This year, South African professional golfer Trevor Immelman won the US Masters, making him the second youngest golfer (with Tiger Woods being the youngest) to have won the championship.
Son to a former commissioner of The Sunshine Tour, the South African men’s professional golf tour, he started playing golf at 5 and dreamt of being like Gary Player. His success, starting from childhood is not an isolated story.
Skateboard prodigy, Mitchie Brusco, fell in love with his first skateboard when he was 3 and was performing feats older kids wouldn’t even dare. By 4, DC Shoes was his sponsor and by 5, he was winning the under 8’s age category. Now 11, Mitchie is a big brand Professional American Skater.
But Mitchie’s parents are also seriously committed to his hobby. Mitchie is home-schooled so he can find enough time to practise and travel to competitions. His mom is involved in marketing Mitchie and invests much of her time making home movies of his skateboarding pursuits.
So how much of sporting excellence is the result of innate ability, personal passion, parental involvement or the right environment?
The signs of talent
Prof Ernst Krüger, the director of the Institute of Sport Research at the University of Pretoria and the vice president of the South African Association for Sports Science, explains sporting talent:
“All healthy, normal children possess the ’ability for giftedness’, and what we perceive as being giftedness is purely a result of a system/skill that has developed early. This is influenced by genetics, environment and exposure.” he says.
Nurturing existing talent
If you don’t nurture these skills, your child won’t be any better than the next in adulthood. It’s the nature and extent of stimulation received, combined with some internal drive or fondness of doing something which produces the observation of giftedness.”
For example, toddlers who practise or play using certain motor skills are likely to show greater proficiency in those skills at a young age than toddlers who do not, or who play more ‘generally’, says Prof Krüger, but this won’t necessarily predict later performance.
More than just the physical
“There are numerous examples of children or youths excelling in senior competition,” says Prof Krüger, “but it is much rarer for excellent young children to remain the best and enjoy world class senior performances when they are adults.”
“Sports excellence in adulthood has more to do with the environment the child is exposed to as they mature, as factors that limit performance are in most cases more emotional/psychological than physical.”
Tiger Woods spent hours in a high chair watching his dad hit golf balls into a net. When in a walker, he had a putter instead of a rattle and by 2, he had started playing golf.
He was subject to media attention at age 3 and shot 48 over nine holes at age 5. By 7, his dad was playing him taped subliminal messages to help him improve his mental game. Needless to say, he went on to win the Junior World Golf Championships six times and become the world’s number one golfer.
The drive to achieve
Prof Krüger explains, “If the internal drive and passion have remained throughout, a child is more likely to achieve high performance at senior level too. In fact, a child who is identified as a child prodigy will not necessarily outshine his peers as he develops and matures.”
The opposite is also true. “A child who is not a prodigy can outshine others with the correct training, exposure and support. In general, it takes 10 years of focused and dedicated practice along with a skilled coach to produce champions in anything,” he adds.
Encouraging sporting ability
The University of Edinburgh says children should receive quality physical education and adequate sporting opportunities from nursery school age and throughout school.
While it is too early to predict criteria for physical performance in toddlers, says Prof Krüger, you can do a great deal to promote sporting capabilities from a young age. He gives us these suggestions:
- Allow your child to try all the sports available to him
- Develop his basic motor skills through catching, throwing, running, skipping, hopping and balance during play
- See which sport he seems to have ‘natural’ ability for
- Focus your attention on the areas of play your child enjoys most
- Also expose your child to a wide variety of physical, intellectual, social and emotional activities.
Keep the balance
- Develop a well-rounded child — spending eight hours a day practising won’t achieve this
- Don’t project your own dreams and possible short-falls onto your child
- Give your child the space to become his own person.
Follow his lead
- Let the play, desire and interest of your child guide you
- Continue to emphasise the fun aspect of sport.
- Accept that your child’s proficiency in comparison to peers and his interest in the activity may change through life
- Allow your child at a later stage to select which is the most viable sport(s) for him as an individual and you as a parent (financial/ logistical)
- Together, decide on the sports direction to follow.
Prof Krüger says, “We spend more time doing and learning the things we love. This will breed the desire to spend much time practising and refining (playing), which are prerequisites for elite performance. The child prodigies in art, music, sport and intellect excelled because they loved what they were doing enough to spend a large amount of time doing it when their bodies were highly receptive to learning.”
Selecting a sport
Prof Krüger advises that your child’s body, interests and environment will change over time, so you can’t choose with certainty the sport he will be best at before the adolescent years, but the following factors can give you a clue:
- Genetics - if you’re short, your child will probably be short too, so avoid sports where height might be a determining factor — netball, high jump and long jump
- Interest - ascertain which part of the sport he/she enjoys — ball skills, water fun or the social aspect to narrow down the options
- Personality - whether your child is outgoing or reserved, has an external/ internal locus of control, or is goal/ task-orientated indicates if he is more suited to solitary or team sports.
When pressure creates talent
We’ve all encountered parents who seem really calm and well-balanced until they turn into raving lunatics at the football field - screaming at their child or getting into a heated altercation with the coach.
A great deal of early sports aptitude and “talent” is the result of parental pressure and obsession, reports Prof Krüger.
André Agassi’s father, Mike, was determined that one of his children would win all four tennis Grand Slam Tournaments. He hung tennis balls above André’s cot and later went on to scream at officials and bang on the fence with a hammer if André lost a point.
André went on to become depressed and rebellious in the teen years.
When the parent chooses the sport, not the child
When the parent chooses the activity and not the child, sports talent at an early age is usually the result of parental pressure, explains Prof Krüger.
“However, it is possibly a combination as the parents will then expose the child to that particular sporting environment, so the child will pick up the skills earlier than another who was not exposed at such an early age.”
“This is then perceived as talent as the child is then relatively skilled. This may or may not lead to elite performance, but if the initial interest comes from the child, the drive will be much higher and more likely to endure.”
For example, renowned sportswoman Michelle Wie was introduced to the sport by her parents.
She started golfing at age 4 but maintains that her parents didn’t push her - she was self-driven. “It is important for parents to provide positive support to children. For example, rather than asking your child if the team won or lost, ask how well he played,” advises Prof Krüger.
The problem with pressure
Michelle and André are cases in which natural talent, parental “involvement” and the right environment combined for winning results. But in most cases, pressurising your child will kill the love and fun aspect of a sport and, if this is missing, there is no reason to achieve except to obtain parental approval, warns Prof Krüger.
This alone is insufficient to motivate your child to achieve in a particular sport in the long-term. Never really wanting to do it in the first place, he is more likely to quit the sport eventually.
Prof Krüger adds, “It can even force youngsters away from the sport or sport in general. It might make your child despise competition and training. Damage can be severe, and mostly emotional/psychological. While some children will respond with more determination, others will simply quit,” he cautions.
The right guidance
More children could grow up to excel in sports if they had the right guidance. So offer your baby the best chance to achieve his potential - give him the right opportunities, nurture his abilities, keep physical activity fun, and encourage him to become the person he wants to be. And perhaps he will become the next sports champion.