Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Michael Jackson and the fate of child prodigies

with 4 comments

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Shaheen Jafargholi, 12-year-old winner of Britain’s Got Talent thanks to the above rendition of the Jackson Five’s “Who’s Loving You,” I hope you realized the cautionary tale in the casket when you sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial Tuesday.

Of course, being a child prodigy is no guarantee you grow up twisted and die an untimely (and very ratings meter-moving) death. Stevie Wonder, who also sang at the MJ memorial, is an example of a child prodigy (from Motown Records, no less) who appeared to grow up to be at least some semblance of a functional human being.

But the whole vibe got me to thinking — who suffers the worse fate, the child sports prodigy, or the child arts prodigy?

Each comes on like a rocket, often pushed by a whack-job of a stage parent. Some, like Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and the aforementioned Wonder, might have their quirks, but you don’t look at them like freaks. Some, like Jackson, Judy Garland and Bobby Fischer, grow up to be pinnacles of their field and complete basket cases in real life. Many never make it to a superstar level, leaving them to tell bitter, boring stories about when they were big, or fascinating tales of a young life, depending on what side you’re on in a debate best expressed in this exchange from the movie, “Hoosiers.”

Myra Fleener: You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god, er, uh, how can he ever find out what he can really do? I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.
Coach Norman Dale: You know, most people would kill… to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.

What do you think?


4 Responses

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  1. Bob, of course the sad thing is that child prodigies don’t really have a voice in their early fates. It is the adults/parents who make the decisions to thrust them forward.

    In the end, it’s probably a toss-up—some prodigies, like Ron Howard, grow and thrive; others, like Judy Garland, suffer and die.

    A skating teacher once urged me to put my daughter into competition. My daughter balked, so I said no. Years later, my daughter said, “Why didn’t you let me compete? I wish I had continued.”

    Which just goes to show, there may be no winning for a parent in this situation!

    Susan Toepfer

    July 7, 2009 at 9:21 pm

  2. If your daughter needs an answer for why you didn’t let her compete, I can get you in touch with a friend of mine who covers international ice skating. Five minutes with her should show your daughter you made the right call.

    Bob Cook

    July 7, 2009 at 11:08 pm

  3. Bob, you’ve hit on one my favorite (and I would argue most telling) exchanges in one of my favorite movies.

    For athletes, the window of big time fame is smaller, I would think and that, alone, would perhaps temper the odd effects of stardom. No athlete (except Nadia Comaneci? Maybe?) achieved or even could achieve the kind of adoration and global super stardom of somebody like Jackson or Shirley Temple at such tender ages, But still, great athletes, like superstars, are people to whom much is given and expected.

    Stardom like that warps. People want to be around it, to bask in the light of that stardom and, thus, I think it would be pretty easy to allow yourself to be surrounded by sycophants if you’re Michael Jackson. Or A-Rod. Wouldn’t having hangers on and yes-men around change a person? I think it’s a good thing to be cut down to size and dealt a big heaping dose of reality from time to time. Which is very likely lacking if your, say, Madonna or Lebron James.

    Of course, the difference is, for athletes there will always come an end. Even the great Michael Jordan couldn’t play forever, so he had to eventually find something else to do. He’s still Jordan, of course, and still adored by hoops fans everywhere, but his actual basketball career had to end in a way that a music career or an acting career don’t. The Rolling Stones still tour and Jackson was planning one. Perhaps athletes who become too coddled too soon flame out dramatically – see Leaf, Ryan – and just go away in a way that Jackson didn’t (or wouldn’t, depending on your POV.)

    Jody DiPerna

    July 8, 2009 at 7:08 am

  4. If it was my daughter, I would have said that she was the one who balked, and that despite the fact that you were willing to make sacrifices, she was very resistant. My teenage daughter tries this stuff all the time, trying to push the blame for things she did or did not do back on her parents. In these kind of cases, my wife likes to add on a long painful lecture about how she didn’t have many opportunities growing up in the poor Third World country she immigrated from and how she is squandering them, a lecture that is punishment for all involved (including me).


    July 8, 2009 at 12:26 pm

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