Athlete, Coach, Parent

My Athlete Is Too Hard On Themselves - What Can I Do?

Our kid is 10 years old and is playing golf at a competitive level— he loves the sport and is always wanting to get out and play or train at the driving range or chipping areas. At home, he doesn't stop watching it on TV. However he's too tough on himself when he plays and he gets angry very easily, sometimes with excess rage. Initially, it was only when he was playing with us but now he manifests his anger feeling also with other people, during competitions. His behavior is often not acceptable. Despite his making huge progress in his game and enjoying this, he is always seeing what he could do better to make a better score. We would like to have any suggestions on how we could manage this situation and if there are any strategies to help him and keep him happy and enjoying the game. 

Response by PCA Trainer Susie Kirk (Golf Instructor at The Woodlands Country Club, 1984 LPGA Female Player of the Year, 20 years on LPGA Tour, over 500 worldwide events) and PCA Director of Training Ruben Nieves (Very high handicap recreational golfer!)

The situation you describe is actually somewhat common: a young athlete totally enamored with their sport and striving to be the best they can be but not equipped to deal with mistakes, failure, loss, and frustration in a productive way! A ten-year-old child is growing in every way. Athletic maturity is one of them. Emotional control is another.

Your son is fortunate to have adults such as you who recognize that he needs help in order to reach his full potential as a golfer and to be able to continue to love the sport for years to come. Here are three suggestions.

1- Introduce your child to the concept of a "Mistake Ritual." This is a tool used by athletes of all ages and competitive levels to help them move forward from mistakes productively. A Mistake Ritual combines a verbal phrase with a physical gesture. Examples are "Flush It" (accompanied by a flushing motion), "Shake It Off" (accompanied by a quick shaking of the hand), and "Let it Go" (accompanied by a releasing motion). When an athlete uses their Mistake Ritual after a mistake or bad shot, they are reminding themselves that mistakes are an important, natural part of the learning and competition processes. They are also communicating to themselves and others that they are moving on mentally to the next shot or play.

2- Help your child start to understand the concept of a "mastery" approach. Mastery is in contrast to a "scoreboard" approach which is focused only on results, which are not under the control of the athlete. With mastery, the focus is on things the athlete can control: their effort, their learning, and how they respond to their mistakes. Great golfers like Jack Nicklaus and Lorena Ochoa were very good at focusing on mastery -the things they could control. When you are thinking about the previous shot or mistake, you are focusing on something you can't control! And that makes it very difficult to execute the next shot well!

3- Give your child feedback on how he is doing in terms of mastery. Strive for the "Magic Ratio" of 5 times as much praise to correction (which means you'll want to ignore much of his current negative behavior)! Focus on noticing and praising him when he utilizes his Mistake Ritual. You can even implement an alternate "scorecard," in which your child keeps track of how often he uses his Mistake Ritual after a poor shot or hole. He can set a goal for himself, such as 80%, and you can provide a simple reward such as a movie outing or trip to his favorite restaurant if he reaches it.

All golf coaches know that the mental side is the key to success in golf! Recovery skills equal better scores! Work this messaging into your golf conversations with your son. Be both patient and persistent. The kind of athletic maturity we are talking about here takes time to develop. And most of us never do! And, whether or not your son becomes a high-level competitive golfer, maybe he will at least allow himself to enjoy his sport for a lifetime!

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