Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The kids aren't all right


One Sunday afternoon in 1995, as we watched a sweaty, hung over John Daly win the British Open, my dad told me the legend of a child prodigy.

I remember this little kid named Tiger Woods, he said. He was on that old show Thats Amazing! The kid was scoring in the 90s at age two! I wonder what happened to him.

As we learned in the years following, a hell of a lot happened to him. By the time he reached his early twenties, many already considered him the greatest golfer who ever lived and hes arguably Earths most iconic athlete since Muhammad Ali.

How can you not be captivated by Tigers entire existence? A child dominating a sport from the day he could walk is ridiculous. Not as ridiculous as a goat penning a novel or Josh Towers throwing eight shutout innings, but not far off.

His story is inspiring but, as were learning with each new Michelle Wie or Freddy Adu, its equally dangerous.

With massive media frenzies surrounding child prodigies like Woods, athletes parents are seeing dollar signs and turning their kids lifestyles upside down to create their own phenoms. Its time they woke up and realized theyre hurting their offspring, not helping them, more often than not.

Usually, a child prodigys ascension follows a pattern. First he ruins his local competition. Picture a seventh-grade basketball tournament with one lanky 65 kid dunking over 54 kids who havent hit puberty; as awesome as it is unfair. Then he creates local media buzz and his name starts spreading around the country like a myth. Sports media juggernauts like Sports Illustrated hear about the kid and start masturbating to him in print, billing him as the next (insert legendary superstar athletes name here).”

From that point on, the athletes childhood virtually disappears. The Adus, Wies and Sidney Crosbys become media darlings. School becomes homeschool or a travelling tutor; action figures take a backseat to six-figure endorsement deals; proms and parties give way to autograph sessions and tournaments with teammates and opponents several years their senior.

Then pressure begins building. We all know it that shaky feeling John Travolta gets every time a new movie starring him comes out. “Will Be Cool bring me back? Or will it be the nail in the coffin for my sometimes decent, often pathetic career?”

Its a stressful and sometimes upsetting feeling, right? Well, do you remember how much worse it was when you were a kid? Morgan Pressel took flak for crying after Birdie Kim chipped in to steal the 2005 U.S. Womens Open from her. Did she crumble and cry because she lacked toughness? Possibly. Or maybe she was a CHILD PLAYING IN A MAJOR PROFESSIONAL WOMENS CHAMPIONSHIP, for Christ’s sake.

For every Tiger or Crosby who overcomes massive pressure and succeeds at a young age, a dozen child phenoms crack. Michelle Wie looks more frazzled every week and hasnt won a tournament yet. Freddy Adu appears afraid to test his skills across the Atlantic. Justin Rose spent a decade in limbo after a strong 98 British Open before finally developing into a solid golfer. Its unfair to call them busts; how can we expect them to succeed when theyre still kids when they havent even discovered who they are and how they perceive the world yet?

When I see a Michelle Wie flounder at a mens event, I wonder whom a quest like hers is really for. I doubt she woke up one day and said, I need to make a million dollars today. I need it now. It cant wait five or six years. I need to be a 13-year-old millionaire.

Most likely, the culprits are the parents who want to turn their kids into walking ATMs. The media dont help, either; their overhype of youths inspires other parents to push their kids and constant coverage or replays of serious injuries scares mommy and daddy into milking money out of them before any health ailments arise.

As a result, these poor kids, who could become just as dominant if not more dominant athletes if they had time to grow up first, lose their childhoods. No one knows that better than old pals Michael Jackson and Macaulay Culkin. Jacko lived an adults life as a child, working like a dog under an abusive father. Its no wonder he wants to ride roller coasters and play Seven Minutes in Heaven with 12-year-old boys; he never had a childhood. Culkins life was also torn apart as his parents fought over their little blonde commodity.

The child prodigy is a relatively new phenomenon in sports; we havent truly seen what the long-term psychological consequences of losing ones childhood are. So shouldn’t we view Michael and Macaulays stories as warning signs?

Mr. and Mrs. Wie, your daughter is a true specimen. But guess what? Shell still be a specimen in 10 years. You couldve waited. Maybe if you did, shed be winning tournaments instead of faking an injury to avoid being barred from LPGA events because of poor scores. Instead, youve forced your daughter into an adults life. Shell never get to make out with that scrawny emo kid at a bush party and puke her guts out the next morning after downing too many Jell-O shooters. Shame on you.

Even if Wies parents, or those of any other super athlete, dont actively pressure their kids into competing at the highest possible levels, theyre just as bad if they dont know when to stop them from growing up too early.

The child pressure syndrome is worse for some sports than others, depending on how much physical maturity is needed to compete at the top level. Football parents, for example, at least dont have to worry about seeing their 12-year-old absorb a Sean Taylor killshot. But sports relating more to technique than physical strength, especially golf, are tempting money traps. The latest victim is 12-year-old Alexis Thompson, who competed in the U.S. Womens Open two weekends ago. She missed the cut. Michelle Wie, by the way, withdrew with a wrist injury after firing a first-round 82.

My dad and I had another conversation that 1995 weekend.

Me: Dad, what should I be a pro hockey player or pro baseball player?

Dad: Well, Mattie, its tough to say, I dont know if youre

Me: All I want to know is which one. Just tell me which one!

Dad: Well, I dont, uh, know if you can…make it, you know? Its very hard to be a pro…

Thanks for looking out for me, Dad. You crushed my dreams because you love me. And I got to have a real childhood.

-- M.L.


Kevin said...

"She’ll never get to make out with that scrawny emo kid at a bush party and puke her guts out the next morning after downing too many Jell-O shooters."

(Not so?) Shocking details from your teen years....

Good article though.. keep'em comin.

Chad Nevett said...

As always, a well-reasoned and thoughtful article. Great stuff.

Danielle Neziol said...

What are your opinions on John Tavares' agent wanting to get him into the NHL- at 17? I'm leaving the question open to you experts...i'd love to know what you think!

Great article.