A friend of mine told me a cautionary tale about attending an elementary school sports banquet that featured former MLB all-star Buddy Bell as the guest speaker. Bell talked about his major league career that followed in the footsteps of his dad, Gus, who spent 15 seasons as an outfielder in the National League.
He told the audience of kids and parents that his father never pushed him toward a professional baseball career. Gus was supportive, sure, teaching the fundamentals to his son, who also learned a love for the game. Other than building that foundation and keeping sports fun for our kids, he told us, there’s nothing we can do as parents to guide our kids to professional sports.
The advice was surprising, given the source – the son of a major leaguer. And Buddy’s sons David and Mike both went on to play in the majors too, if not with the same success as their father and grandfather. But most of the parents got the message – keep it fun for the kids, teach them the basics, and let fate take its course. If you press too hard or foster dreams of big league success, you can ruin the experience.
After finishing his talk, Buddy asked the audience for questions. A dad immediately stood up and asked what he could do to help his son become a major leaguer. Buddy, along with everyone in the audience, stared in stunned silence at the guy. Had he not heard what Buddy has just finished saying?
Sure, the ambitious dad had heard it all, but that advice had changed nothing for him. Some parents want professional sports stardom a lot more than their kids do, despite the tremendous odds against it ever happening.
I’ve been reminded of that story recently by a pro athlete who apparently beat those odds – New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin. A Harvard graduate of Asian-American heritage, Lin was not the prototypical NBA player and had seen little court time until the Knicks suffered some injuries, and the coach was forced to use him. What followed, as we all have heard, was the stunning rise to fame of a benchwarmer. Suddenly every long-shot kid in youth sports (and many of their parents) found reason for hope.
In this article from Forbes.com, writer Bob Cook tells his readers that Lin’s success should not be used to foster unrealistic ambitions in kids or their parents. He writes that Lin’s story has created an unfortunate situation for sports parents – renewed hope that any athlete with the determination to succeed can do exactly that. Even if your kid is not the star of his or her team, if given a chance they can shine far more brightly than anyone ever expected.
Cook’s response: not really.
The Lin story, says Cook, creates false hope – whether it be for the bench-warming scrub on her school softball team or even for the kid who is tops on his school basketball team but lacks the size and speed to succeed at higher levels of competition. Could it happen? Sure. Will it? Very unlikely. And, as Buddy Bell told his audience, there’s nothing you can do to improve the odds. Let the kids learn the basics and have fun.
Stories like Lin’s are such outliers that hanging any personal ambitions on them is like hoping you’ll win the lottery so you can retire next year. And, as Cook makes clear, Lin’s rise to fame hasn’t been quite as unlikely as most of us assume. He was picked as the best player in California as a senior in high school. Yes, he was passed over by college recruiters and even by NBA coaches, but he always had the goods. When the opportunity to play regularly arose, he had the ability and had done the preparation to succeed.
It’s an underdog story, sure, and an inspiring one. We all can enjoy it and continue to root for him. But those who use it as proof that anyone can achieve their goal through determination and perseverance are setting themselves up for a lot of heartache and disappointment – unless they truly possess the talent necessary to succeed. They also risk ruining a kid’s true “glory years” in youth sports, having fun on the field and being part of a team.
As Cook suggests, it’s better for parents to share with their kids the joys of playing youth sports – a fleeting time in their lives, one full of memories that they’ll always remember, especially if we let them have fun rather than pressure them to strive for achievements beyond their abilities.