Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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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?

Andre Agassi and his father do their version of Rashomon

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For all the talk about crystal meth, the real theme of former tennis star Andre Agassi’s new book is how much he fuckin’ hates his old man for making him play fuckin’ tennis. He goes on so long about it, you expect him to strip off his tennis shorts and announce he always wanted to be a lumberjack.

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You’ve probably already read the excerpts of his book “Open.” Like how Mike Agassi taped ping pong rackets to little toddler Andre’s hands. How he fired balls at 110 mph from a machine — at age 7. The pressure Andre felt at age 9 when his dad wanted to bet the house (literally) on him beating football Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown in a tennis match (which Andre did, in a bet whittled down to $500). How Mike coerced Andre into taking speed before a tournament. How Mike kept an ax handle in his car, for, um, situations that he wouldn’t try to solve with a pistol, or by throwing the salt and pepper he carried around into some goob’s face. How Mike congratulated Andre for winning Wimbledon by telling him he shouldn’t have lost the fourth set. How Mike called Andre a fag. How Mike was “shrill and stern and filled with rage.”

Andre-Agassi-openMike Agassi already had the reputation for being “domineering,” as Andre’s former coach, the legendary Nick Bollitierri put it, before the release of “Once.” But now Mike, very much alive at age 79, is now cemented to the crazy tennis parent Hall of Fame, up there with Andre’s father-in-law, Peter Graf. (Another hilarious anecdote in the book is how when Andre’s dad and Steffi Graf’s dad met for the first time, Peter immediately asked to see the legendary ball machine, followed by the two men arguing over tennis strategy, followed by Andre breaking them up when the two ex-boxers started to strip down to fight.)

Andre, while seeming a little heartened that his dad learn to hate tennis when he saw his youngest son’s body breaking down at his career’s end, has a lot of daddy issues to work out. Why else would each of his wives — his first wife was Brooke Shields — be the daughters of domineering stage parents? Who better to understand Andre and his relationship with his father?

So what does Mike think?

He already said what he thought in his own 2004 book, “The Agassi Story,” a heart-warming look at a dad who just wants what’s best for his kids. Here is how Mike describes the process of determining Andre was the one of his four kids that would become a tennis star, a dream born when he was a young Persian boy watched U.S. and British GIs play it. (Emphasis is mine.)

6a00d83451599e69e200e54f7031048833-800wiAndre, the youngest of my four children, wasn’t the first kid I tried to coach. That dubious honor goes to my oldest child, Rita. She was amazing. Headstrong and feisty, Rita had an unbelievable two-handed weapon on both sides, and could hit a tennis ball almost as hard as Andre does. The fact is, though, I ruined tennis for Rita by pushing her too hard.

I made the same mistake with my second child, Phillip, who had a tremendous game, but who lacked that killer instinct. In other words, he’s abuot the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet, always putting himself out for others.

Fortunately, by the time my third child, Tami, was born, I’d wised up — at least a bit. I didn’t push her the way I did Rita and Phillip. I taught her to play, of course, but I gave her the freedom to pursue other interests. That’s probably why, of all my kids, I suspect that Tami is the happiest, the most well adjusted.

I learned a lot by coaching Rita, Phillip, and Tami, so by the time Andre was born on April 29, 1970, nearly 10 years after Rita’s arrival, I was ready. I decided that I wouldn’t push him the way I had Rita and Philip, but I would begin teaching him about tennis at a very early age. I figured if he took to the game, then we would take it from there.

As it turned out, Andre wasn’t just the most talented of my four kids, he was the most willing. He had the desire. I don’t know if it was the desire to play tennis or if it was simply the desire to please me, but he had it. Whenever Andre found a free moment – before school, after school, you name it — he was on the tennis court, practicing his strokes for hours at a time.

Well, if Andre says he hates tennis, then maybe it was the desire to please dear old Dad, who was nuts but, let’s face it, like most crazy sports parents sacrificed heavily for what he thought was best for his child, and ended up leading his youngest son to a life of fame and fortune.

Maybe what is pissing off Andre is not tennis, or his father’s rage, but the nagging feeling, as he counts his $5 million bonus that wouldn’t have gone to Andre Agassi, plumber, that the old man might have had the right idea all along.

Written by rkcookjr

November 10, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Your Kid's Not Going Melanie Oudin, so put that tennis racket back on the shelf

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Could your child be a future tennis pro? No, yours could not.

Even though she bowed out of the quarterfinals, and the tournament is still going on as I type this, the buzz from this year’s U.S. Open tennis championships was, is and shall be the emergence of 17-year-old Melanie Oudin. The Marietta, Ga., native followed up an out-of-nowhere run to the fourth round of Wimbledon (which included a defeat of former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic) with her run in New York, only a year after her junior Grand Slam career was coming to a crashing end.

