JAY: Barry, we've been openly discussing issues about youth sports for a few weeks now, and we've even received a few questions.
I received a great question from "Sportsfan" this week for my online column "The 5-at-10" at timesfreepress.com. Here goes:
Jay -- I'm getting a little nostalgic. Please bare with me on the query. Sportsfan Jr. is off at the university and Little Miss Sportsfan is graduating high school in a few weeks and headed to the university. Both are much better athletes than Sportsfan and Mrs. Sportsfan. In the case of elite athletes (Tiger, MJ, Peyton, many others) is it natural talent, hovering parents, coaching, fear of losing or something else that gives the athlete that "step on their necks drive" to be the best? We never pushed our kids to excel in athletics. We wanted them to enjoy themselves, but still they worked hard, did well and experienced success along with disappointment. Neither will continue their athletic career at the university, and we're OK with that. I don't see the next Tiger on tour, yet. The guys I thought might be the next Tiger don't seem to have the same drive to win, or ability to maintain their game at the highest level. Is it in an athlete's genes, coaching, parents, fear, big money for winning or something else that drives a kid to excel at the highest level in athletics?
BARRY: That's the college-tuition question, isn't it? Looking back, I believe there are two great challenges for parents when it comes to raising athletes. The first is knowing when to push, when to pull and when to get out of the way. The second challenge is to truly evaluate your kid's abilities and desires.
His desires, not yours. Evaluating his abilities are harder sometimes than we might think, because we tend to compare our kids to others around us. I used to tell my son, and the other players, that being the best 12-year-old at DuPont-Rivermont doesn't mean you are the best in Chattanooga, or the best in this area, or the state. And being the best in the state still doesn't mean you are good enough to get paid to play.
JAY: Our family is at the other end of the sports spectrum, and enjoying every minute of our son's 6-year-old baseball team and his teammates and our almost nightly trips to the ballpark. Good times, and we know we'll blink and we'll be where you are today.
As for preparation and purpose, we do not believe it to be universal. In fact, we believe there to be a high-level mix of the qualities that you mentioned.
We believe the hovering-parents element you mentioned, Sportsfan, almost never plays into athletic success over the long term (Tiger is the outlier here because his father was over the top, and he made it, but he's one of the few who was pushed/forced from an early age, and that success is more because of the God-given gifts Tiger has than anything Earl did).
BARRY: I bet too, though, that Earl saw real talent. That's where that true evaluation comes in. I can remember a bunch of us daddies standing around talking about how hard this or that kid pitches. "He hits 80," one said. Chattanooga State coach Greg Dennis happened to be nearby, and he just shook his head.
"That's not 80," he said. "You'll know 80 when you see it. Or, rather, don't see it."
He was right, and true 80 and the curveball made most of those kids into church-league softball players. Not a thing wrong with that, but you know what I mean.
JAY: It has to start with an extreme level of talent. There are hundreds of thousands of good athletes out there. The divide between pro athletes and college athletes is every bit as pronounced and as extreme as the divide between high school athletes and college athletes. The chasm is enormous.
But in addition to a next-level athletic ability, the defining talent is, not unlike Curly's approach to life in "City Slickers," "just one thing." You have to be elite at one area. If that one area is a unique athletic skill -- you could be extremely fast or an extremely good shooter or throwing 90-plus -- you can make a living playing a game.
Of the all-timers you mentioned, their athletic gifts are multipled. Jordan was a freak athlete, yet his "just one thing" was that he was the most competitive person of his generation. Woods had unworldly hand-eye coordination -- his Nike commercial with bouncing the ball on the 9-iron is simply unbelievable -- but his "just one thing" was belief and confidence in his ability to win that overwhelmed his foe.
In some ways Peyton is the outlier in this. Sure, he is physically gifted, but no more so than a lot of his contemporaries. He is the actual one who made it by working harder than everyone else. Manning's "just one thing" is being more prepared than everyone else and being mentally a step ahead of everything.
There's a combination of things that can help great athletes reach their potential. That potential may be being a good middle school player or being Kevin Durant. We feel sure that the li'l sportsfans greatly enjoyed their athletic careers and owe you and the Mrs. Sportsfan a bunch for all the support and the car rides and the sacrifices you made.
BARRY: As you say, desire and ability are not the same, but to advance to the next level, whatever level that is, the player has to have both. Parents, myself included, sometimes overlook one or both with the belief that either can be overcome by the right coach or camp.
Tiger is very much the outlier. What his dad did with him would run off 99.9 percent of kids. Todd Marinovich comes to mind. That poor kid never ate a cheeseburger growing up. He made up for it once free of his domineering dad. On the other hand, I can think of a couple of kids my son played against or with who were not the most gifted or talented, but they worked themselves onto college teams.
To me, if the player is waking you up to go hit another bucket of balls, or rebound for him or, better still, practicing alone without you, the best thing a parent can do is give him every opportunity you can to allow him to succeed. If Junior would rather sleep in, roll over and go back to sleep yourself. Or go hit your own bucket.