Monday, 7 March 2011

Tiger Mums, Tiger Woods, and the Development of Elite Athletes.

The recent popularity of the ‘Tiger Mum’ has brought a new fascination with harsh parenting styles that demand self-disciplined children. In fact, the Tiger Mum is infamous for her demands that her children practice violin for three hours every day, and study no less than that as well.

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to over-ride their preferences’ she says.

Perhaps the methods of the Tiger Mum are an apt description for what many parents now believe to be true of athletic development. Visions of a three-year old Tiger Woods swinging a golf ball gloriously down the fairway certainly stay long in the memory. Surely this proves that practice at an early age is the key to developing an elite athlete.  

Parents have bought into this belief. My local soccer association run all-year-round development and training squads for children. Skills clinics and camps now run all-year-round. These days, if you want coaching for your child, in season or out of season, it is readily available. And each of these organisations sell the belief that the more that your child practices, the better they will be.

However, this is not what the science has to say about the development of elite athlete. Researchers now agree on a global model of elite athlete development that comprises of three stages.

First are the ‘sampling years’ from 6 to 12 years of age. In these years the athlete will participate in a number of different sports and learn a wide range of different skills. The purpose of the sampling years is always fun and enjoyment, with an emphasis on play. Next are the ‘specialising years’ from the ages of 13-15. In this stage the elite athlete will decrease the number of sports in which they participate to a few sports from which they gain the most enjoyment. The last developmental stage is the ‘investment years’ which begin at age 16. The focus during the investment years is on deliberate practice, where training sessions are carefully structured to increase skill development.

Note that deliberate practice does not start at age 3 or 4, as Tiger Mum and Tiger Woods would have you believe. In fact, when it comes to the development of elite athletes, a disciplined approach to deliberate practice does not start until roughly 16 years of age. In fact, early specialisation at a developmentally inappropriate age has many negative consequences that far outweigh the potential benefit of skill improvement. Early ‘specialisers’ can expect injury, failure to develop transferable life skills, decreased enjoyment, burnout, depression, decreased self esteem, increased stress, fear of competition, fear of failure and missed social opportunities, among many others. Early specialisation has also been linked to early withdrawal from sport.

These important facts have been noted by some of Australia’s best coaches. When asked what the key to unleashing athletic potential is Ric Charlseworth, the legendary hockey coach, answered that ‘Kids must have fun, learn the skills, play a variety of sports and be exposed to different experiences. In the end, they usually settle on one sport’.

So resist the temptation to enrol your child in every sporting program on offer. Instead, if you want to provide your child with a solid platform for athletic development, enrol in a wide variety of developmentally appropriate sporting programs. This will give them the best chance at fulfilling their personal and athletic potential.

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