Now that Matt Kuchar has become a very successful golfer and household name on the PGA tour, many people may have forgotten a back story of the 1998 U.S. Open, held at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where the antics of Kuchar’s caddie, his father, made almost as many headlines as his son. The front story is the following: Kuchar was 19, a college junior and playing in the U. S. Open, having gained a berth by winning the US Amateur the previous summer. On the famously brutal Olympic Club, Matt was improbably tied for fourth after two rounds, and even reached as high as second place on Saturday, before a string of bogeys undid his run. After a perfectly respectable 74 on Sunday, the young Kuchar finished tied for 14th, the highest finish from an amateur since Jim Simons (5th) and Lanny Watkins (13th) at Merion in 1971. And now, for the back story: Matt’s playing partners and rules officials were appalled by the father’s overly exuberant celebrations of Matt’s success on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. At several times during the three rounds he was spoken to, glared at and corrected not only for his leaps of joy, fist pumps, and even, impromptu dance moves, but also for his distracting placement of himself and his son’s bag in his competitors’ sight lines. One playing partner, Justin Leonard, refused to answer a question in his post-round press conference about Kuchar senior’s behavior, while the other, Ernie Els, commented, “Matt is very calm. His dad is from the other side of the coin. He must get it from his mother.” Kuchar, pére, meanwhile, was unrepentant and responded to the opproprium by stating, “ I don’t care. Put yourself in my shoes. Your son just chipped in for birdie. What are you going to do? Stand there and pretend you’re at a funeral?”Well, while we might point out to the senior Kuchar that potential reactions to a child’s athletic performance include more options than a lilting jig or looking funereal, our main point in this post is to help parents figure out the best way to comport themselves on game day, the way that brings out the best in the young athlete, has the most potential to improve parent-child relations, while at the same time guarantees that the main story is the child’s, not the adult’s, performance. In this post, I will give you three tips so that you can be the most help to your young athlete on game day.
- Have a plan. Of all the things that scuttle peak performance, nerves might just be at the top of the list. Therefore, having a plan for game day helps because we soothe the athlete by seeking to control as many variables as possible so that the he or she can focus on the task at hand. It is important, then, that you work with your young athlete and his or her coach on how you can best be used on game day. You will want to take their cue on such issues as: how you can help or not help; advice you can give or not give; where you should sit; what should be in your bag versus the athlete’s bag; who will talk to the young athlete and what will they say during whatever breaks they have; and even, what sort of cheering helps or does not help the young athlete, pace father Kuchar. And once you have a plan, stick to it. Very few things throw a young athlete off more than trying to focus on an athletic endeavor while wondering why their parent just did what they did.
- Don’t interfere. It must be equal to one of the labors of Hercules not to interfere in an athletic competition when you feel as though your child has just received the wrong call, you have just observed an unnoticed rules’ infraction of an opponent, or when someone has called the wrong score. And yet, you must avoid interfering at all costs. For one, your child will be embarrassed. Secondly, if the sport is run well, your interference will not be welcome by the officials, so you might get yourself ejected from the premises. Thirdly, your child will now be needing to manage their own nerves, their embarrassment and their anger, a distracting combination which is unlikely to elicit his or her peak performance. Rather than interfering, it is always a better and more effective strategy to tolerate your distress and voice your concern to a tournament official after the event, preferably out of earshot of your young athlete, than to interject yourself into the melee. And yes, snide remarks and malicious leers directed at the referee constitute interference. (I would point to one major exception to this rule: when your child’s conduct is out of line and/or out of control. In this instance, particularly for the younger athlete, you should intervene, forfeit your child from the contest and have a serious conversation with him or her, saying that such behavior is unacceptable and that you won’t tolerate it. Don’t expect the officials to do it, and anyway, your actions will carry much more weight than anyone else’s [see tip 3, “Storming,” in “Scattering and Husbanding,” Nov, 2012]. Such a strong intervention is likely to communicate to your child how seriously committed you are to their character and thus, to a mastery orientation. This is one way in which, to paraphrase an expert, you can be the solution, not the problem, in your child’s life.)
- Manage your anxiety. In this age of ubiquitous recording devices, many parents are video taping their child’s athletic performance. And that is a good use of both technology and nervous energy. But many should turn the camera on themselves. Were they to do so, they might be surprised at the footage: herky jerky bodily movements in concert with the action on the court/pitch/ice, pained facial expressions at their child’s misfortunes, and the anguish etched across the brow. It doesn’t look like they’re having fun and yet they wouldn’t miss it for the world. Nor should they. But, what they should do is manage their thoughts and feelings in the moment so that they can maintain impassive and encouraging expressions for their young athlete. They should reflect the kind of composed and confident strength that their child needs to prevail over his or her own battle with nerves. Thus, the formula is simple: be the affect you want to see in your young warrior. If you are a nervous wreck, shipwreck. If you are calm, you will serve as a beacon in the storm. Again, it sounds Herculean to do this, but you and the athlete will be stronger for it.
To return to the Kuchar family. Is it my claim that young Matt would have won the US Open at age 19 if his father had been able to control himself a bit more? Well, maybe. I can guarantee, though, that his father might have been more useful to him when things started to falter late on Saturday had he not been so ebullient leading up to the tough string of bogeys. There’s no doubt in my mind that Matt was having to manage what he imagined as his father’s disappointment along with his own. Even if his father was saying encouraging things during those holes, the imprint of his father’s unbounded joy could leave no other conclusion in Matt’s mind than that he was letting his father down. I’m sure Matt would have loved nothing more than to win a US Open as an amateur with his father on the bag. On Father’s Day, to boot. But, Father Kuchar just might have made that greatest of golf stories an impossibility. So, the message is simple: use these three steps to develop a game day process with you and your young athlete and stick to it. Make a plan, don’t interfere, and manage your emotions. Oh, and don’t forget number four: have fun!