Some professional sporting leagues do not regulate the age when their practitioners can turn professional, as this decision is often based on an individual's skill and ability. While Boris Becker, Wayne Gretzky and Martina Hingis all started their professional careers before reaching the age of adulthood, they are some of the more successful examples. Turning pro at an early age does not always result in long-term success or fulfillment for the precocious elite.
The Challenge Facing Teenage Prodigies
One youngster hoping to break the trend is 14 year-old Chinese golf sensation Guan Tianlang, who has been invited to play in next spring's U.S. Masters, after winning the newly created Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship earlier this month. His success has come at a time when children as young as eight years old are employing the services of sports psychologists to gain an edge on their rivals, as they also look to prepare themselves for the significant pressures of grueling training regimes and enhanced media attention. Given that a total prize fund of $8 million was distributed between 61 competitors in the 2012 Masters tournament, however, Guan Tianlang may be able to achieve a substantial financial reward in exchange for only minimal success.
The issue of media attention is especially unsettling for young sporting prodigies, as excessive coverage may encourage them to turn professional before they are physically or mentally prepared. This can lead to huge endorsements and financial remuneration, which in turn places added pressure on the shoulders of youngsters, regardless of their ability or appetite for learning. The case of Australian swimmer and five-time Olympic medalist Alicia Coutts provides a case in point, as she has been been passed over for commercial endorsements simply because less successful athletes have captured the attention of corporate sponsors and the national media.
Sporting Prodigies Who Have Failed to Make the Grade
Recent history is littered with sporting prodigies who have struggled to fulfill their obvious potential, and these individuals are bounded by the disproportionate level of attention and remuneration that they received in their formative years. MLS soccer player Freddy Adu is perhaps the most high-profile member of this group, as despite being just 23, he has more than nine years' experience as a professional athlete. Instantly recognized as an extremely talented individual, Adu's natural ability earned him a $1 million endorsement with Nike at the age of 13 and a professional contract with DC United just a year later.
Adu was clearly ill-equipped to handle such wealth and fame while so young, however, and over time his perceived lack of application and an unwillingness to improve made his career grind to a halt. Despite being linked with a number of European clubs and enjoying a trial with British club Manchester United at the tender age of 16, he remains more famous for his celebrity lifestyle and abrasive nature than his ability, which initially distinguished him as a future star. Despite this, his endeavors have left him with an estimated net worth of around $12 million (in 2011 dollars) and an annual guaranteed compensation figure of $594,884 in 2011, which suggests that his career will at least deliver financial wealth, if not genuine professional fulfillment.
Jennifer Capriati was a teenage tennis prodigy who endured numerous difficulties, starting when her father allegedly coerced her into turning professional at age 13. Despite the fact that her talent clearly matched the ambition of her parents and numerous financial sponsors, however, competing professionally at such a young age quickly took its toll. Her career ended at a relatively young age because of a persistent shoulder injury. During her short career, Capriati managed to reach world number one status and her career earnings were around $10 million. This remuneration has been offset by numerous personal issues, such as drug and alcohol addictions, which have blighted her life since she was 18.
A one-time prodigy who appears to be at a crossroads is U.S. golfer Michelle Wie, who has achieved enormous financial and sporting success since becoming the youngest player ever to make the LPGA cut, at the age of 13. She earned a number of endorsements that enabled her to record an estimated annual income of $19 million by the age of 17. Now 23, she has accumulated total career earnings of more than $3.4 million and has already won two LPGA tournaments. Nevertheless, it's been more than two years since she won a title and there are fears that she may be experiencing a physical and emotional burnout.
The Bottom Line
The experiences of sporting prodigies such as Freddie Adu and Jennifer Capriati should serve as cautionary tales for parents and youngsters alike, as media acceptance and large financial endorsements do little to assist physical or emotional development. Such initial rewards can also discourage so-called prodigies from working hard in order to reach their full potential. In the case of emerging prodigies, such as nine-year-old tennis starlet Gabby Price, the onus is on responsible adults to manage their development and ensure that their talent is allowed to flourish without the distraction of extensive media intrusion or premature financial reward.