Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Gold medal

Jennifer Capriati: A cautionary tale

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Mug shot of Jennifer Capriati.

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes, a parent’s goal is not just that his or her child go pro. It’s that the child’s accomplishment — whether it’s sports or something else that can draw a high profile (I’m looking at you, Sunderland family) — is done at the youngest possible age.

As we know from the tragedy’s of child sitcom stars, this early success often comes at a severe personal price. And Jennifer Capriati — whose  “accidental” overdose of prescription medication was first reported June 27 by TMZ — is still paying it.

Jennifer Capriati made waves in 1990 when she became a 13-year-old tennis pro, young even by the standards of women’s tennis, where then — as now — pushy-to-the-point-of-abusive parents are often key to a player’s development. (In Jennifer’s case, Stefano Capriati was the horror dad.)

Alas,  Capriati, after an initial wave of success that included an Olympic gold medal in 1992, by 17 had been busted for shoplifting and marijuana possession as she became the tragic early sports burnout to top all tragic early burnouts. Her mugshot (at left) was a cautionary tale all by itself. Was she rebelling against tennis? Her father? At that point, that Capriati would live was more of a concern than whether she played tennis. (The U.S. Tennis Association even passed a “Capriati rule” in 1994 so no more 13-year-olds could play and follow do Capriati’s dark path.)

But Capriati came back, cleaning herself up and winning two Grand Slams in 2001 — the Australian and the French. Was it a love of tennis that propelled her? Or was it that her identity didn’t allow her to do anything else? A few years later, a shoulder injury forced Capriati to retire — and face problems with depression and suicidal thoughts. This is from a 2007 New York Daily News profile of Capriati:

“When I stopped playing, that’s when all this came crumbling down,” Capriati says. “If I don’t have (tennis), who am I? What am I? I was just alive because of this. I’ve had to ask, ‘Well, who is Jennifer? What if this is gone now?’ I can’t live off of this the rest of my life.” …

“When someone that young has such an incredible level of talent and promise, and the whole world identifies them with it, it can short-circuit the natural process of identity formation,” says Dr. Fred Wertz, chairman of Fordham’s psychology department. The result is that you see yourself in one way, doing one thing. Other options don’t even compute.

Despite the Capriati family’s insistence that her prescription drug overdose was accidental, many were freely speculating, based on Capriati’s past, that maybe it wasn’t so accidental.

I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, so I don’t know how many of Capriati’s problems were due to her tennis-stunted upbringing, and how many are due to clinical depression that might have manifested itself even if she had a “normal” childhood and had grown up to become an accountant.

Every athlete, particularly an elite athlete, struggles with what to do after the fame and the games are gone. But it’s particularly sad to see someone who struggled so much to keep from burning out at 17, and now looks to be in serious crisis at the mere age of 34.

The lesson for parents is not necessarily in what happens if your child is an early pro achiever. Most of us will never know that. However, there is a lesson is what happens if your child specializes early, and mentally or physically burns out by, say, high school. How will you handle that? How will your child handle that? Do you and your child have enough perspective on sports to be prepared for the day a knee injury or mental struggles means a whole way of life has come to an end?

Dr. Phil, solving your youth sports problems

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Phil McGraw, America’s favorite pop psychologist and Hank Kingsley doppelganger, on his Nov. 4 show asked this musical question: “Whether it’s in school, sports or hobbies, all parents want their children to succeed. But can a competitive spirit go too far?”

dr-phil2“Hey now!”

And Dr. Phil’s answer was, “No, not really.”

Just kidding! Of course you can go too far! Dr. Phil has an hour (including commercials) to kill!

Given the self-selecting freaks that throw themselves at talk show, it probably wasn’t hard for Dr. Phil’s staff to find bad examples. (Heck, all they would have had to do is read this blog.) Ronda, apparently threatening death for noncompliance, has had her 10-year-old daughter practicing hours on end since age 4 for the hotly contested baton-twirling circuit in order to earn a coveted baton-twirling college scholarship. (Who knew there was a baton-twirling circuit, or that you could get a scholarship?

[youtubevid id=”UBmSvcRpJOw”]

The Iowa Golden Girl knew. Also, the Golden Girl in this video began twirling at age 3, so joke’s on you, Ronda — you started too late!

To show Ronda religion, Dr. Phil trotted out Dominque Moceanu, who at age 14, as part of the celebrated 1996 U.S. Olympic gymanstics team, became the youngest American gymnast to win a gold medal, a record that can’t be broken because the minimum age for international competition is 16. (Yeah, those Chinese gymnasts in 2008 were 16. Wink wink.)

Moceanu told Ronda how as a girl she started hating the sport she once loved because of the way she was pushed too hard by her parents and coaches at such a young age, to the point that she suffered the horrible fate of winning a gold medal and using it as a springboard for everything she’s done with her life since.

Actually, Monceau didn’t say that last part, but I’m guessing that’s what Ronda heard. Maybe instead of sending out an Olympic champion to tell her mock-horror story, Dr. Phil could have contacted say, True/Slant contributor/former ice skating champion Jennifer Kirk, who could have suggested a true bitter flameout or 10. (Hey, TV isn’t the only place that can shamelessly cross-promote.)

Dr. Phil followed with a skater who got steroid injections from his father (not Mark McGwire) at age 13, but by then his message was clear: pushing too hard and making sports your thing instead of your kid’s thing is bad. Well, clear to everyone but Ronda:

Dr. Phil addresses Ronda, wondering aloud if she’s had a change of heart. “What is most important to you?” he asks. “Would it be more important for your child to love herself, and love her life, and feel loved by you and be a joyful child or win a trophy?

“Now? Not so much the trophy,” Ronda concedes. “I felt like if I didn’t push her, who was going to? How was she going to be the best if I’m not there supporting her and pushing her toward that? I felt like she needed me. She needed me to be there for her, and not to let her quit and not to let her stop practicing, because if she did, what is she going to be — nothing?”

Iowa Golden Girl or bust — that’s the way all the parenting books recommend it.

I’ve never spent much time — well, any — on the Dr. Phil web site, but for each show there’s a little video clip labeled “uncensored.” Wow! Is this where Dr. Phil strips down, swings his million-dollar pecker, and says stuff like: “What the fuckity fuck fuck is that stupid fucking idiot Ronda thinking? Jesus fucking Christ, you dumb turd! And Dominique — holy fucking shit, how did you grow up to be so fucking hot! Shit!”

I quickly discovered it’s not like that. So what does Dr. Phil say instead?

“The whole point here is, look — you can introduce your children to things, you can introduce ’em to a sport, and they might get excited about it first and then lose their energy. Or maybe they’ll get traction, and they’ll decide to be passionate about it. What you’ve gotta do is encourage and provide opportunities. But you can’t run your agenda … they’ll find their place in this world. Show ’em a lot of different things.”

Man, what do you expect from a TV psych–hey now, that’s actually pretty smart.