Multi-Sport Athletes Opt For Balance Amid Pressure To Specialize Early
Posted by Dean Holden at March 7th, 2016
by Beth Anne Nichols, 29 February 2016
Note: This story originally ran in the Feb. 15 issue of Golfweek.
Turk Pettit, who has committed to Clemson to play golf, calls the plays as quarterback of the Lee-Scott Academy football team. ( Tracy Wilcox )
Lee-Scott Academy’s Upper School in Auburn, Ala., consists of 327 students, and within its junior class, two golfers have committed to Clemson and Georgia, two of the South’s most storied programs. Turk Pettit and Davis Thompson have led Lee-Scott to two state championships in golf and have designs on a four-year sweep.
But that’s not enough to satisfy them. The 6-foot-3-inch Thompson led the basketball team in scoring and helped the Warriors clinch a state title Feb. 8 in overtime against Tuscaloosa Academy. As quarterback, Pettit led the Warriors to the second round of the state playoffs and a 9-2 record.
“If I get hurt, so what?” said Thompson, a shooting guard. “I can recover from an injury.”
They are the exception, these top junior golfers from warm-weather climates who put away their clubs for months at a time to pursue another passion.
“I think it makes a man out of you, personally,” Kevin Pettit said of his son’s interest in football.
Davis Thompson and Turk Pettit have led Lee-Scott Academy to two state championships in golf and have designs on a four-year sweep.
Other golf parents might balk at such a notion, pointing out the risks involved in playing contact sports throughout high school. Besides, with quality junior tournaments being held year-round, won’t their child fall behind?
Resumes must be padded at a young age to satisfy the early-commitment trend of college scholarships, some would say. For many prospects, even middle-school sports prove to be too distracting.
Youth specialization – committing to one sport at a young age – seems to many to be the best chance of raising the next Tiger Woods, or at the very least securing a college scholarship. The early focus certainly has panned out well so far for World No. 1 Lydia Ko, who specialized at age 6.
But though a multi-sport talent such as Pettit faces danger on every snap of the football, what about the youngsters who specialize in golf and their risks with repetitive-motion injuries and emotional burnout?
Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, one of the nation’s leading experts on youth sports injuries, conducted a study from 2010 to 2013 on 1,200 athletes ages 8 to 18 and found that young athletes who train intensively in one sport incur significantly higher risks of overuse injuries.
Youths who spend more hours per week than their age playing one sport were 70 percent more likely to experience serious overuse injuries, he found.
The lower back is particularly susceptible, Jayanthi said. Young athletes are developing adult-level skills at adult-level volume in growing bodies. Specialization, Jayanthi discovered, is particularly popular among individual and technical sports.
“It’s the culture of these sports,” he said. “The idea is that you put in the hours, and there’s no limit on your hours, and you’ll achieve your results. There’s some truth to that, but there are diminishing returns.”
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson is credited with the research that led Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” to propose his 10,000-hours theory: people need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to perform at an elite level. Ericsson said the 10,000-hours theory was misinterpreted in that the average of these elite performers was 10,000 hours, not that each reached that number.
“I’m not sure that starting early is so beneficial,” said Ericsson, a Swede who teaches at Florida State. “One of the problems often for kids that start on their own is that they develop bad habits that become difficult to change.
“Pushing a child to training is a waste because it doesn’t make anyone happy, and unless the child is spontaneously focused and willing to engage in this training, then it’s a waste.”
Andy Zhang took up golf at age 7 and never played another sport competitively. He moved to the U.S. from China at age 10 after winning a tournament at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort.
Zhang said he wouldn’t change his path, primarily because his parents sacrificed so much in moving him to America and that he showed promise at such a young age. (Zhang, 18, a Florida signee, became the youngest to qualify for the U.S. Open, at age 14.)
Yet he wouldn’t recommend his experience to others, saying the singular focus cost him “lost opportunities” as a child.
“I would rather have a young kid start the multi-sport route,” Zhang said. “You need to do different things when you’re young, to keep your mind fresh for the game, so when you really want to do golf by itself, nobody has to force you to do it. They would have a better childhood and a better mind toward the game.”
Todd Thompson, executive director of the Southeastern Junior Golf Tour, said he has seen a sharp rise in kids quitting other sports for golf in the past five years. And though his son, Davis, can enjoy the perks of being a dual-sport athlete at Lee-Scott, he understands that not all programs are as flexible.
