Tuesday, January 03, 2012
I recently saw an ESPN film about Todd Marinovich who was a quarterback for USC in 1989. His father, Marv, was strength and conditioning coach who believed he could create the perfect athlete. As he stated in an interview, "The question I asked myself was, 'How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?'" He set out to make Todd remarkable. Even as an infant Todd underwent training to stretch his hamstrings and develop balance. By age 10 he could easily run ten miles. He learned the mechanics of being a quarterback and in high school became a national phenomenon. By the time he entered USC he had achieved records that an NFL player would be proud to have. His freshman year he won the Rose Bowl against Michigan. In his junior year he was drafted by the Raiders.
But in Todd's own words he couldn't live "in the prison of achievement." In high school he began drinking and using drugs, and that behavior escalated as he grew older. By the time he got to college, he had graduated to cocaine, amphetamines and finally LSD because it didn't show up in drug tests. At one point he left school and told his mother, "I wish I could go somewhere else and be someone else. I don't want to be Todd Marinovich." Ironically, his athletic achievements became overshadowed by his off-field behavior which included more and more arrests for drugs.
While Todd's experience is extreme, it has important lessons for us parents. Marv constantly expressed his devotion to his children and only wanting the best for them. He believed he was giving Todd a gift that he could take both to the bank and to the Hall of Fame. He believed that if Todd achieved perfection on the field he would have a perfect life. He felt that the accolades his athleticism would engender could provide Todd with joy enough to mitigate all those years of dedication and sacrifice.
Anyone who has seen films of Todd playing in high school can witness his perfect mechanics and impressive abilities. But the films don't show Todd's state of mind. When his teammates left the field after practice to go home, Todd remained there for hours still training. When they gathered at a fast food restaurant for a burger and conversation, Todd was home lifting weights. Even as a youngster when he went to a friend's birthday party he brought his own cake and ice cream to avoid processed foods. He became painfully shy because he only had limited contact with his peers. Marv missed an important part of the equation in creating the "perfect person."
We parents all want the best for our kids. We see that spark of ability and we believe that fostering that ability needs to be an integral part of our child-rearing. Marv didn't even wait to find that spark. He created it. We watch with a bit of envy as mega-stars emerge from strong parental investments: Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters and Dominique Morceau, who famously got a restraining order against her parents. While these athletes often earn millions of dollars a year and live comfortable lives, they have also expressed regrets. Agassi wrote that he felt imprisoned by his father through both expectations and demands. He also turned to drugs to escape mentally since he couldn't escape physically.
As parents, we need to heed these cautionary tales. The stories we hear are from those athletes who achieved major success. While they lost their childhoods, they did earn money and respect for their athletics. We don't usually hear the stories of kids who were pushed but never achieved much success. We don't hear if they had regrets. But we need to be sensitive to where our kids want to be. In 1988, Omo Grupe completed a long-term study of children in elite sports. He concluded that these athletes were not permitted to be children, were victims of disruptive family life, were exposed to excessive psychological and physiological stress, were detached from larger society and, most significantly, faced a type of abandonment upon exiting their athletic careers. Most of us would argue that our kids don't have such an extreme experience and that is probably true. But we do need to be aware that the scales can tip quickly unless we are vigilant. We need to include our children in the discussion when advancing to more intense levels of competition and training. Kids need to know that they are open to decide, which means we parents need to suppress our own desires. If our children feel that they are restricted by our dreams, they may not express their real desires.
We want sports to be a liberating experience for our children. Sports should offer the opportunity to meet new friends, get some exercise, learn how to be humble in winning and losing and develop discipline. Sports should never be a prison from which kids feel they can't escape. Likewise, sports shouldn't be a prison for the family where its time and money are held hostage. Unfortunately, we're fed the propaganda that athletic success spells life success, when in reality sports for the vast majority has very little to do with success in life. Todd Marinovich became a phenomenon for a few years, but the price he paid for that renown was nearly 40 years of his life – 20 trapped by the sport and 20 trapped by the drugs he took to escape the trap of the sport. Now happily married with two kids and a thriving artistic career, he has a relationship with his father that took years to repair. We want our kids to experience that kind of peace much sooner in life, which may mean letting the sports take a back seat to other more significant aspects of growing up. Moderation can give way to the freedom to find lots of interests and lots of events outside of the prison of achievement.