Monday 18 December 2017

Comment – The fanatical sports parent sometimes gets it right, but at what cost?

Jack O'Toole

Peter Berg’s Netflix documentary Trophy Kids is a fascinating insight into the relationship between the child athlete and their over obsessive parent.

Berg isn’t exactly breaking new ground in exploring the link between a promising child athlete and their over-bearing parent - go to any junior sports ground around the country and you’re likely to see a parent that is entirely convinced that their little Johnny; is the next Johnny Sexton, Walters or Cooper – but Berg highlights the unproven sports kid.

Justus Moore, an American Football wide receiver who struggled to get consistent first team reps on his high school football team.

Ian Fox, the basketball shooting guard who looked to a get a Division 1 scholarship. Amari Avery, the 12-year-old golfer who is consistently berated around the golf course by her father Andre, and who has a website listing all the similarities between her and Tiger Woods.

Berg creates a world, albeit an intensified version, of what many of us have seen on countless occasions – the sports parent who wants to live out their dreams through their own kids, have their children achieve what they couldn’t.

As sad as it often it is to see, hijacking a child’s life in pursuit of a person’s own dreams has worked before. Richard Williams, the father of tennis sensations Venus and Serena, once devised a 78-page plan detailing Venus and Serena’s future in tennis before the sisters were even born.

In an extract from a 2014 profile on Williams in the New Yorker, author Reeves Wiedeman paints a vivid image of what would have been just a small insight into the sisters’ upbringing.

“Once they were born, he put up signs in the family’s front yard to emphasize lessons about life - “Venus, You Must Take Control of Your Future” - and tennis - “Serena, You Must Learn to Use More Top Spin on the Ball”.

Boyfriends were not only not allowed, they were out of the question, and to discourage any impulse toward early motherhood Richard would rip the heads off of any of the dolls that Venus would bring home.

Venus and Serena have won 30 Grand Slam titles between them.

In golf, Earl Woods, the father of former world number one Tiger, said that his son ‘would do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity’ after Woods had won his first two Tour events as a pro in 1996.

Startled by the claim, Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith followed up Earl’s prediction by asking ‘would the kid do more than Buddha, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela?’

To which Woods replied: “Yes, because he has a larger forum than any of them."

The jury is still out on whether or not Tiger has done more for humanity than Buddha, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and while that particular prediction from Earl Woods was just a little off base, this one was much more accurate.

“I’m going to make a prediction. Before he’s through, my son will win 14 major championships,” said Earl after Tiger’s second of three straight US Amateur Open wins.

To date, Tiger Woods has won 14 majors.

Lonzo Ball, a consensus top-two pick in Thursday's NBA draft and Naismith Prep Player of the Year for 2016, is the brother of LiAngelo and LaMelo, but more importantly, he is the son of LaVar, an outspoken father who averaged 2.2 points per game in college as a basketball player, yet insists that he could beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one.

Jordan is widely considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time, while LaVar has become an internet meme, for a string of outlandish claims including stating that his son Lonzo is a better basketball player than Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors back-to-back MVP.

LaVar Ball is starting fires that his sons will find very hard to put out, and yet, Lonzo is being described as a potential ‘transcendent’ basketball talent.

On the home front, Gerry McIlroy, father of Rory, once lodged a £200 bet with Ladbrokes at 500-1 that his son Rory, then just 15, would win the Open Championship before his 26th birthday.

Rory won the Open Championship in July 2014, aged 25.

Documentaries like Trophy Kids are uncomfortable to watch, they tell the stories of kids who are pushed to the brink by their parents, in an activity that the audience is not entirely convinced the child actually enjoys.

But just because a parent is brash about their child’s prospects, or in Richard Williams’ case, their future children, doesn’t mean they’re wrong, even if it at times we’d like them to be.

The traditional model in Ireland has generally been the Brogan model, where Alan and Bernard, and to a lesser extent Paul, follow Bernard Sr. to success with Dublin football with not an awful lot of fanfare attached by the father.

Brian O’Driscoll followed Frank O’Driscoll, and Luke Fitzgerald followed father Des in a similar manner, and you don’t have to be bullish about your child’s prospects in sport for them to come true, but there really is no perfect way to nurture your child’s talent.

Earl Woods said his son would do more to change the course of humanity than Gandhi and Nelson Mandela – Tiger won 14 majors.

Richard Williams used to tear the heads off of his daughter’s play dolls – Serena and Venus won 30 Grand slams between them.

Then there’s Pistol Pete Maravich, one of the most offensively gifted basketball players of all time, who practiced his father’s unorthodox dribbling drills until his fingers literally bled.

His father ‘Press’ Maravich had an ideal of turning his son into a basketball prodigy – a Mozart in a pair of Chuck Taylor’s if you will.

Maravich dazzled in college and turned pro in 1970, where he became the highest-paid athlete in America at the time earning a staggering $1.9 million over five years.

But Pete was a horrible teammate, notoriously difficult to get on with, and eventually turned into an alcoholic who painted TAKE ME on the roof of his house to attract UFO’s.

His story is tragically sad and can help illustrate that relentlessly driving someone towards success has its pitfalls, even if there's enough examples to show that it can work at the highest level.

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