If you haven’t already, be sure to watch the latest HBO sports documentary, State of Play: Trophy Kids, that is currently airing on HBO and HBO Go. Here is the trailer:

 

 

I was deeply affected – I am still feeling the impact of Josh and Justus, Steve and Derek, Jamie and her twin boys, and Andre and Amari – by the parents and the young athletes profiled by producer Peter Berg, and my husband and I have continued to discuss these families over the past several days. I just can’t seem to get them out of my mind. As Meryl Streep’s character in August: Osage County says, “Some people are antagonized by the truth.” Sigh.

The morning after the show originally aired, I reached out to sports psychologist and mental skills specialist for USTA’s Player Development Larry Lauer who was part of the post-show panel discussion (click here to listen to last year’s podcast with Larry).

I asked Larry if my reaction to the show, the pain I felt on behalf of those kids but also their parents, was an American cultural thing, if he thought parents in Russia or Asia or Africa would react the same way. I asked him if he thought our American reaction was causing our kids to be soft, if it could be a big reason for the decline in the number of Americans excelling on the world stage, not only in sports but also academically and economically. If the parents profiled in the film were doing the necessary things to instill in their children the drive to be The Best. If that’s what it takes to create champions.

He told me that researchers have found no evidence that being hard on children leads to their success. Being honest with children and teaching them to have realistic expectations based on their own goals is what works. The majority of children just don’t have the ability to withstand parental over-pushing to come out stronger on the other side of it. Larry reminded me that there are so many factors that have to go right in order to get kids to the top of the game, and there are healthy ways to create champions, including having good coaches who know how to get the best out of the child in a positive way alongside supportive parents. Each of the parents profiled in Trophy Kids was trying to control his or her child’s development too tightly. Larry says we parents have to strive for what he calls Optimal Push. If we do it the wrong way, there will be definite ramifications. When parents make outrageous sacrifices for their child’s sport, that adds incredible pressure on the child because the child feels the parent expects something in return and that can destroy the parent-child relationship. Our first goal when we introduce our children to sports should be to strengthen the parent-child relationship through sport. Then and only then should the goal be to develop an athlete.

I later found a review of the show online at HBOWatch and posted a comment asking for those who had seen the show to contact me. Much to my surprise, I got an email from Andre, the father of 7-year-old golfer Amari who had been profiled in the film, and had an opportunity to speak with him at length on the phone. Andre asked me what I thought after seeing him on tv. I asked if he really wanted my honest opinion, and he assured me that he did, so I told him that my heart hurt for his little girl, especially when the film showed her on the ground crying while her dad was cursing at her after a missed putt. We talked about how tough it is to know how hard to push a child. We talked about wanting the best for our children and doing the best we know how to do. We talked about the pain of seeing yourself on tv behaving like someone you don’t even recognize. We talked about the power of the media to edit and spin and sometimes make things look worse than they truly are. We talked about that same media acting as a mirror to show you how and what you need to change.

After hearing that Andre was ashamed by his behavior in the film and that he has taken very deliberate steps to be more loving and supportive toward his daughter (she is now coming up on her 10th birthday), I assured him that his willingness to show his true self in the film was sending positive ripples into the world as other parents watched and saw facets of themselves that needed to change. In an email, Andre wrote, “I believe [if] the doc could help some junior parent see how they act towards their kid then it has served its purpose, and that person it helped was me. I see the error in my ways and have been changing towards the better, but I have always said that the parent should grow with the child, be more communicative towards the child and explain things in a much lighter fashion, listen to the child as they too should have input in their respective sport.”

It’s been interesting to read the Tweets and talk to other parents about this film. Pretty much everyone is quick to say that the parents profiled are whack jobs, nutcases, bordering on abusive. Most of us are judging these parents pretty harshly. However, if this film did anything, it served as a mirror for my own sports parenting behavior, much as it did for Andre, and maybe it’s doing the same for others of you. As much as I hate to admit it, I saw myself and my own misinformed actions in those of the four parents profiled. Worse, I saw my son’s reactions reflected in those young athletes – the hurt in their eyes, the anger at their parent’s interference, the stress and fear masked as apathy during practices – and that was the most painful part of all. As I’ve said before, chronicling my journey here and sharing it with you has, thankfully, helped me become a better Tennis Mom, a better Mom in general. Rather than judging Andre, Josh, Steve, and Jamie, how about we learn from them?

The parents profiled in Trophy Kids aren’t evil people. They had good intentions even though we may watch them and deem their behavior disgusting. Their actions are coming from a place of love. They may just need to learn how to understand why their way isn’t the best way, that there are healthier means to achieve the development and performance goals for their children while maintaining the well-being of the child. Even the most well-intentioned parent can’t sustain their child’s top performance if the child isn’t happy. If they do (take a look at Andre Agassi’s autobiography), there is often horrific collateral damage. Larry Lauer assured me that being part of this documentary reinvigorated him to do even more parent education in his role with USTA.

There’s a fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of pushing our kids to excel. A very fine line. Take a look at this video:

According to the comments I’ve read on Facebook and elsewhere, this guy is “an awesome dad” and his actions are to be commended and emulated. I agree – in the video, it looks like everyone is having a great time. But, Titus is only about 2 years old here. What happens when he’s 7 or 8 and the expectations increase? I mean, he’s already “performed” in Europe and in a packed college stadium and with movie stars – what’s next? What if the child wakes up one day and tells his dad that he doesn’t like shooting hoops for audiences any more, that he just wants to play on his neighborhood team or maybe try tennis instead? How will Dad respond?

I hope Titus’s dad will respond with a hug and an encouraging smile, and that his son will continue to find the joy in sports simply because he’s having fun and learning how to develop a set of skills that will extend outside of the gym or court. I hope Toddler Basketball Dad watches Trophy Kids and chooses to go down a healthier path for both his own sake and that of his son. I hope we all make that choice.