Why the excitement? Right now the only American female players of note are the Williams sisters, who emerged more than a decade ago and are now pushing 30. But that’s not all. Unlike the Venus and Serena Williams, Oudin’s story is more accessable for budding tennis pros. And I don’t mean because she’s white and the Williams sister are, um, not, though I can’t totally discount America’s tendency to embrace little white girls over big black girls as a factor in Oudin’s sudden popularity.

Oudin’s father is not an overbearing crazy person like Richard Williams, shoving a racket in his daughter’s hand at a tender age. (Though in the history of crazy tennis dads, Williams looks as serene as Mike Brady.) Oudin is around five-and-a-half feet tall and 130 pounds, not six-foot-plus like the Williams sisters and nearly everyone else in tennis outside of, say, Kim Clijsters. Oudin’s game has none of the power of today’s women’s players, instead relying heavily on fundamentals and technique. (Not that the Williams sisters know nothing of fundamentals, but without them Oudin doesn’t even sniff the court.) And Oudin wasn’t shipped to some tennis factory in Florida at an early age (as Richard Williams and many others have done with their darlings), instead training near her family home, which was not uprooted to be nearer to a tennis factory in Florida.

And, for the perverts who started watching Oudin the day she beat tennis’ favorite piece of ass, Maria Sharapova, at the U.S. Open, she’s attractive, and becomes legal as of Sept. 23.

Basically, the story we’re being sold right now is your average, all-American girl who lived a normal life and grew up to become a tennis star. Sounds like all you need to do is throw a racket in your daughter’s hand, write “Believe” on her shoes, and watch the tennis career take off, right?

Wrong. You do see the name of this blog, right?

Here are the reasons why, no matter how great a story Michelle Oudin might be, your child will never be able to match her, even if Oudin were to quite tomorrow and follow former teenage prodigy Andrea Jaeger to the nunnery.

1. You’re too pushy

Oudin’s parents didn’t introduce her to tennis. Her grandmother did, and not until age 7. She didn’t hand her grandkids a tennis racket with the idea they would go pro. You, on the other hand, are already scheduling lessons with Nick Bollietieri. If you’re going to follow the Oudin model, you have to let the kids discover on their own they like tennis, which brings me to…

2. You’re not supportive enough

The Oudin family has boatloads of money and could afford to pave a tennis court in their three-and-a-half-acre backyard and hire a professional coach. You, on the other hand, are still paying off your Taco Bell order from 2003. OK, not that you have to be rich to be supportive of a child in an individual sport — Michael Phelps’ family wasn’t exactly rolling in money. But are you going to put every dollar you have into your child’s possible career? And not end up with the lot of you in therapy? Oh, and are you going to take your kid out and home-school her so she can free up more time for tennis? And are you really going to do all of this because it’s her choice?

3. Your child isn’t driven enough

The lesson of Oudin — and Phelps, for that matter — is if your child has any chance to be a champion, she or he has to be hypercompetitive and obsessed with the sport in question. Oudin’s parents tell tales of their daughter crying when it would rain because she couldn’t play tennis. Then when they got her inside with a coach, he put her through all sorts of grueling drills to see if she was serious — she was. Oudin has a twin who will likely play in college, but by her own admission will not go pro because she’s more interested in medical school. (Where are her priorities?) Oudin herself says her 11-year-old sister has some talent but that she would rather go to the mall. Well, so much for her.

4. You won’t let your spouse sleep with your daughter’s coach

Actually, John Oudin wasn’t terribly happy about this. According to SI.com, he and his wife, Leslie, have a Dec. 7 mediation hearing on their divorce, filed upon his allegation Leslie slept with Oudin’s coach, Brian de Villiers. If you really want to be supportive of your budding tennis star, maybe you should let that stuff go. You don’t want to cause her any distractions.

Written by rkcookjr

September 10, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Glenn Lines: Australian for “Stefano Capriati”

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2853177069_e0d5c22d64_m1Amazing how that joke has carried on long after that Foster’s ad campaign stopped. It did stop, right?

According to famed tennis coach Rick Macci, we should know in about five years how good a tennis player Mia Lines of Wartirna, Australia can be. After all, by then she’ll be all of NINE FUCKING YEARS OLD!!!!! (Um, emphasis mine.)

From the Telegraph of London (hat tip: Parent Dish):

Mia Lines picked up a racket at the age of only one and is now gaining from the enormous experience of renowned tennis coach Rick Macci at his [Florida] academy.

Macci has coached a series of Grand Slam winners but said he has never seen a more impressive player at the age of four than Mia, who is from Australia.

