As a child, I despised calling on other children. I dreaded the awkward interaction with parents, the strangely inherent sense of authority held over me by a complete stranger and the feeling that I was interrupting or presenting an imposition with my request to hang out with their offspring.
I vividly remember an uncomfortable moment from my childhood in which I knocked on the door of my friend Mark, who lived in my neighborhood. His mother answered, and when I asked her if Mark could come and play, she said something incoherent to me about baseball. I informed her that yes, it was entirely possible that we might play baseball, and then we stood silently in the foyer of her home for what seemed like ten minutes.
Finally, she told me to come back another time, and so I left, certain that Mark’s mother was a little bit deranged. Walking home, friendless, I pieced together the words I knew she said to me from our awkward exchange with the words she might have spoken. The results of my word investigation revealed that I had failed to understand Mark couldn’t waste time with me because he was practicing baseball.
I thought about how absurd it was to practice something like baseball. It seemed like homework, something I avoided by playing baseball. In my mind, putting effort into getting better at a game defeated the whole purpose of playing the game. Later, when Mark emerged as the best player on our baseball team, I justified his superiority on the field by the fact that he practiced. I reconciled the gulf in ability between us by saying to myself that I could be just as good if I was willing to lower myself to actually trying to do so.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my internal rationalization was similar to the underlying principles of the grotesque modern Olympic ideal. Masked in the false virtues of amateurism, superior athletes who competed professionally were outcast in favor of those who leaned on their own means to fund a more leisurely training, or had the political gravitas of an aristocratic surname that was able to induce government investment in their recreation.
By the end of the 19th Century, the abilities of the working class threatened the establishment. For decades, those in power had promoted athletic endeavors as a means of keeping their contemporary plebeians healthy and occupied, all while enjoying exclusive competitions among themselves which they believed, in their arrogance, to be at the highest level of sporting skill.
When working class athletes – through training and practice – began proving themselves to be equal or superior to the privileged, French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin created the modern Olympic games – along with its regulations differentiating between amateurs and professionals – so as to keep out the hard-working riff-raff and celebrate the accomplishments of the socially and financially well-to-do.
If the upper class was going to lose its stranglehold on athletic supremacy, it could at least grasp onto an imagined moral superiority as consolation. Under the guise of promoting well-roundedness as a virtue through the original Greek ideal, the leaders of the modern Olympic revival ultimately reinforced the merits of their own status. After all, the aristocratic athlete was the only athlete who could logistically afford to be versatile in multiple disciplines.
The aggressive promotion of an almost divine class distinction might not seem as prevalent today outside of a particularly vile character on an episode of Downton Abbey, but we still possess a general acceptance of conflicting principles when it comes to elite athletes.
We eagerly celebrate their achievements, but remain blissfully or perhaps willfully unaware of the development that leads to those accomplishments. When we do learn of the hard work and determination it takes at an early age to reach an elite level in athletics, we typically criticize the parenting that would focus a child’s growth in a solitary direction or we express false sympathy for the poor athlete’s lost childhood.
We’d rather cheer for the female weightlifter breaking records at the Olympics than hear stories like this …
Or see the exploitative blatancy of circus freakdom presented in videos like this:
We’d rather remember Tiger Woods chipping in on the 16th at the Masters in 2005, than imagine a driven Earl Woods thrusting golf clubs into the hands of his toddler son. That is, unless we’re coming up with false causation for the son’s reprehensible behavior later in life. Then, it represents something worth mentioning.
Bringing up this discrepancy isn’t meant to absolve parents who push their children into sports as a means of fulfilling their own athletic aspirations. Parents are certainly capable of providing a negative influence in athletic development. It’s just something that we’d prefer not to think about when we’re cheering for goals, home runs and touchdowns.
However, natural abilities only take you so far. The athletes we celebrate at the professional level are more likely than not to have trained through childhood with a single-mindedness for the role that they now assume.
