A blog by Barry Edelson

Don't Let Your Kids
Grow Up to Be Sports Stars

Whether or not Roger Clemens actually used steroids hardly matters to the fate of humankind, or even to the future of major league baseball, for that matter. But it brings to mind an observation made some years ago about athletes and the potentially serious consequences of encouraging young people to idolize them.

In response to those mawkish, gauzy profiles of Olympic athletes that the television networks use to enliven their tedious coverage of obscure sports, one commentator noted that the quality that makes these athletes so successful—their single-minded obsession to excel at one particular thing—is precisely what makes them poor role models for children.

Being the best in any sport is a kind of arms race (pun intended): if your competitors spend every waking moment building their muscles and perfecting their skills, you don't have a chance to beat them unless you do the same. It is reasonable to expect that even naturally gifted athletes cannot rely on talent alone to guide them across the finish line, but when a gold medal is the only thing that matters, no amount of sweat is too much.

One would be hard pressed to find a video biography of an athlete that doesn't use the phrases "work ethic", "determination", "110 percent", and "sacrifice". It's that final word, "sacrifice," that is the most troubling. There's Mommy driving the little figure skater to the rink at 5:00am for practice. There's Daddy shouting encouragement to his budding wrestler from the nearby bleachers. One cannot help but notice that these kids are not in school and their parents are not at work. Never mind: there is also the stock image of the devoted young athlete poring over a textbook in his trophy-lined bedroom (no mention of the late hour or the lifetime of missed birthday parties), as well as the heart-tugging tale of the family's money woes as they struggle for years to support their future contender (no questions about whether the continuous threat of financial ruin is a fair trade for a gold medal, or any mention of the thousands of other kids who make the same sacrifice but never win one).

It takes a superhuman act of
self-restraint to say no to
something that promises to help
you achieve the one and only
thing to which you have dedicated
every second of your life.

This extreme self-denial is lauded as a positive attribute, embodying the quintessential American ideals of individualism and determination. Never mind that athletes from many other countries also compete, and win medals, in complete ignorance of, or indifference to, any inflated notion of American superiority. Condemning athletes as single-minded and selfish is swimming against a patriotic tide of hopes and expectations. We can all fool ourselves into believing that we have undeveloped talents of our own, but it's the lifelong push for perfection that separates the champions from the merely able. We want and need our heroes to be this way.

Ask any parent what he wants for his children, and precious few will say that they want them to be the best at everything they do no matter what the personal cost in health and happiness. Most parents will say they want their children to be well-rounded and to find fulfillment, and most are no doubt sincere. But if they find that their child happens to have a gift—whether for kicking a ball, playing the violin, or spelling English words—how many will resist the urge to nurture that talent, often at the expense of everything else?

Forget the talented for a moment: consider the typical child who plays sports merely because he or she is reasonably good at it, or because it's what the other kids do. They are told to play by the rules and to put their personal aspirations aside for the good of the team (if they can ignore the screeching parents and coaches on the sidelines). But wait a minute: didn't we just say that the most highly admired value in sports is that of personal ambition? Then those other time-worn values of teamwork and sportsmanship must be mere consolation prizes for the less-than-dazzling. Winning must be unimportant only when it's also unlikely and infrequent.

For the famous and talented, different rules apply. It's impossible to know anything about the personal lives of professional athletes with any certainty when all we have to go on is the hagiography that passes for sports journalism. For all we know, Clemens's mother and father may have been perfectly responsible and loving parents who insisted that their son do well in school and be a good person, as well as try hard at baseball. But somewhere along the way their son picked up the idea that winning is so important that almost no amount of effort or emotion can be considered excessive. Whether steroids or other banned drugs entered into the equation for him we just don't know yet.

But we do know already from the convictions of Marion Jones and others that it takes a superhuman act of self-restraint to say no to something that promises to help you achieve the one and only thing to which you have dedicated every second of your life. And just as there are few who will ever actually hoist the trophy, there are few who possess that level of self-control. Pity the star-struck children watching from the cheap seats.

January 14, 2008

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