As a sport psychologist, I’m in the privileged position of working with gifted athletes in a variety of sports. Some are what I call “radiant children,” the possessors of otherworldly talent. They have been blessed with a unique and special talent that inspires awe and wonder. It may be in the sport of fencing, golf, soccer, baseball or jiu-jitsu. These are the once-in-a-generation champions like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Tom Brady and Michael Jordan. These are the ones who transform their sport.
So let us explore for a moment the nature of these geniuses from a developmental view. The pathway to the top of the mountain that every gifted young athlete must manage is always treacherous and filled with danger and tumult. About halfway to the summit is when I get to meet them. They will arrive at my office in a state of anguish, despair, and confusion. All of their confidence and freedom has suddenly been replaced by anxiety, doubt and shame. It’s like they’re having a midlife crisis but 20 years too soon.
Here is an insider’s view of what it’s like working with world class prodigies and how I try to help them recover.
The development of the elite athlete goes through three stages.
PHASE ONE AND THE WORLD OF TALENT:
The Bible begins with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” In the life of an athlete the quote ought to read “In the beginning was Talent and the Talent was Good.” The prodigy in baseball, golf, tennis, fencing, lacrosse or anything else is usually introduced to the game by a parent and this begins the honeymoon stage. The child plays the sport for the fun of it and begins to excel. If they are a natural talent, they tend to be drawn into the game more and more and begin to devote more time to it.
Statistics show that an average child plays his or her sport for about six hours per week, but the future pro tends to play the game about six hours per day. In stage one, fun reigns supreme and any coaching tends to be minimal, sporadic and average. But eventually, if the child begins to excel in local competition, they will be noticed by the more serious coaches or scouts who will approach the parents or the child and offer scholarships, a spot on a better team and other forms of encouragement. This is where the honeymoon ends and the beginning of Phase Two begins.
PHASE TWO AND THE WORLD OF PRESSURE: When the young talent enters Phase Two, their talent has been recognized and the siren song of fame, money and glory begins to be heard in the distance. This song acts like a magnet pulling them in. They will be introduced to travel teams, academies and specialized leagues where the competition is more serious, the players are better, the coaching and the training is more rigorous, and the travel demands are greater. In a word, the party is over. This is a world of aggression, envy and jealousy. One of my players was so good by the time she was 10 that she was once kicked in the stomach by one of the opposing teams’ parents who could not control her jealous rage.
In the English Premier League, young talent is scouted throughout the world and when spotted, the parents are approached, paid significant amounts of money and the child is taken to one of the elite academies in Europe where they are raised, given foster parents, and trained by the best football coaches in the world. This pressure is extremely difficult to manage especially at a young age and the English Premier League has a team of full-time sport psychologists to insure that their investment stays sound. Typically this does not happen in America, so the parents and kid are on their own. And stress begins to invade the child and the family in the guise of tight performance, yips, slumps, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, weight loss, illness, injury, ice cold hands etcetera. This is when I get the call.
PHASE THREE AND THE CREATION OF THE SUPPORT TEAM: The reality is that for the prodigy to develop to full potential they will need a support team around them. Tiger Woods revolutionized the game of golf because he was really the first to have a support staff around him from an early age. His parents were smart enough to know that little Tiger would need help and hired Jay Brunza, a sport psychologist, to work with him when he was 7 years old. Jay traveled with Tiger around the nation and caddied for him throughout his teen years, providing literally thousands of hours of therapy. Tiger also had a physical trainer, a nutritionist, a swing coach, and a doctor on his staff.
In other words, during Phase Three the prodigy must develop a support staff to guide him so that he develops the mental and the physical skills to withstand the crucible of pressure he is now under. And if this team remains in place for 10 years, you will see the emergence of the sports’ next super star in basketball, baseball, fencing or golf.
Traveling up the mountain to the top is plagued with challenges of every sort. The radiant child, no matter how talented, will need support and protection and nurturance. And failure to grasp this truth leads to what in the world of entertainment is called membership in “The 27 Club.” This term refers to the calamity that fame brings to the ill-prepared and poorly managed talent. Music and art have the most flagrant examples and include the likes of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jean Michel Basquiat, all dead at about the age 27.
But if the radiant child is properly managed, then what they give the world is a true miracle to behold. Anyone who got to watch Tiger Woods in person as he swung a golf club knows what I mean.