According to Paul Melia, the President and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are specific approaches that parents can make to ensure the healthy long-term development of their children in sports, without sacrificing the achievement of optimum ability. He cites the principles of the True Sport program, which acts as something of a best practices database for communities across the country for dealing with athletics.
The common sense principles are as follows: Go for it, play fair, respect others, keep it fun, stay healthy, include everyone and give back. It would obviously verge on the hilarious to hear an argument against any of these ideals, but Melia’s organization provides more direction than merely quoting platitudes. The biggest distinction he makes between healthy and unhealthy development is the age at which athletes are introduced to competitive strategies as an addition to skill-based training. He believes it happens far too early for athletic youths.
The model that we endorse [for youth development] emphasizes skill, not competition. When you emphasize skill to a young athlete as a coach or parent, it leads to development. Pushing them toward competition and teaching them strategy doesn’t do that.
Melia suggests that waiting to introduce competitive strategies until a youth has reached their mid-teens is the best model for long-term athletic development, even for the most elite. While the motivation behind the CCES’s recommendations are unimpeachable, Melia is the first to admit that the evidence to support this model is more anecdotal than empirical – at least for now.
It’s an ideal, and if it seems unrealistic or overly ambitious, that’s okay. It’s an extreme that combats another extreme wherein parents make decisions for their children often based on an overestimation of ability. Melia draws a line at the point where parents stop being parental, and no longer “cushion the pain or temper the joy” of their children while they’re participating in sports.
It’s a line that seems to make sense. Whether it resonates with our moral fiber or it’s merely a condition of the false virtues promoted by an aristocracy whose stranglehold on thinking has since slipped, we still hold well-roundedness in individuals up as an archetypal goal for all of humanity, including athletes. The familial figure who strays from his or her role as parent into one as a coach will lead to contradictions with what’s still referred to as the Olympic ideal.
Again, we come back to that word: ideal. It’s important because what’s ideal isn’t always what’s practical. It’s a human concept of what’s perfect, but because humans aren’t perfect, neither are our concepts of perfection. The limitations of time and money and human capacity make it not just improbable, but impossible to succeed as an elite athlete without a single-minded focus from an early age. A driving force behind this focus is necessary because a child alone, is unable to facilitate a devotion to sports.
And so, athletic achievement is almost always the result of a parent’s involvement. As I’ve already mentioned, as sports fans, we celebrate the results of that involvement, while possessing little but ignorance or disdain for its process. It’s very much like a hot dog that we consume without considering or wanting to consider how it’s made. That is unless we’re vegetarians, and then we complain about it constantly.
So, let’s visit the figurative hot dog factory.
Tony Rasmus is the father of four sons, two of whom were drafted by Major League Baseball teams. His oldest son, Colby, plays center field for the Toronto Blue Jays, and his second oldest son, Cory, is a relief pitcher for the Gwinnett Braves, the Triple-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.
He oversaw a development plan for his two sons that began before either was a teenager. It was not a joke, and nothing about it included the gentle reinforcement of platitudes.
We worked out six days a week lifting weights, long tossing, doing everything imaginable baseball related to get better. They drank weight drinks three and four times a day, seven days a week. They played travel baseball. I mean well over 100 baseball games a year, flying as a 12-year-old all over the country to play travel ball games.
As they got older I can’t remember allowing them to spend the night away from home for even one night while they were in high school. They had different things to do six days a week in order to either develop their arm strength, speed, or muscular development. From 11 years of age on they worked on some type of skill as an athlete.
This was their trade off. They never cleaned the house or did chores as long as they were working out. I constantly pushed them.
His investment in his children wasn’t just a matter of time. After selling some land in the early nineties, Rasmus took a portion of the money and purchased a pitching machine for the batting cage that he built in his family’s back yard. This was met with some concern by the board of the local coach-pitch league, who questioned the father’s motivation in the amount of time he spent practicing with his children. It was enough to cause some reflection in the former baseball player who never reached the big league level.
I decided one day to ask [Colby and Cory] what they wanted out of this life. I asked them if they wanted me to be that parent who patted [them] on the back after a four strike out night and told [them] how great [they were] or if they wanted me to stick my foot up their butt and push them to be their best.
