The Myth of Tiger Woods and its Impact on Talent Development

People often cite Tiger Woods as Example A in their support of early specialization. People are fascinated by the stories of Tiger hitting golf balls on the range when he was two-years-old and the images of him on TV.

Many times, people imagine the block practice and the hours of dedication to perfecting his golf swing through specific instruction and deliberate practice. However, on Daniel Coyle’s blog, a reader paints a different picture of Tiger’s early development:

My nomination is Rudy Duran, Tiger Woods’ coach from the age of 4 through 10. I was privileged to hear him speak recently and I kept thinking of The Talent Code throughout his talk. Rudy owned and ran a small 18 hole, par 3 public golf course…Tiger was coached by Rudy once per week for about 2/3 hours at a time and 85% of their time was spent on the course. There was very little technical instruction, much more playing and competing with Tiger trying to beat Rudy. Rudy would say to Tiger ‘I own you’ and Tiger would try his utmost to beat Rudy in line with his ‘Personal Par’ (an informal handicap designed to enable Tiger to compete from the same tees but score in line with Rudy and his dad). Rudy said that he would play the games and wait for the ‘coachable moments’ and then ask Tiger a few questions about how he might approach the shot again.

In my view Rudy Duran had an enormous role in the development of one of the greatest golfers the game has ever known. He taught Tiger to play golf first rather than to teach him to hit a ball and understood that he just needed to guide him rather than to instruct him. So many other coaches would have tried to give Tiger technical information and to develop his swing.

I believe that Tiger’s phenomenal ability to score even if he is not hitting the ball well is what sets him apart from so many of his contemporaries. I also believe that Rudy Duran provided the platform for this to take place.

This piece fits more in line with the descriptions of the experiences of other elite performers outlined in Benjamin Bloom’s Developing Talent in Young People, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Talented Teenagers and Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning. In fact, this story is almost identical to Waitzkin’s descriptions of his beginning years as a chess prodigy.

Think about the key points of this description and how it differs from popular perceptions:

  • Reduced technical instruction
  • Immediate playing of the game
  • Early competitiion
  • “Just right” challenges
  • Waiting for teachable moments
  • Asking questions of Tiger
  • Guided the learning
  • Taught to play golf rather than hit a ball
  • Developed Tiger’s adaptability

In a sense, Duran’s coaching perfectly capsulated Joan Vickers’ concept of decision-training and also fits within a Teaching Games for Understanding approach.

I think the last three points may be the most important: Duran guided the learning and taught Tiger Woods to play the game which enabled him to adapt to different situations even when his swing was off. Waitzkin describes the same experience as he learned chess from the end-game while most young players learn intricate openings. Once Waitzkin survived the openings, he would beat other players who lacked the adaptability to the true game. In basketball, this is the difference between simply teaching structured plays – if the play does not work, and the player does not know how to play the game outside of the play-context, what happens?

Hearing the early Tiger Woods’ stories, I think many people assumed that he sat at the driving range with an instructor and hit thousands of balls over and over as his deliberate practice to master his swing technique. However, this description of Duran’s coaching suggests that 85% of his early practice was spent in variable, random, and match-like practice and conditions with a competitive goal that was a challenge, but not impossible to reach. This description almost perfectly describes the role of a coach early in a player’s development and hopefully becomes the story that we associate with Tiger Woods’ early years, as opposed to the popular perceptions.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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