In a recent article in the New York Times, Mark Heisler nominated Marv Marinovich and Jim Pierce as the two worst parents in sports history. Marinovich, a former professional football player himself, began training his son Todd to be a quarterback before the boy left his crib.
A Sports Illustrated article about Todd the high school phenom noted that the boy never ate a cookie and began physical conditioning at the age of one. He did indeed become a talented quarterback, a first round NFL pick, but proved a bust in part because of severe personal problems that many trace to his, ah, unconventional upbringing.
Jim Pierce, father of tennis star Mary, gave his daughter a very late start compared to Marinovich, introducing her to tennis at the age of ten. While her coach on the pro circuit for four years, he earned a reputation for verbally abusing his daughter and her opponents both. At the age of 18, Mary succeeded in gaining a restraining order against him.
While Messyrs Marinovich and Pierce are certainly contenders for worst sports parent, in my book they have to settle for the silver and bronze medals. They lacked the messianic sense that Earl Woods brought to the raising of his Tiger. When Tiger was just 20, Earl gave the following assessment of his son to Sports Illustrated: “He is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”
Amusing stuff, but there’s nothing funny about the state of sports parenting. Attend a youth game and you’re likely to see any number of adults in the crowd behaving like kids – berating their own children, opponents, the officials, and one another. The world would be a far better place if the parents of young athletes observed a simple rule: Don’t be an ass.
But often times, bad sports parenting takes milder forms, sufficiently subtle that well-meaning folks can make mistakes for decades without realizing it. In his book Raising a Team Player, Harry Sheehy (a college basketball standout at Williams and now Athletic Director at Dartmouth) notes the tendency of parents to ask the wrong questions when their child comes home from a game.
The young soccer player, for example, is often asked whether he scored a goal, how much playing time he received, and whether the team won. These things matter, but prioritizing them sends the wrong message to the child. Shouldn’t the first question be, “Did you have fun?”
Perhaps you think this question follows from the others, that the goals and playing time and wins are precisely what determines whether your kid has fun. If so, you’ve failed as a sports parent (as almost all of us do, at least to some extent). Don’t you want your child to enjoy sports even on those days when he or his team struggle?
The best rule of sports parenting I’ve ever heard is this: Don’t care more than your kid. If your son or daughter is passionate about a sport, share the passion. Hit them a thousand groundballs, come to all their games, do whatever you can that seems to enhance rather than detract from their experience. But if they don’t mind riding the bench, why should you get worked up on their behalf? If they’re not running three miles a day or hanging out in the weight room or doing whatever you think might take their game to the next level, the most you should do is make a gentle suggestion. If it’s not followed, then your son or daughter doesn’t care as much as you do about their own success. It’s their life, it’s their choice.
By persisting, you won’t make their athletic life better. You’ll just make your relationship with them worse. And those who value their child’s success in sports more than their relationship with the child aren’t just bad sports parents, but bad parents period.