This summer, Geoff Miller was interviewed as part of story on a young golfer named Amari Avery. The story aired on the Golf Channel’s sports documentary series, Golf in America. Avery is just six years old and many are already comparing her to Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie. Miller’s involvement was to help viewers understand more about the pressure placed on youth athletes, the dangers of burnout, and the impact of labeling young stars as “prodigies.”
Here is the full video segment from the Golf in America Episode:
In addition to the video, here are some important topics that were discussed and commentary from Geoff Miller:
1. The using of the word “prodigy”
I don’t know that it matters if a young athlete is called a “prodigy” or not, at least unless we’re thinking about who is using the word prodigy and how much the child him or herself understands what it means. I could see positives and negatives associated with the word and I think that the way it is defined and explained to a child is more important than whether or not it is used.
For example, let’s say a young athlete develops such a following that articles are written and news stories are aired about that athlete. And in those stories, the term “prodigy” is used and the parents have never used the word with their child. The child asks what “prodigy” means and the parents explain that it means that you have a special talent at a young age, that people are always interested in knowing who the next great athlete could be, and they wonder if you’re this good now, how good you might be when you are grown up? The parents might continue explaining that it is an honor to be called a prodigy, but that it doesn’t mean more or less to be called one, because you still have to work hard for a long time for what you want and someone calling you a prodigy doesn’t make it easier or harder for you to accomplish your goals.
That seems like a positive outcome from the use of the word “prodigy”, but it is also an example of other people calling the athlete one, not the parents or the athletes themselves. If a family were to call their own child a prodigy or to teach their kids to think they might be prodigies, I have a harder time coming up with positive outcomes. In general, I believe that the positive takeaway from using the word “prodigy” would be inspiration and a desire to continue working to fulfill this promise. The negative would be in placing undue pressure on a child or the child placing undue pressure on him or herself to live up to great expectations. There is also a sense of humility that could be lost in thinking a young athlete is a prodigy. There have been plenty of prodigies who haven’t made good on their potential. And there have been plenty of late bloomers who have surprised the world with their greatness.
This is also a great lesson in controlling what you can control. We don’t get to decide what other people say or write about us, so we can’t let that influence how we see ourselves or how we go about our business. Being called a prodigy is a nice introduction to learning to handle outside pressures and expectations at an early age.
2. Labeling kids too early in life, making sure there is a balance in their lives
I really believe you can always find positives and negatives in any of these situations. Of course you don’t want to pigeon-hole anyone or keep them from experiencing the diversity of life, but at the same time, it’s nice to be able to develop pride and an identity in something you do well. Balance is definitely the key word there and there has to be enough freedom for kids to see what they like to do and try sports, music, history, science, anything else that might be of interest. And the most important part of developing an identity in your sport may be to make sure that your child feels like he or she can be successful no matter what they do, without developing a belief that playing this sport is the only thing they can do.
I’ve met too many adult athletes who have told me that if they weren’t good at their sport, they wouldn’t know what they would be doing with their lives. That’s not something I would want for my child, no matter how talented he or she was in a sport.
3. The pressure that children deal with when given the “prodigy” label
In my experience, children who are serious about their sports put extra pressure on themselves no matter what labels are placed on them or how supportive and encouraging their parents are with them. I’ve met many parents who tell me they would be perfectly happy for their children to give up their sport at any time if that’s what they wanted. But kids understand how much time, effort, and money their parents are spending on lessons, training, tournament play, and travel and they often internalize the need to “make good” on all that effort.
4. The role of the parents
Obviously, parents need to be supportive, encouraging, and affectionate regardless of how their children perform. But beyond the obvious, I think that the most important role the parents of young, talented athletes can play is in teaching their kids how to be professional in handling their success. They should be humble and gracious in victory and defeat. They should be proactive in educating their children on what words like “prodigy” mean and why they are important to so many people who follow sports or achievement in any area. I believe that parents can have profound influence on helping their children develop character and leadership skills, the ones we all think are natural byproducts of playing sports.
5. Potential burnout
Burnout happens when someone doesn’t enjoy what they are doing anymore. Getting kids started in sports and having them concentrate on only that sport can certainly lead to burnout, but it can just as easily create a lifelong love of the sport. My advice would be to check in with your child on a regular basis to make sure that he or she is enjoying the activity. That way, you can change the pace of training, take a break, play another sport for a while, or try to make your primary sport more fun. As long as kids are having fun and they have a chance to experience some other things in life so they can compare the fun they are having with other opportunities, I don’t see any harm in putting a lot of time and effort into one sport or activity.
For more information on Winning Mind programs for athletes and executives, please contact Geoff Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geoff Miller’s book, Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game — in Baseball and in Life, is now available!