They actually walked a short distance away and talked between themselves for what seemed like five minutes. They came back over too me and Colby said, “We want you to put your foot up our butts cause we want to be play in the major leagues.” I told them “Okay, what you’re telling me is that the days you don’t feel like working you’re giving me the authority to push you to keep working.” They nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”
Criticism for supposedly living through his kids would continue to follow Rasmus, even after Colby reached the Major Leagues with the St. Louis Cardinals. Ahead of the 2011 season, Rasmus was openly critical of the Cardinals’ plan for his son’s off season training. The local media jumped all over his level of involvement in his son’s life, and Rasmus’s reputation for being an overbearing parent became known throughout baseball.
While it might be easy for an outsider to label such a relationship as harmful, and denigrate a parent’s involvement in the life of a young athlete, our perspective is challenged when we learn how Rasmus justifies his deep commitment to his sons.
I wasn’t ready to turn over any aspect of my kids lives to strangers. When my kids were taking calculus, I felt like I needed to help instruct them at night to make sure they understood. I wasn’t depending on a teacher to do that work for me. When it came to athletics I wasn’t willing to entrust my kids athletic futures to some guy who was responsible for the team’s success. He wasn’t going to be focused on my son getting better like I would be. I chose to spend my time helping my kids become better baseball players. I didn’t choose to drop them off at a practice and let some other guy baby sit them for me while me and the wife went to get our pedicures. I always felt like I had their best interests at heart.
Suddenly, the dichotomy that we imagined seems a little more nuanced. This isn’t the ramblings of a coach-dad living through his player-sons, it’s the explanation of a loving father whose devotion has led to success for his children that should afford them a high quality of life.
I’m reminded of the memory I shared at the beginning of this piece about dismissing my peer’s skills as merely the result of practicing, and I wonder if even as adults we don’t purposely find ways to discredit parenting that’s more active than typical as a means of justifying our own inactivity. It goes back to the bastardized version of the Olympic ideal that seeks to disparage work as a means of achievement. It’s as though we subconsciously want to imagine athletic success to be natural like the aristocrats at the end of the 19th Century, a divine athletic right.
It’s not. It takes work that verges on obsession.
My purpose in bringing up a portrait of the athlete as a young person isn’t to confirm Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour theory, which almost blindly suggests success in any field is merely a matter of practicing a specific task for 10,000 hours. Nor is it to absolve parents who push their children to the detriment of their progress as human beings. This certainly happens, and it’s awful.
However, it doesn’t mean that every situation is the same. There’s no master template to create a well-adjusted, elite athlete. There never will be. And that’s why we rely on anecdotal evidence to support the ideas and best practices that are in place for raising a child to be exceptional at sports.
We place a lot of emphasis on what a child involved in an athletic development program might miss, but the alternative to a successful life in sport isn’t always a successful life in academics or health care or law or something else that society deems to be of more value. All of these things depend on direction at a young age, and I have a hard time reasonably assigning blame on a parent who pushes their child toward success in a field for which their best equipped to assist in development.
I asked Tony Rasmus specifically about balancing the athletic pursuits of his sons with their development as well-adjusted human beings.
You only have life experiences to lean on so you have to make a judgement call that moment in time. You don’t have a mulligan. There are no do overs with your kids. If we erred, we erred on the side of working harder to help them become the best athletes they could be.
Athletes, it seems, are also human beings. They’re humans who have worked incredibly hard from an early age to achieve success. As sports fans, our admiration for them might seem as natural we want their skills to be. However, at the foundation of our recognition, we’re pulled between a Puritan appreciation for hard work and past aristocratic ideals of what the proper athlete should be. This is what leaves us cheering their accomplishments on the field, court or rink, while turning a blind eye to the development that brought them to be celebrated.
Acknowledging hard work spoils the illusion that we enjoy, but it also leads to less assumptions about how we define good and bad development. It’s a caution that perhaps, we might want to spend more time practicing.