With the Wimbledon Tennis Championships just concluded, it is a joy to bask in the reflected glory of such superstars as Rafi Nadal, Andy Murray, Serena Williams, and Vera Zvonareva. Their stories are truly inspiring -- the early commitment, the years of hard work, the difficult sacrifices to achieve their Herculean dreams.
The media places these stars, and the many young prodigies who preceded them -- Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Lleyton Hewitt, and Maria Sharapova -- on a pedestal and the public worships them. Yet people don't understand that these success stories are, for most children and their parents, a fairy tale that will never be told and, in many cases, a nightmare from which children may not awake until it's too late. Tennis fandom and the world at large rarely see the other side of this relentless quest for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of youth sports stardom. People don't realize that, for every precocious talent, there are thousands of young prodigies in tennis (and other sports) with "unlimited potential" who never reach the pinnacle and often pay a severe price in its pursuit.
These young stars-in-the-making have parents who have a dream -- perhaps better called a fantasy or an obsession -- that their children can be one of the chosen few to gain the riches and celebrity of sports success. Their children are groomed from an early age to be superstars, but, whether because of a lack of talent, absence of desire and determination, or angry rebellion against their controlling parents, they don't "make it."
Having worked with hundreds of young athletes in tennis and other sports, some who reached the dreamed-about heights and most who didn't, I have seen first hand the "dark side" of this relentless pursuit. I have seen a nine-year-old and her mother from a former Soviet state arrive at a Florida tennis academy with similar dreams as Maria Sharapova and her father. Over the next few years, she never attended school, trained up to six hours a day, and rarely smiled. When she lost practice matches, she cried inconsolably. When she played poorly, her mother would punish her by forcing her to skip rope for an hour in the evening or withholding dinner from her. At age 18, she is currently ranked in the 300's on the women's pro tour and has accumulated less than $20,000 in career earnings.
I worked with a 16-year-old internationally ranked player whose mother, during the course of a summer of tournaments, broke five of her racquets in a fit of rage following a loss, abandoned her after a loss at another event, and didn't speak to her for a week after another loss.
I also worked with a player who had been one of the top juniors in the world and was touted as a future star. Driven maniacally by her father, she once asked me, "How can I possibly become successful at something that I hate so much?" After bouts of eating disorders and thoughts of suicide, she left the game, earned a law degree from an Ivy League university, is now clerking for a federal judge, and has never been happier.
Children should be allowed to dream big and to pursue those dreams with vigor. If children don't reach for the stars, they won't even get to the top of the mountain. And there are wonderful life experiences and lessons to be gained regardless of how far young athletes go. But parents and aspiring athletes should also know how incredibly unlikely it is that they will become superstars. Research has shown that there is about a 6-in-1,000,000 chance of their becoming professional athletes. Children have a much better chance of becoming doctors and lawyers. Whether children should pursue sports stardom depends on whether they are the hopeful aspirations of the children themselves or the vicarious yearnings of their unfulfilled parents.
Too often, it seems the latter. A survey of the best-known tennis parents doesn't paint a very rosy picture: Stefano Capriati, Damir Dokic, Jim Pierce, and Richard Williams. Williams raised his daughters (some have even said that he conceived them) for the sole purpose of making them tennis superstars. As Serena Williams said after her first U.S. Open victory in 1999, "It was my father's dream and now it's mine." Are these parents ill intentioned? Probably not. They love their children and want the best for them. Are they misguided and perhaps themselves troubled? Quite possibly, as their own needs and dreams take precedence over the health and welfare of their children.
Though you rarely hear about them, there are good tennis parents out there, for example, those of Pete Sampras, Lindsay Davenport, and Roger Federer. Interestingly, their parents have been rarely seen throughout their long and successful careers. What makes these parents different are the reasons their children played tennis and the perspective that they have about their aspirations. The Samprases, Davenports, and Federers never had grand dreams for their children and they never put pressure on them to get results. They wanted their children to enjoy themselves, give their best effort, and be good sports and good people. Not surprisingly, all three have not only been tremendously successful, but they have also been some of the most respected and well-mannered players on the circuit.
What is the best way for parents to ensure that their children's pursuit of athletic greatness will be worthwhile, regardless of the level that they ultimately achieve? Foremost, parents need to get a life. If parents have a life of their own that's meaningful and satisfying, they won't have to place the burden of their happiness on their children's shoulders. Parents should also go under the assumption that their children will never be superstars in anything. This belief doesn't mean that their children can't achieve greatness (someone has to play on Wimbledon's Centre Court), but it relieves them of the pressure that they must. If they have the ability and the desire, they actually have a better chance of becoming stars because they will play for themselves and for the love of the game. Finally, parents should ensure that, regardless of how far their children go in a sport, the end result of all their efforts is not victories and earnings, but rather essential life lessons that will serve them well in the "real world," and, most importantly, joyful memories of their athletic experiences.