Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Posts Tagged ‘fatherhood

Being a sports dad, or how to screw up your children

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Robert Lipsyte has a great piece on about the mixed legacy of the sports dad. He describes his own father, who was “bookish” and not “ballish,” with whom he never “had a catch.” (Is it just me, or I am the only one outside of “Field of Dreams” who says “play catch?”) He describes his own parenting, informed by his sportswriting career, in which he pulled his son Sam (who grew up to be a writer himself) off of a baseball team with an “ubermacho” coach, and refused to let him play high school football because of all the effects of playing hurt.

Not that his kids didn’t play sports (Sam was a shot-putter, daughter Susannah was an all-state hockey forward), but Lipsyte contrasts this with the famous father of big-time sports heroes, who pushed a lot harder than Lipsyte’s father, and Lipsyte, ever did.

As fathers (assuming we’re involved with our children), there is always a struggle to know how much to push our kids, particularly when it comes to sports. A lot of us have sports we love (mine being basketball), and it seems to validate us as people and parents when our kids choose that sport, and do it well. Of course, we’re the heroes of youth sports league for having provided half the DNA to the star athlete. And if we can coach that star athlete and make great players out of others, all the better.

Even when we know otherwise, we fathers are very tempted to push harder to make our children into the athletes we presume they dream of being. We don’t want our children to look back and wish they pushed us more. We don’t want our children to ask us why we didn’t pay for this travel league, or sign them up for lessons, or “have a catch” often enough.

On the other hand, as Lipsyte points out, when fathers are involved with developing their kids into big-time athletes, they tend to be raging assholes.

Five years ago, for Flak Magazine, I did a “tribute” to some of the worst sports fathers. Amazingly I was able to do it without confining it just to women’s tennis players and Marv Marinovich. Click through to read the anti-inspiring stories of how fathers created great athletes and future therapist patients in sports such as hockey and golf, and are-parents-really-getting-worked-up-over-this activities as table tennis and chess.

There are plenty of athlete bios — Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, Ichiro Suzuki and Dwyane Wade immediately come to mind — where dad made The Great Santini look like a hands-off, live-and-let-live father.

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“Gotta win by two baskets!”

And those are the ones who “succeeded.” As you can see at youth sports every day, any case of benign neglect (like with the Lipsytes) is balanced by the malignant involvement of fathers. From Lipsyte’s article:

The literature of the sports dad has trended ever darker over recent years.  Poet Donald Hall’s elegiac view of baseball as “fathers playing catch with sons” has given way to the current rash of cautionary tales of Pee Wee pops beating their kids to make them “winners” or beating on their kids’ coaches for not giving them more playing time. (One dirty little secret in the performance-enhancing drug story of recent years is how often dads ignore, enable, or sometimes even directly finance chemical help for their kids.)

Over the last several years, talking to high school students about Raiders Night, a young adult novel of mine that deals with a football player and his driven dad, I’ve been struck by how regularly boys tense up when the subject of just why they play arises.

Remarkably often, once you get past the easy answers — the prestige of the varsity, the thrill of contact, the friendships, and the girls — it comes down to seeking the love and attention of dad. When dad manages to use his son as an avatar in his obsessive sports dreams, that love and attention become a whip and a cage. Ask Tiger. …

I know there are concert pianists, rocket scientists, and brain surgeons who had the equivalent of sports dads. Who knows what I’ve done (what my kids have done, what my grandkids are starting to do) to get love and attention. But after so many decades in the Game, I think the father-son dynamic is more vivid and charged in sports because the relationship blooms in all its loving and violent forms at such a vulnerable time in a kid’s development. That’s why so many grown-ups adore or despise sports.

On some level, as a father it seems you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Don’t push enough, and your child wonder why you denied him or her an opportunity. Push too hard, and your best shot is a money-making athlete who is a shell of a person. (Lipsyte says he’s happy to lean toward benign neglect.)

I wish I had some easy advice for how to strike a balance. The best thing I can come up with is, pay attention to your child and the interests he or she shows, and the intensity he or she shows about them. Then you go from there. That’s the best I can do.

Your humble blogger and his 4-year-old daughter, having a bat.

Michael Lewis whines about getting his moneyballs snipped

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And to the division of Your Kid’s Not Going Pro dedicated to them not doing so because Your Kid’s Never Existing.

