Under Pressure

October 4, 2008 | By Matthew Futterman

Bowie and Julie Martin shuttled their sons for five years to a never-ending series of practices, lessons and games in a half-dozen sports before finally suggesting the boys focus on a single pursuit, golf, the game where the children showed the most promise.

Josh and Zach Martin were 6 and 8.

“I just wanted them to be great at something,” Mr. Martin explains.

So far, so good. Today, the Martin family’s single-minded pursuit has produced perhaps the two best young golfers living under the same roof anywhere. Their two-bedroom townhouse beside the 17th hole of a golf course in Pinehurst, N.C., is an exhibit space for dozens of oversized silver and crystal trophies that Josh and Zach have won, including 11 at international tournaments.

Soft-spoken but intense, driven and supportive rather than overbearing and abusive, Bowie and Julie Martin symbolize an era when seven-year-olds sign up for speed and agility training and the singular pursuit of greatness has become both acceptable and commonplace. From the athletic field to the classroom to the recital hall, parental involvement—some say over-involvement—in the minutiae of their children’s lives is as widespread as it has ever been.

Experts in child development say a broad swath of today’s parents, who generally have smaller families and greater resources, are pouring enormous amounts of time, money and psychic energy into raising exceptional children. Today’s young parents were the “latch-key” kids of the 1970s and 1980s, reared by hands-off parents who were among the least restrictive in generations, says Neil Howe, author of the 2000 book “Millennials Rising.”

When their kids were born, this generation went the other direction, he says, taking on the job of protecting them from all the dangers they saw around them; popularizing V-chips for TVs and Baby On Board signs for car windows. “They’re very protective almost in reaction to their own upbringing,” Mr. Howe says.

Some of them were influenced by best-selling books by the era’s leading child experts, including William and Martha Sears, who coined the phrase “attachment parenting,” which encourages mothers to have a “magnet-like” bond with their children. In a child’s early infancy, they said, mothers should read their babies’ faces for clues about their needs and look for signs that their parenting was appreciated. As their kids have grown, psychologists say these working parents have dealt with their limited family time, and their guilt about leaving their kids at home, by being more intensely involved when they are with their kids.

Despite being 13 and 11 years-old respectively, brothers Zachary and Josh Martin are trying to do for golf what Serena and Venus Williams did for tennis. As WSJ’s Matt Futterman reports, the brothers are two of the best young golfers in the country and, after a discussion with their parents, have turned all of their attention exclusively on the sport. (Oct. 4)

The percentage of adults with a college degree has nearly doubled in the last three decades, and now experts say more parents see raising talented kids as another chapter in their own pursuit of success.

The children often stay unusually close to their parents. Marketing surveys show parents and kids listen to the same music and have similar tastes in clothes. In response to a first-ever question in the National Survey of Student Engagement last year, 75% of college freshman and seniors said they almost always took their parents’ advice—a number that surprised the study’s director, Indiana University professor George Kuh.

Children of very involved parents do achieve, but not always in a healthy way. A new study from the University of Montreal to be published this fall in the Journal of Personality found that the children of controlling parents were more likely to turn their hobbies into anxiety-producing obsessions, while the children of more laid-back parents were more likely to just enjoy it, says professor Genevieve Mageau, who studied 588 children and teenagers, many of them musicians and athletes.

Henry David Feldman, a professor of child development at Tufts University who has followed a group of musical and chess prodigies since the 1970s, said such standouts, especially in music, can show a higher rate of depression as they grow older.

In sports, where the competition is explicit and obsessive parents have long been part of the scenery, many of these warnings are being ignored. The consensus among experts is that the best approach is a narrow one. Golf coach Hank Haney, who is Tiger Woods’s current coach, insists a future champion needs to pick his game by the third grade.

“You’ve got to steer kids in a direction,” he says. “I’m not saying this creates the most well-rounded person, but if the question is, ’What does it take to be great?’ That is what it takes. You need to be focused.”

Steady and Reserved

Josh Martin, who is 11, has a Harry Potter poster next to his bed and the butter-smooth golf swing of a player twice his age. He is steady and reserved, unusual traits for a kid his age, almost as unusual as his ability to repeat his exact swing with every stroke, a feat even some touring pros struggle with. He has won his division in nearly every major junior tournament the past four years and is generally considered the best golfer in the world at his age.

This summer, he is averaging just 69.6 strokes for each round of 18 holes on courses with an average length of 5,614 yards. Professional golfers play courses between 7,000 and 7,500 yards, but Josh Martin weighs about half of what they do. His low round is a 62. “Sometimes I’ll get a little nervous, but I just try to play my game and that usually works,” he says.

Zach Martin, who is 13, already takes high-school math, which he says is easy, but his favorite subject is reading. Though he still usually beats his little brother on the course, he is more erratic, a lefty who will spray the ball all over the practice range, then hit every shot down the center of the fairway in competition. His swing sometimes looks like an attempt to swat a fly inside a phone booth. Still, he picked up his fifth championship in a top-tier tournament this summer.

Exactly where this all came from remains a mystery. Bowie and Julie Martin, both 45 years old, don’t play golf. Bowie Martin was once ranked among the better junior ping-pong players in the country but says he never excelled at anything else. Before they became parents their direct involvement in sports was limited to operating the Martins’ family business, Butterfly N.A., based in Wilson, N.C., which distributes $5 million worth of premium table-tennis equipment throughout North America each year.

Once Mr. Martin became a father though, simply buying bats and balls to teach his kids to play sports on his own, like the rest of the parents in the neighborhood, would not suffice. “I wanted them to have the best coaching no matter what they did,” Mr. Martin says. “I was definitely on the lunatic fringe.”

Mr. Martin, who played soccer and tennis in high school, in addition to ping pong, says he wished he’d concentrated on a single sport growing up. Then he might have had a chance to play on a team in college at the University of North Carolina. When he became a parent, he wanted to see how good his children could become if they focused on a single sport and had top instruction.