Holding Up A Mirror: HBO’s Trophy Kids

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.


19 Comments on “Holding Up A Mirror: HBO’s Trophy Kids”

  1. Again, thanks for sharing. I will definitely watch it.
    I have seen some bad behavior at tennis tournaments, and it comes from the parents who have sacrificed too much time, and especially money, they didn’t have. building a dream on the back of a child who didn’t want it as much.

  2. Thank you for your post about this. I am heavily involved in hockey Duluth, MN, a hockey crazy town. I have a little boy who is 6 who has been a “natural” since he began (skating at 1.5 and playing with a team at 3). No doubt he’s ahead of the curve and plays with kids 3 years older. People watch him and are amazed. I have done little for him other than bring him to our outdoor neighborhood rink and let him play. No summer hockey, no camps, etc. He’s never said no to going to the rink. I am not delusional as kids will catch up to him and surpass him. My goal is only that he is as passionate about playing now as when he hits puberty (if he wants to play) because this is the time when real development takes place – everything else before then is NOT development. I could careless if he plays any higher level of hockey. We enjoy it together but if he quit we’d just find something else to enjoy together. My biggest concern, however, is a personal development. I am worried that he will be “defined” as a hockey player. I can already see it in how anyone that knows him, asks him about hockey. I get the feeling he is becoming self-aware. I want him to continue if he wants but not because he feels he would be letting others down by not playing. Do you get what I mean? I think you allude to it in your “Titus” example where a kid achieves early success and does that child then become trapped. I see Dr. Lauer is involved in USA Hockey and I am big believer in USA Hockey’s ADM.

  3. Ray, I totally get what you mean! And I think it’s really hard for a kid to separate him/herself from his/her sports identity. That’s where we parents come into play – we have to hold up a mirror to our kids and point out the facets of their being that are NOT tied to sports. Maybe it’s their role as a mentor to a younger sibling or their role as a helper in the school classroom. Wayne Bryan talks a lot about making sure kids have interests outside of their primary activity, whether it’s music, art, writing, youth group, etc.

  4. Off this subject, sorry.

    But, can you find out any information about the March team event ( gold ball)?

    They got rid of Boys 18’s March Nationals and have replaced it with this March team event.
    Last I heard, it was a 32 draw … There are close to 200 boys that would like to play it…
    ( Based on last year’s March nationals).

    Do you know how they plan to choose the boys?
    I did ask my sectional, they didn’t know, and I can get no return of phone call from the National office. Many thanks for any insights or information you can share with your readers!!!!

    1. Here is info from Bill Ozaki, my go-to expert:

      Players for that event will be selected from the national standings at the time of selection.

      There are five national events where sections will have a quota:
      National clay, hard and winter championships
      Feb and October closed regionals
      Zonals and intersectional team events are by section selection

      All other events are selected from the national standings.

  5. When I read some of your comments “They had good intentions even though we may watch them and deem their behavior disgusting.” I saw no good intentions – just a desire for total control of their children. “Their actions are coming from a place of love.” – it made me think I must have been watching a totally different program than the one apparently in question. I certainly saw no sign of love from any of the four parents, unless it was love for themselves. I was astonished that any of them would have agreed to allow themselves to be filmed. (And was so glad to learn at the end that Justus had gotten away from that father of his to go and live with his mom.)

    I do thank you for having provided some feedback from one of the four parents and glad to hear he was ashamed of what he saw of himself in the film. I kept wondering all the way through the program “What on earth do these parents think of their behaviour when they see it on film?”

    I was so happy that the two young tennis players had each other to be able to commiserate about having that mother who was so way out there with all her “religious” stuff. To me, she seemed like an extreme parody, but I guess that’s the kind of stuff she actually says.

    I’d love to see some follow-up with these kids when they’re a few years older.

  6. Lisa, Thanks for your thoughtful and nuanced commentary on the show. When all the bells and whistles of t.v. are involved, it is so easy to view such productions as entertainment rather than education. Self-reflection seems to be always the best first step when faced with serious topics.