USA Today health columnist Kim Painter notes various doctors talking about the tough image of the vasectomy. Tough, in that many men shiver at the thought of issuing a plant closing notice to their vas deferens. Although, according to Painter’s column, the tough economy is causing more men to decide to shut down sperm production like they were GM.

Part of the image problem, Painter notes, is a recent essay by Michael Lewis, in a book called Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, another book Joe Morgan won’t read. (With that title, the book should have been written by Desmond Hatchett.) The essay is about Lewis’ vasectomy, which appeared in the Guardian newspaper in the UK. The essay, not the vasectomy.

Even taking into account Lewis’ tongue-in-cheek account of the perils of parenthood (something Louis CK does far more uncomfortably and hilariously), he (and a few of his friends) comes off as a bit of prick, no pun intended:

The time had come for Daddy to take one for the team.

… Now, with the doctor’s scalpel just minutes away, it was drowned out by a new sound, of a grown man screaming: “They’re going to cut a hole in my johnson!”

I mean, why am I really here, stretched out and hairless and exposed and not knowing what to say to the mute lady scraping away south of the border? What’s the meaning of this outrage? This operation wasn’t about birth control. It was about life control.

I should have fought for my reproductive rights, like other men. A friend of mine, when his wife suggested he might go and get himself gelded, had just laughed and said, “What if I want a trophy wife one day?” Another had declined his wife’s invitation to a beheading by saying, “What if you and the kids go down in a plane crash?” Other men I knew refused the operation on the grounds of rumours they had heard about the side effects.

“I have a friend who had it done and he couldn’t feel his dick for 10 months,” a guy at a dinner party told me knowledgeably. “After that I said no way.” …

I rose from the table, and wobbled. Glued by sweat to my backside, from neck to thigh, was a paper bedsheet that came away only in strips and patches as I picked at it. I stepped into my trousers, hobbled to my car, and drove myself home. A hero to my wife. A traitor to my sex.

A traitor to your sex? As a male, I don’t care of others are getting cut, not getting cut, or going the full eunuch.

I’m speaking as a man who has gone under the ol’ slice-and-dice. My wife and I talked about me doing it after our third child, and in fact I had an appointment scheduled. But some conflicts arose, and somehow I never got around to re-scheduling. After we had our fourth child, I got around to it.

I understand a lot of men are squeamish about getting a vasectomy, although after watching my wife give birth four times I was pretty sure any pain I felt was going to be extremely, extremely minor in comparison. Plus,  I was looking forward to the surgery because that would allow me to watch sports and play video games all weekend so I could “recover.” You know you’re a busy, veteran parent when you look forward to illness or injury because you know it’s the only way you’ll ever get a break.

It probably helped that unlike Lewis’ friends, mine were enthusiastic in extolling the virtues of the vasectomy. One friend explained it to me, appropriately enough, as we were in another junk-related situation, standing in line for the men’s room at halftime, inappropriately enough, at a Notre Dame football game under the watchful eye of anti-birth control Touchdown Jesus. As my friend put it, the greatest thing about the vasectomy is the freedom of knowing when you’re having sex, you’re just having sex — no sweating whether you’ve got another kid on the way. (This is the same instinct that has single douchebags getting snipped so the only thing they’ll come away with after an encounter is VD.)

Before I got the surgery, I had the requisite counseling session with the urologist. He noted that I would be given a low-grade Valium the morning of the surgery. I asked, why do you do that? “To help you relax. A lot of men get nervous. Some throw up.” I bet those are the moments that doctor regrets choosing urology.

My surgery went without a hitch, and with just a few stiches. The pain wasn’t even all that bad. And I got my weekend retreat.

So to men like Lewis and his buddies, I say, when it comes to getting a vasectomy: Sack up.

Written by rkcookjr

June 15, 2009 at 6:54 am

I review until it hurts. I mean, “Until It Hurts.”

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Mark Hyman’s “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids,” is a concise (140 pages) look at how, well, America’s obsession with youth sports is harming our kids. It was an interesting read, and I must give Hyman some credit for his taste in blogs.

