was competing in tournaments. By 15, he was the youngest player to win the U.S. Junior Amateur title, and at 20 he went pro. By all accounts, he was not forced into the sport, but rather was infatuated with it. He craved it. His parents supported him immensely, while never seeming to push. They would even punish him by threatening to not let him golf. They used golf to teach many life lessons to their only child that helped Tiger become the amazing success he was.
The world tends to view phenomena like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters as models of what parents should be doing with young athletes, rather than the outliers that they are. Woods’s parents had a highly motivated prodigy on their hands, and there is no handbook for raising a prodigy. The subsequent challenges and mistakes of Tiger’s life are his responsibility and his business. However, there are apparent gaps in his development that we may want to learn from. As the field of youth athletic development grows more specialized and intense each year, it’s essential that we recalibrate our goals and reexamine our methods.
Kids Should Not Specialize
Tiger was the definition of overspecialized. All he did was golf, from a very young age. Despite this, he was an amazingly apt athlete; a rare quality for overspecialized athletes. No doubt this GPP gap was in part filled by his thorough training regimen throughout his childhood, which even included a sports psychologist. Still, the most obvious consequence of overspecialization for Tiger are the injuries that plagued his later career. His body simply fell apart after years of repetitive action.
We see this happen even quicker in our baseball and softball populations. Elite baseball trainer Eric Cressey believes that young players need to put the ball down and play other sports. He abhors fall ball, and believes the earliest a baseball player should become a one-sport athlete is age 17. One study even found that a disproportionate number of MLB players who had undergone Tommy John surgery played high school ball in warmer climates, where they were able to play year-round.
From a purely physical standpoint, young athletes need a very wide exposure to sports and games. In this way, Tiger’s athleticism was in spite of his overspecialized path. For the vast majority of kids, trying to emulate him will not likely yield similar results.
The natural inclination of children is to constantly move and play. Our sedentary society stifles these habits, consequently disrupting significant mental and physical development. The result is kids with poor athleticism, who we then ask to play repetitive sports that require a high degree of skill. They end up with far higher injury risk, and their lack of athleticism is exploited and exposed many times each game. Athleticism is overwhelmingly beneficial to youth athlete, but playing a single sport all the time does not sufficiently develop these qualities. A diverse athletic sampling is an essential part of youth athletic development.
Canada has applied their Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) model to every sport in the country. It looks at the stages of physical and mental development for youth and prescribes different exposure, structure, and training prescriptions based on age. The goal of each sport using this model is to create the most possible Olympic gold medals. Understanding the importance of general athletic development, this model recommends that even the most elite youngsters engage in multiple sports through age 15 for females and 16 for males. It is what is best for their athletic development.
Develop More Than the Body
While it is impossible to comment with any accuracy on Tiger’s case, we can make some observations from a general perspective. The social and psychological consequences of overspecialization for kids start with what it does to families. Parents find themselves never able to have a family dinner. They spend an obscene amount of money chasing scholarships with “elite” select teams, skills coaches, and showcases. Most importantly, they invest all that valuable time that could be spent creating bonds and teaching life lessons. The family vacation is supplanted by the summer ball schedule.
Conversely, the benefits of broader athletic exposure cannot be overstated. First, the more movements we’re exposed to, the better our cognitive development. We should all try new physical movements every day. For kids, that means bring back recess and have them play and explore. Exposure to multiple games and sports helps this. They’ll be smarter, more autonomous, and happier, not to mention more athletic. At a young age, sports need not be very organized. We’d be better off in a world without organized sports for 5-year-olds, where they all just got together and played every day.
As kids age, sports should progressively formalize. Playing multiple sports helps them become well-rounded individuals who can get along with and understand a more diverse array of people and backgrounds. It promotes personality and a broader worldview. As they become adolescents and the sports become more competitive, playing multiple sports can offer phenomenal mental development.
Let’s say we have a kid who plays baseball. That game requires athletes to learn to deal with failure. Getting a hit one out of every three at-bats is considered very good. Then he goes out for football, where he’ll learn toughness and tenacity. He’ll discover that hitting a team really hard for three quarters tends to make them docile and more hesitant in the fourth. That gritty, competitive edge allows him to lead more effectively when he plays basketball, which provides the close teamwork that will help him the next spring when baseball season rolls around again.
If this kid were to go on and play in college, broad sport exposure means he’ll be far more ready to thrive under any style of coach, because of his experience with different teams and leadership styles. The emotional intelligence and process mindset he has developed will continue to serve him well throughout the rest of his life.
Youth Specialization is Killing Sports
A clear sign that the current model is not good for sports is the decline in youth sports participation. As the financial and time commitments driven by overspecialization rise, more and more families are simply opting out. Ironically, by trying to make every kid into Tiger Woods, we’ve drastically lowered participation, which lowers the level of competition at the top.
Young athletes who commit to this lifestyle often find themselves consumed by their sport for all of their childhood, only to reach college and be burned out. I’ve seen many kids thrilled for an opportunity to just go to college and leave their sport behind. I’ve seen 16-year-olds who blew out their UCL and tell me they are relieved. They needed a break. The tiny percentage that go on to play in college find themselves graduated at age 22 and absolutely lost. All they’ve ever done is play that sport, and all of a sudden, sports are over. How do they define themselves? What do they do for work?
This is not to diminish college athletics. For many, they are a tremendous opportunity to receive a life-changing education. That doesn’t have to change. We just have to put things into context. The sports your kid plays offer great opportunities, amazing experiences, and hopefully, invaluable human development. But they cannot be everything. There is more to life than any one sport, and so much more to your child than athletics. Don’t think you can pay all your money and give all your time to the sport and not create the message be that the sport is everything.
Don’t Follow a Model That Hurts Your Child
It’s hard to say if Tiger’s parents should have done anything differently. He was a prodigy. Maybe his overspecialized upbringing manifested in real demons, or maybe he’s just under the microscope and dealing with the challenges of stardom. Regardless, we should not base our athletic youth development model on Tiger Woods or other prodigies. This is not what is best for kids, and in most cases, this is not what leads to the best athletes.
Some parents are starting to wonder if athletics and the life-absorbing demands that follow are good for their kids and their families. They see the overly-obsessed parents and are hesitant to follow suit. Given our sedentary population and rising health costs, sport itself can’t be allowed to become unhealthy, but must remain a bastion for values development, and a fertile ground to grow a love of physical activity. We need to offer more options for movement, more general physical preparation, and a new paradigm for youth athletic development.