A recent New York Times article revealed that when it comes to golf putting, no two grips are the same. Why is this important to sports parents and coaches? While it may be interesting for golf fans to discover individual putting differences, for many coaches and sport parents it may mean a lot more than something quirky to talk about with friends over coffee. Specifically, millions of kids are taught each year that there is one, best way to swing a golf club, pitch/hit a baseball, kick a soccer ball, or shoot a basketball. Often these instructions are provided by coaches and parents in the absolute sense, meaning it’s a one-size-fits-all that every kid must learn and mimic in order to succeed. The reality, however, is that kids should use basic approaches to executing sport skills as a foundation, but then incorporate their own body style and mindset into developing their own ways of performing a sport skill. Unfortunately, when coaches and parents push the idea that there is only one way to go, kids often respond with frustration, anxiety, and many ultimately quit prematurely as a result. The good news is all of this can be avoided by simply acknowledging that there are often many different ways to do the same thing in life — as shown by professional golfers when it comes to putting.
Build from the basics
Rather than try and force one specific approach on kids learning to run, throw, hit, shoot, or catch, why not instead begin with a basic approach, then look for ways to incorporate each kid’s body style into the sport movement? Baseball provides a good example of what I am talking about here — watch a game today and pay special attention to each pitcher’s windup, as well as each batter’s stance and swing. What you will see might surprise you as it is very unlikely you will see any two players mirror one another with how they pitch or hit. Instead, similar to differences witnessed in golf putting, you will likely see very different windups and batting stances. And keep in mind, even with these differences these are all players who have performed well enough to become professional baseball players.
While there are obvious basic building blocks to developing a sport skill (i.e. a baseball pitcher needs to grip the ball with his hand and generate enough body energy to effectively deliver a pitch with speed/break), there are countless ways to carry out the sport movements necessary to succeed. In fact, some athletes may even gain confidence (a variable strongly linked to success) when they are able to integrate their own unique physical attributes into a sport movement, rather than constantly worrying about form and steering away from their natural movements.
Conditioning and sport success
Operant conditioning is a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behavior. Over time, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence (whether negative or positive) for that behavior. Applying this to sports, if a kid finds success pitching, batting, golfing, or shooting a ball by using some of his or her own unique body attributes and movement, those movements will be conditioned to success. The success experienced by the kid will lead to greater confidence, leading to better focus, motivation, and resiliency. Additionally, confident athletes experience less anxiety as well, providing yet another reason to help young athletes develop comfortable approaches that suit their unique minds and bodies.
It is important to realize that not all athletes use the same exact approaches, and that there may actually be much greater latitude when it comes to developing individual, unique ways to perform sport skills. Helping kids learn basic physical movements applied to sport skills is a great start, but after that it may make a lot of sense to find ways to develop unique approaches to each kid. If elite-level pro golfers can compete using a variety of different putting grips, it’s likely the kids you parent and coach can learn different ways to bring out their best strengths, too.