Rory’s washing machine – it takes a village to raise a golfer 

There is a lovely video of young golfer Rory McIlroy, aged 9 years, chipping balls into a washing machine. He is on a Northern Irish talk show called ‘Kelly’ and looks so proud and excited at being able to show off his skills to presenter Gerry Kelly. Rory was already well known for his abilities by aged 9, and looking at him chip it reminded me of the saying from Aristotle, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’. So much of our early, childhood, developmental experiences influences the late, adult, personality that is to come. I think most of us understand this implicitly – the important role of parents and family in our upbringing is what psychologist Susan Harter calls the ‘crucible’ of our development. In the video of young Rory on the Kelly show, after he has chipped some balls into the washing machine, they have a chat with his parents. Rory’s dad, also called Gerry, explains he missed out on attending an event at Holywood Golf club to see Rory on the show. It was a lovely moment around the role of parents but also about the wider community in which Rory was brought up.

Holywood golf club is a well established club in Northern Ireland, going since 1904 and having around 400 members each week playing competitions during the height of the season. Holywood town itself in Northern Ireland has a population of just over 11, 200 people. There is a lot of research now around the ‘small town effect’, or population density, when it comes to producing athletic talent. Specifically areas of lower population are more conducive to producing athletes than larger city environments. However, the research has suggested this number is around towns of 200,000 people rather than small villages. Either way, the research has pointed to the importance of ‘small places’ in the development of children in sports, best summed up in the African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. Indeed, there is research now that highlights the role of environment generally, like that of a local sports club, in helping sporting talent develop and grow. For young people entering a sport, like golf, perhaps when they are only 4 years old, there is a powerful socialisation process at work through the sport. It dictates certain norms in terms of behaviours, values and relationships.

As a sport psychologist, I always understood this socialisation process, but I wondered how does it help me in my work exactly. Recently though, reading the work of developmental psychologist Michael Lewis has provided some answers. He has coined the term ‘self conscious emotions’ to refer to a range of emotions that develop between the ages of 2-3 years that include shame, guilt and pride. Lewis argues that these emotions are particularly self-evaluative, forged through how other people around us as small children judged, or evaluated, our behaviour. When we are small, others’ responses to us acts as a social ‘mirror’ on to what is right or wrong, and as we grow we internalise this evaluation. Any sporting institution, like a golf club, plays an important role within this ‘mirror’. From a young age then, success in golf is an important part of a golfer’s identity at an emotional level, and they can feel embarrassed when they play poorly. It is crucial here to help players focus on pride as an antidote to shame – ‘what are the proudest moments in your career?’ or even, ‘what are you proud of this week?’. I also think psychologists would do well to remember that they are part of the ‘village’ too to which young athletes are ‘raised’. Ensuring we create unconditional athletic spaces, in which we treat the person the same whether the player wins or loses, is a basic fundamental of our work. 

Worth a read:

Harter, S. (2012). The Construction of the Self: Developmental and Sociocultural Foundations. London, The Guildford Press.

Hayman, R., et al. (2011). “Development of Elite Adolescent Golfers.” Talent Developmemt & Excellence 3: 249-261.

Horn, T. (2004b). Developmental Perspectives on Self-Perceptions in Children and Adolescents. Developmental Sport & Exercise Psychology: A Lifespan Perspective. M. R. Weiss. Morgantown, Fitness Information Technology, Inc.: 101-144.

Kipp, L. E. (2018). Developmental considerations for working with young athletes. Sport Psychology for Young Athletes. C. J. Knight, C. Harwood and D. Gould. London, Routledge.

Lewis, M. (2007). Self-conscious emotional development. The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research. J. L. Tracy, R. W. Robins and J. P. Tangney. New York, The Guildford Press: 134-149.