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Practice does not make perfect when crazed parents push their kids too far

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Rob Kearney and David Epstein at the Denis O'Brien Science Lecture

Rob Kearney and David Epstein at the Denis O'Brien Science Lecture

Tipperary hurler Kieran Bergin

Tipperary hurler Kieran Bergin

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Rob Kearney and David Epstein at the Denis O'Brien Science Lecture

Perhaps the most amazing aspect to last year's HBO documentary 'State of Play: Trophy Kids' was how the parents featured seemed to forget that they were in the constant presence of a camera crew.

Either that or they had simply become too crazed to care.

Football dad Joshua; basketball dad Steve; tennis mom Jamie and golf dad Andre all sounded so consumed by the mission to turn their kids into stars, they neglected the basic duty of care they had to be, above all, a parent. It made for, at times, deeply uncomfortable viewing, particularly the segment in which Joshua reduces his palpably worn-out son to tears after one training session.

"Whenever I get in the car, I feel like I'm in trouble," says 15-year-old Justus, lip trembling.

You can't but feel that the adults' relationships with these children are driven, above all, by self-interest, by a desire to unearth the next Tiger Woods or Serena Williams and reap what dividends might follow.

This is, presumably, a monster created by the so-called '10,000-hour theory', the argument widely perpetuated that high performance in sport is determined, above all, by commitment to practice.

Challenged

That theory is challenged in David Epstein's 'The Sports Gene', and some of Ireland's finest sports people sat rapt in UCD on Thursday afternoon as the award-winning American writer delivered the inaugural O'Brien Science Lecture.

The nub of Epstein's argument is that children must be allowed a "sampling period" before specialisation is introduced into their lives. In other words, they need to reach some level of physiological maturity before anyone can truly say what sport their bodies are even suited to.

In 'Trophy Kids', that patience proves elusive. The story is of a madness kicking in with parents who seem to believe that, through simple coercion, they can fast-track their kids to fame and, presumably, fortune.

To some degree, it places a mirror in front of anyone who has ever been even remotely over-zealous on the sideline while watching their kids play sport.

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What was striking in UCD was the uniformity of pathways into elite sport taken by people like Rob Kearney, Annalise Murphy and Darragh McDonald.

Kearney recalled a typical childhood day in Louth as one that might have embraced golf, swimming and Gaelic football in a single afternoon. Murphy played hockey and tennis at school before following her Olympian mother, Cathy McAleavey, into sailing.

McDonald admitted that he tried a whole multiple of sports before settling on swimming. "In case anyone doesn't know, I'm actually missing both my legs as well," he told the audience of coaches, scientists, sports administrators and fellow athletes. A gold medallist at the London Paralympics, McDonald admitted that the appeal of swimming was strictly practical at first. He needed to lose weight to avoid life in a wheelchair.

The message from all was unequivocal. It takes time to find the sport that best suits your physiology or, indeed, circumstance. Parents forcing their own life choices on a son or daughter aren't prioritising that child. They're chasing a (usually illusory) crock of gold.

From the floor, '56 Olympic gold medallist Ronnie Delany told how he played tennis, hockey, rugby and Gaelic football while growing up in Sandymount. In other words, he had a childhood as distinct from some kind of enslavement to an adult's dream.

And Brian Mullins, the former Dublin midfielder who is UCD sports director, stressed the importance of coaches understanding the variables of teenage growth spurts and not dismissing the potential of kids who have yet to complete theirs.

In 'Trophy Kids', none of that seemed to register. The enslavement of children to a particular discipline made for one of the saddest tableaus imaginable in sport, the picture of a child being psychologically beaten up by the epic conceit of their parent. It's worth watching if only to remember that.

Bergin's honesty reflects unwelcome truth

One throwaway remark from Tipperary's Kieran Bergin this week perfectly distilled the difficulties facing GAA referees.

The Killenaule man admitted that he would not have been surprised had that controversial, last-second free awarded to Tipp in the drawn All-Ireland final been given to Kilkenny instead. His view was that Barry Kelly's decision was, at best, marginal.

But, critically, Bergin added: "Then again, you don't really know the rules."

His candour might not please everyone in the Tipp dressing-room, but it does surely shine the most illuminating of lights on the fraught circumstance in which referees now operate.

The assumption that, just because you are a county player, you have a county-standard understanding of the rules has always been a dangerous one. The truth is that few players, pundits or even managers have that kind of forensic knowledge.

There is, after all, no theory test to pass before you can play the game, comment upon it or take charge of a team. Factor in the general rule of silence imposed on referees and it's easy to see why so many controversies end up generating more heat than light.

Bergin, maybe unwittingly, did the game a service this week. He acknowledged the elephant in the corner.

'Supermario' solution not so simple for Reds

The idea that Liverpool are now said to be "weighing up" the January sale of Mario Balotelli begs a few worryingly compelling questions.

Like to who exactly? And for how much? Even the Italian's own agent conceded in August that his move to Anfield represented some kind of last chance for Balotelli to be a viable professional at a big club.

Milan seemed euphoric at Liverpool's willingness to part with £16m back then and it is simply inconceivable that, come the next transfer window, there will be any suitors for Balotelli intent upon anything but the most superficial of investment.

The best Liverpool can probably hope for is a mid-table Serie A team taking the player back to Italy on loan with a view to some kind of anguished fire-sale in the summer.

For Brendan Rodgers, this is a catastrophic consequence of Fenway's reluctance to pay marquee figures for a marquee player. Balotelli, clearly, was never Rodgers' idea of a workable replacement for Luis Suarez.

If they knew Suarez was leaving before the end of last season, why were they not re-igniting their interest in Diego Costa? One word: money.


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