It’s easy to react to Hyman’s book by demanding that the entire parent/coaching/merchandising establishment be rounded up and shot for the child abuse they call youth sports. But I didn’t have that reaction, in part because I’m a heartless bastard, and in part because I was a history minor. (The two might be related.) Instead, I found snippets that were telling about why all this crazy sports parenting might not be so crazy after all.

Hyman opens his book talking about looking at a picture of his son Ben at 18 months old out in the snow with a T-ball set. “Whose idea was it to hone the swing of a toddler in the dead of winter? Mine. What was I thinking? I wish I had an answer.” This guilt is a running theme as Hyman exorcises his own demons of Ben needing arm surgery as a teenager after a series of coaches, including himself, pitched him too much. The book ends with Ben have a grand old time pitching on a college club team, no adults coaches to be found.

Hyman has plenty of other stories of athletes burned out, mentally and physically, by specializing in a sport from an early age, pushed by adults to succeed. Did you know, for example, that Michael Phelps’ sister Whitney was the original Olympic hope of the family, until her body burned out by age 16?

cover-of-until-it-hurts1Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I would have loved to have read a lot more about the history of organized youth sports, and how it evolved. It seems pretty clear that adults from day one had purposes other than just fun and games; usually it had something to do with preparing for war. There’s great stuff in the book like how Little League Baseball, by 1955, had frozen out Carl Stotz, who only founded LLB in 1939. He had the temerity to question the wisdom of an LLB World Series.

An interesting history as well would have talked about something not quite so youth sport-y, but something that drives the nuttiness we see today — how the demands of college recruiters and the money to be made in pro sports has changed the youth sports dynamic.

While old-time coaches like UCLA volleyball coach Al Scates and Hawaii baseball coach Les Murakamai speak out against the year-round specialization that provides the Hurts of the book, newer coaches like Quinnipiac women’s soccer coach Dave Clarke refuse to look at any player who hasn’t survived the rigors of club soccer. To him, school soccer is, and I paraphrase, for losers.

Hyman lays out the overwhelming odds against your kid not getting a college scholarship, much less going pro. (In most nonrevenue sports, few athletes are getting scholarships of any kind. That’s why you always see a few football players on the baseball team or track team.) But you’re not going to have a chance if your kid doesn’t specialize early and aim for that elusive scholarship. Given how colleges recruit and who pros sign, parents (and their children) who go down this road are not crazy. They’re making a rational decision based on the available evidence.

It’s like the lottery — you don’t win if you don’t play. Like the lottery, if you win, you win huge. But if you fall short, you have a lot of regrets and money pissed down the toilet. Hyman’s book focuses on how much is being pissed away, and how adults are squeezing the bladder. However, there’s still a book to be written to explain, in further detail and with less author’s guilt, how we got here.

(Oh, and a personal note to Mark Hyman, in case he reads this — don’t feel guilty. Like any parents, you made the best decisions you could with the information you had on hand. Plus, who doesn’t get caught up in their kids playing a sports, especially when they’re good? It’s nerve-wracking to watch you kid out there alone, especially as a pitcher, in control of everything when you’re not. As for that picture, my daughters dragged bats and balls out in the dead of winter when they were 18 months old. I suspect the idea to have Ben hit off a tee at that age and that time was not all yours.)

The Ballad of Todd Marinovich

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Exhibit A in the Modern Age of Crazy Sports Parenting is usually the oddball relationship between Marv Marinovich and his son, Todd. As the story famously goes, when the ex-Oakland Raider and personal trainer found out he was going to have a baby boy, he started in the womb the training and feeding of young Todd, using the Eastern Bloc training methods he studied. After his birth July 4, 1969 (while your humble blogger was still in the womb, not being fed a diet of carob), everything in Todd’s life was trained to make him what was later called “robo-QB.”

373691911_30e0117897Just as famously, Todd made his way to USC and a first-round pick of the Raiders, but flamed out quickly because of drug addiction and other personal problems, cementing Marv as a unanimous choice for one of the worst sports parents of all-time. (Further cementing Marv’s status is that with his second wife he had another son, Mikhail, whom he tried to develop, with a few variations, into a robo-linebacker. Mikhail is a reserve at Syracuse, where he’s made his fame opening a hookah bar and getting arrested. Oh, and Mikhail is an aspiring model, too.)