    Scientific evidence has regularly shown that parents are the greatest supporters and greatest stressors of their children. When support turns to smothering and stress turns to abuse no one wins. There are far more athletes that are casualties of excessive parental pushing than there are world champions. So often the cost-benefit of parental behaviors is both out of whack and not considered.

    This does not mean it is an easy task however. Riding the roller coaster of parenthood is tough enough, let alone inviting the chaos of sport into your family system. The overplanning and excessively supportive parent robs the student-athlete of a voice, of choice, and of the opportunities to struggle in sport. Yes, struggling is an invaluable opportunity. One that leads to great adults and nurtures elite athletes. So often planning, praising, scolding, and “coaching” that are done by sport parents inadvertently hinder, hurt, and humiliate.

    I truly believe that all parents what best for their children. Unfortunately, the fog of parenthood and the fog of sport leads to some tragic outcomes during opportunities for play. Thank you for the consideration you gave in your reflection on the show. Abusive sports parenting is simply unacceptable. Unwise sports parenting that many can fall into is unfortunate. With some reflection, we can all do a bit better and student-athletes thrive that much more.

  7. Good lady,

    Would you care to share your conversations with Mr. Lauer and with Andre over at HBOWatch? You seem to be in hte know and we still have comments about this documentary over on our site.

    I thank you for any embellishment you could offer without taking to much time away from your schedule

    Jef for HBOWatch.

  8. I saw the show and did not see much difference between the behavior of the parents on the show and that of most parents of high level junior players. Tennis parents are way too involved and emphasize winning at the expense of honor and sportsmanship.

  9. THE MARINOVICH PROJECT is currently available to watch on NetFlix – it’s the story of Todd Marinovich and his father, Marv, and how Marv set out to create the perfect football quarterback from the day Todd was born. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching. I also recommend watching the director’s comments at the end of the film comparing Marv Marinovich to Richard Williams and Earl Woods – very interesting!

  10. I think andre is full of shit!! He called his little girl a [expletive] and told her he would hit her in the mouth on national t.v. There is pretty much nothing to say after that. I would love to see a second lart to it, to make sense of it all

  11. My heart sank when Andre called his daughter a name..she’s 7! It doesn’t even matter what age, he should never speak that way to any girl/woman! And don’t get me started on Derek’s dad..meat head who won’t shut up. At least the tennis mom is respectful to her boys. We will NEVER do this to our son when it’s time for him to play sports.

  12. I was a division I athlete and I coached division I swimmers for years, my brother currently coaches age group swimmers that range from mediocre swimmers to Olympic trial qualifiers. My brother and I talk about the kids that have parents like the one in the film, we always predict that they will fail because coaching them is beyond our control if they are constantly being told they can do better aka constantly being told that everything they do is wrong. Our most successful swimmers DO NOT have parents like the ones in the documentary. I can’t imagine working your butt off everyday and being told you suck everytime, that will cause the opposite of confidence. (despite what Justus’s dad seems to think)
    It would be interested to interview world class athletes or their coaches and see what type of parents they had.

  13. Growing up I played hockey, soccer, basketball, and ran track. As an adult I’m into cycling and weight lifting. I love sports and I believe that there are so many great life lessons that can be taught through them, I definitely benefited from being an athlete. I’m very competitive and a firm believer in hard work. I hate the everybody-gets-a-trophy movement and believe it has done a lot of damage to kids.

    However, if the kid isn’t passionate about the sport and doesn’t love it, or has no desire to try to become a pro, then their parents need to accept and respect that. It doesn’t matter how much daddy or mommy wants it, it’s not about them. I played to win and because I enjoyed playing those sports, my parents knew I didn’t wanna be a pro and they accepted that. These parents should try that, it’s called maturity. The kid has to make the decision in the end, it’s their life.

    The dads in this film are assholes (pardon the language, but it’s the best descriptor for them). The mom has so many misconceptions about God and God’s will that it makes me sick. Her sons have INHERENT worth because they’re human beings made in the image of God. They matter whether or not they’re good at a sport. Get over yourself, woman.

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