“I have seen hundreds of kids come through my school in the 25 years I have been doing this and I have never seen a four year old with such god-given talent,” he said.

Stunned by the precision of Mia’s ability to read the court and also because she can hit the ball from baseline to baseline, Rick is cautiously guarded about her potential due to her age.

“It is difficult to compare Mia to players I have coached like Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova,” the 54-year-old said. “Mia’s technique is incredible and what she is doing is bringing foot-work you can’t teach to the table.

“What I would say is ask me if she can go all the way in five years and I will be able to tell you then.

“In the meantime my opinion is that she can not be any better than she is at this age.”

OK, before we get to Glenn Lines, the budding Svengali behind his daughter, let’s analyze the implications what Rick Macci, he of his beloved Maccisms that are basically ripoffs of every past coach and self-help book you’ve ever heard of, just said:

— He’s seen a lot of four-year-olds play, enough to RANK them.

— He’s not quite douchebagish enough to compare little Mia already with Serena Williams, but he thinks he can do so when she’s NINE FUCKING YEARS OLD!!!!!

maccismsblockbottomrickAnother Maccism: “If you fail to pay me buckets of dough for the privilege, you haven’t really ruined your kid’s childhood.”

OK, but now onto the man who is really going to be responsible for his daughter’s future drug habit/shoplifting spree: Glenn Lines.

Like the most notorious of tennis dads — and that’s a long and distinguished lot — Lines decided sometime between his girl’s conception and birth that she would be a tennis player, and started training her according. Stefano Capriati had Jennifer doing baby sit-ups; Glenn Lines had Mia doing hand-eye coordination drills.

Also like most tennis dads, Lines is deluded that his daughter LOVES this, and needs this accelerated training because she LOVES it so much. Perhaps that is true now, because a four-year-old is more apt to be all about pleasing dad. And I certainly would never begrudge a child gifted at anything the opportunity for advanced work. But it would be one thing if Mia had, without prompting, picked up a tennis racket at one and started hitting balls. But instead it’s Glenn Lines shoving a racket in her hands and making her hit balls.

Lines told the Telegraph that he’s such a big tennis fan, he knew all about Macci (did he know about how annoying his web site is? I mean, beyond the stupid Maccisms, every time you run the mouse over a ball it makes a racket — literally the sound of a racket swinging and hitting a ball). Apparently he’s not enough of a tennis fan to remember how careers of such youngsters as Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger got waylaid by injury, or how Jennifer Capriati got waylaid by teenage rebellion.

Because Mia probably doesn’t know how to read, I’ll address this message to Glenn Lines: you think you’re doing well for your daughter, but you’re not. Back off for a while and see if she stays interested in tennis. You might not be able to retired on her winnings at 15, but you’ll have a well-adjusted daughter who loves you. And you won’t have this:

capriatimug

Before you spring for private lessons…

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…think of one Don Y. Kawamoto, pictured at four o’clock, who allegedly has touched the lives of  young tennis players in south suburbs of Indianapolis. And I don’t mean that in a good way. From The Indianapolis Star:

Greenwood police say more victims could come forward in their investigation of a former high school tennis coach accused of inappropriately touching teenage girls. …

Police say Kawamoto, a long-time private instructor who was fired as the boys tennis coach at Greenwood High School last month, has assaulted more victims. …

bildePolice say Kawamoto was instructing students on how to hold a tennis racket or how to serve a tennis ball and then would place his hand on the girls’ breasts during the assaults.

All of the incidents took place during private lessons in a detached indoor practice facility at Greenwood High School, 615 W. Smith Valley Road, according to police.

The first victim, a 15-year-old Southport High School student, said Kawamoto touched her on two occasions on Jan. 1 and Jan. 2 during private tennis lessons.

During that investigation, Kawamoto admitted to touching the girl intentionally for his own sexual pleasure and that he had touched students in the past for his own sexual gratification.

And the story goes on to say that after Kawamoto’s Jan. 14 arrest, a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old told police he had touched them on occasions too numerous to remember an exact count.

As was told repeatedly in my how-not-to-molest-children class taught by the Catholic Church, an adult coach should NEVER be alone with a child, for two reasons. One, bad stuff can happen because no one is looking. Two, if Kawamato is indeed innocent — which he technically is because he hasn’t been convicted of anything — he placed himself in a vulnerable position by having no witnesses around to refute the girls’ tales.

One-on-one, intensive private lessons can be a great thing, whether you’re signing up your child to learn how to pitch a softball or how to speak French.  But if you have no assurances there are going to be other adults or activity around, I would insist as a parent on being able to stay and watch the lesson as a condition of forking over my fee. If a coach gives you a hard time about it — “Your child will be nervous with you watching,” etc. — find another tutor. And tell everyone you know what happened.