The assumption is that Todd’s downfall was some sort of passive-aggressive rebellion against his father trying to make him into a quarterback machine, a less destructive (at least to Marv) way than say, the monster killing Dr. Frankenstein, to show his displeasure with his creator.

After reading Mike Sager’s piece in the latest Esquire on Todd Marinovich, I’m rethinking a few of my own assumptions — although his story still stands as the unintended consequences of crazy sports parenthood, or crazy parenthood in general. It’s a reminder as a parent that whatever ambitions you have for your child, however you try to steer them, no matter how overbearing and focused you are, and no matter if you indeed are doing what is best for your child, that child is a human being who can — and perhaps should — veer off your course at any moment.

Actually, I wish this story were more about Marv, because Todd himself is just another boring junkie. He was clean as the story was reported, but the story notes a February relapse into addiction, while Todd handles with much more maturity than he had in the past — he calls his parole officer to report his violation.

What has me rethinking some of my assumptions is that for all of Marv’s effort in making sure Todd ate and trained right, he appeared to make no attempt to shield his son from the party-hearty lifestyle a star athlete can get away with.

From the story, picking up after Marinovich, as a freshman, opens the season as the varsity’s starting quarterback:

After the final gun, Todd stood with his parents. His new teammates drifted over and surrounded him. “When I was growing up, the term my mom used was ‘terrifyingly shy,’ ” Todd says. “That’s why I always loved being on a team. It was the only way I could make friends. It was really amazing to have these guys, these upperclassmen, come over. And they’re like, ‘Hey, Todd, let’s go! Come out with us after the game. It’s party time!’ “

Todd looked at Marv. The old man didn’t hesitate. “He just gave me the nod, you know, like, ‘Go ahead, you earned it.’

“We went directly to a kegger and started pounding down beers,” Todd recalls.

For what it’s worth, the story notes that it was Todd’s goal to start as a freshman. Was he just under Marv’s thrall? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t always assume with a perceived crazy sports parents that the kid is being dragged along for the ride.

Later in high school, Marinovich’s parents divorced — and the leash loosened.

Then the January 1988 issue of California magazine hit the stands with Todd’s picture on the cover. The headline: ROBO QB: THE MAKING OF A PERFECT ATHLETE. A media onslaught ensued. They called Todd the bionic quarterback, a test-tube athlete, the boy in the bubble. All over the world, people were talking about Todd’s amazing story. In truth, he was leading a double life.

“I really looked forward to giving it all I had at the game on Friday night and then continuing through the weekend with the partying. It opened up a new social scene for me — liquid courage. I wasn’t scared of people anymore,” Todd says.

At Mater Dei, Todd had also begun smoking marijuana. By the time his junior year rolled around, he says, “I was a full-on loady.” His parents had divorced just before his transfer, and he was sharing a one-bedroom apartment with Marv near Capistrano. “Probably the best part of my childhood was me and Marv’s relationship my junior and senior years,” Todd says. “After the divorce, he really loosened up. It was a bachelor pad. We were both dating.”

For all his personal troubles, one thing Todd does nowhere in the article is blame Marv. Below a photo of the two men, Todd looking more like bald Ron Howard than the flowing red-haired god of his youth, Sager concludes the piece:

From the driver’s seat, sensing his good mood, I ask: “How much effect do you think that Marv and sports and all contributed to you turning to drugs?” I’d been saving this line of questioning since our first interview, six months earlier. “If you look at your life, it’s interesting. It appears that to get out of playing, you sort of partied away your eligibility. It’s like you’re too old to play now, so you don’t have to do drugs anymore. Has the burden been lifted?”

Todd looks out the windshield down the road. The truck bounces. Thirty full seconds pass.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Todd says at last. “I really have very few answers.”

“That’s kind of what it seems like. A little.”

Twenty seconds.

“No thoughts?”

“I think, more than anything, it’s genetic. I got that gene from the Fertigs — my uncle, the Chief. They were huge drinkers. And then the environment plays a part in it, for sure.”

He lights another Marlboro Red, sucks down the first sweet hit. He rides in silence the rest of the way home.

Despite having a fiancee with a baby on the way, and how he handled his February relapse, and the faraway end to his athletic career, Todd appears to have a hard time breaking his addictions. After the Esquire piece was written, Todd was arrested for missing a Drug Court hearing and will sit in jail at least through May 4, when he has a hearing on his case. There is a good chance Marinovich will spend his 40th birthday in prison.