“I was talking to a dad the other day who was telling me there was no way his son could play another sport outside of basketball,” Thompson said, “because basketball was 12 months a year.”
Ryan Cabbage, head coach of the Charlotte men’s team and a father of three boys, can relate. His 11-year-old twins play travel baseball, and kids on their team, after a season of 42 games, then move on to fall ball. They also were expected to practice two days a week indoors during the winter.
“What’s too much here?” Cabbage said. “They need to be sixth-graders every once in a while and not guys who are playing semi-professional baseball.”
Golfweek surveyed college golf coaches from across the country and discovered that, though none would shy away from a recruit who had played only golf, many actually prefer to have a roster of multi-sport athletes.
Golfers who have played team sports, many coaches contend, are more coachable and able to take criticism. East Carolina’s Press McPhaul said two standout baseball players on his recent teams were more hard-wired to handle adversity. Vanderbilt’s Scott Limbaugh points to the added pressure of having teammates “depending on you during crunch time” as a major benefit.
“You can totally tell which players have only played golf all their life,” said John Knauer, the Texas-San Antonio men’s coach. “College golf is like the Ryder Cup every single day. Your actions affect the whole team. I want someone who has been hit in the mouth before and fought back when his team is down.”
Tour player Davis Love III, who will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall, encouraged his son, Dru, now a junior at Alabama, to play other sports but thought his time needed to be split 75/25, with the majority going to golf.
That backfired a bit, Love said, when his son’s golf coach and basketball coach conspired for Dru to play basketball during his senior year because he was the tallest kid in school. Frederica Academy won a Georgia state title that year.
Though Love doesn’t see the need to specialize early, he contends that parents should spark an interest in golf early, citing the philosophy that Jack Nicklaus preached to him.
“If we don’t get golfers early,” Love said, “they get into baseball or basketball or soccer or lacrosse and they go year-round; (those sports) suck you in. We’re losing the golfers because we don’t get ’em before they’re 10 or 12. We have to get the golfers a lot earlier.”
Wilson Furr, 17, and No. 10 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Junior Rankings, committed to Alabama midway through his sophomore year and quit all other sports for golf two years ago. At age 7, Furr said, he shot 55 for nine holes while others were breaking par.
“There have been so many names in junior golf that I saw that I thought were the next Tiger Woods, and now I have really no idea where they are,” said Furr, the reigning Mississippi Amateur champion. “I don’t know if they still play or not.
“I think if you took a top 10 of 7-year-olds in the country when I was that age, probably one or two of them are still in the top 10 (among our age group) now.”
Shawn Rennegarbe, a 6-foot sophomore at Arkansas, hails from Addieville, Ill., a farm town of about 250 residents. Her high school, Nashville Community, serves six feeder towns of similar size. When Rennegarbe’s team won the state basketball championship two hours north of Addieville in 2013, virtually all of the town’s residents attended in support.
Shawn Rennegarbe, 21, excelled in high school basketball for a state-championship team in Illinois and has brought her team attitude to the Arkansas’ women’s golf squad.
“You can’t beat it,” Rennegarbe said of the memories. “I can picture it all right now.”
At a recent golf lesson, Rennegarbe was told by her instructor that she had the best hand-eye coordination that he had ever seen. Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor attended several of Rennegarbe’s basketball games during the recruiting process and enjoyed watching her perform in a team environment.
Estes-Taylor, a four-sport athlete in high school, said the varied experience helped her stay fresh and focused when it came time for golf.
The LPGA, in particular, is packed with players from all over the world who were one-dimensional in their pursuits.
“I’m curious to see what happens to those players that only know golf,” said LPGA player Ryann O’Toole, a Californian who didn’t pick up a golf club until age 12.
“You see a lot of players that peak and become great, and where are they in five to seven years? I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer, but I feel like the overall well-being of a golfer is much better off if they were a well-rounded athlete.”
– Kevin Casey and Jim McCabe contributed
Category: 10K hours / 10 years, age-appropriateness, athleticism, career counselling, curiosity, deliberate practice, diversification, early specialization, education, environment, growth & development, injury, interview, LTAD, overtraining, parents, planning / periodization, recruiting, research, responsibility, retention, skill acquisition, Skills, specialization, statistics, talent, talent development