Jamie Moyer: crazy sports parent

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In the same Sports Illustrated featuring an excerpt of Mark Hyman’s youth-sports-are-maiming-our-children tome “Until It Hurts” and a profile of an ESPN high school national championship won by Findlay Prep, which is not in reality a high school, comes a profile of Jamie Moyer, an athlete who seems to be a living argument against overemphasizing your youth athlete  in a single sport as a means of getting to the majors.

Moyer, a Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, is best known for being old and good, winning 213 of his 247 games after age 30 (he’s 46) with a fastball your kid could outrun. The story, by Michael Bamberger, notes Moyer was passionate about baseball early, but that he spent his high school sporting life playing “golf in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. … In the summer he’d work and play American Legion baseball and pickup basketball and squeeze in nine holes at the public course in the fading light.”

A well-rounded sports childhood. Probably explains how well he can use his wits, and why he’s been able to pitch so long without hurting himself. Surely he would use that example for his own seven children to follow…

…oh wait.

[The Moyer family moved from Seattle] to Bradenton [Fla.] for Dillon, a 17-year-old shortstop. And for Hutton, a 15-year-old second baseman. The family moved to Bradenton to further the baseball educations of the two oldest boys. Dillon, a high school junior, and Hutton, a freshman, are enrolled in the baseball program at the IMG Academy. They are full-time students and full-time ballplayers. Dillon and Hutton will not be mowing bumpy municipal ball fields [as Jamie did] anytime soon, but they take ground balls all year long.

“I grew up blue-collar, my kids are growing up in a major league environment,” [Moyer] says. As baseball players I want Dillon and Hutton to have the best possible coaching. Access to experts in nutrition. Weight training. Good competition. Exposure. They’ve said they want to see how far they can get in baseball. I’m fortunate to have the means to help them.”

And with that, thousands of intense sports parents got instant justification for what they’re doing.

Putting on my Steve Stone, “for-all-you-young-coaches-out-there” voice

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2315101076_d7483780e8_mThat voice also says, “For all you young announcers out there, make sure you have a strong stomach before spending a season working with Hawk Harrelson.”

Brian Reid of Rebeldad, blogging at the Washington Post’s On Parenting site, is asking for answer to the following questions as he investigates following in his own father’s footsteps as a youth sports coach:

At what point do kids turn rabidly competitive? Does that happen before or after the parents make the transition? And what happens when you coach your own kid (or what happens when the mom or dad around the block coaches their kid)?

Here is how I answered his questions:

I’ve coached two of my kids in multiple sports and am working on my third (T-ball this spring), so I’ll take a crack at this:

At what point do kids turn rabidly competitive?

I would say age two, when someone tries to take their toy. Seriously, some care about winning, some don’t, some care about making sure they’re the best player out there, some don’t. You can’t make a kid who doesn’t care, care. However, you can make a kid who cares funnel that energy in the right direction so he or she doesn’t make his or her teammates miserable.

Does that happen before or after the parents make the transition?

We shouldn’t be shocked that parents are competitive because, at a minimum, they want to see their child succeed, or at least feel like they’re not wasting their and their child’s time. But it’s like the kids — some parents care, some don’t, and the challenge is funneling the energy of the parents who care in the right direction, i.e., staying positive.
And what happens when you coach your own kid (or what happens when the mom or dad around the block coaches their kid)?

I tell my kids before each season that once we hit the field/court, I’m speaking to them as their coach, and that I will treat them equally as other kids. I do that so they don’t expect special treatment (which I’m not sure they do), but moreso that if I critique their play they know I’m speaking as a coach trying to help them, not their father trying to be a jerk. My 11-year-old son is so well-trained on this, the moment we step out of the car for a practice or game, he stops calling me “Dad” and calls me “Coach.”

As far as other parents coaching their kids, you do have some who blatantly favor their own children — often to the child’s detriment. I’ve seen serious meltdowns when a coach kept putting his or her child in nominal position to be the star, but the child instead struggled mightily. It’s hard enough on a kid when he or she struggles, but the pressure is even greater when he or she feels he or she is letting down not just a coach, but a parent.