Realization: My Kids Will Never Become Professional Athletes

Noell Pikus-Pace, winner of the silver medal in the skeleton at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games (Photo from the L.A. Times)
Alternate Title 1: Are Professional Athletes Grotesque? —David Foster Wallace on Sports
Alternate Title 2: Realization: I Don't Have What it Takes to be a Pro-Athlete Dad 

With one very simple technique I have trained my sons to feel like champions:

A couple of years ago when the 2012 Summer Olympics were taking place in London I introduced our toddler and preschool aged boys to John Williams' "Olympic Fanfare" the sublime theme that NBC has made ubiquitous in their Olympic sport coverage for over a decade now.  

I simply put the song on and with Pavlovian swiftness they begin to dance and run and kick around the room in absolute victory, any enemy before them left vanquished in their paths.  We have been going through through ritual once a month or so, but since the Winter Olympics in Sochi started last week, it's been taking place with much more frequency.

When the piece comes on I too start to feel a surge of idealized passion filled with the notion that I can do anything! If only I try hard enough. It is a testament to the power of Williams' music, that it can still have such a visceral effect on me despite years of disappointing life experiences and middling performances in athletics, the arts, and professional endeavors. The years may have calloused me but the music still causes me to hope no matter how many times NBC plays it to sell its advertising space.

I would love for my sons to be professional athletes or Olympic champions some day.  As a father, to see them find success on that kind of level, living both in the victory and the monetary benefit of such success, would bring me great joy.  There is even a commercial out now for the Olympics which goads parents into sentimentally seeking that kind of success for their children: 

Just look what you can accomplish if you get your kids into sports!

But is this really what we parents want--for our own lives as well as our kids?  The question is not do we have what it takes as parents--both the resources and the drive--to give our kids the opportunity to succeed at sports on a national or international stage, the question is do we even want to have what it takes?

Many of us are probably afraid to admit or have never peaked behind the curtain of professional sports long enough (and here I am counting all Olympians as professionals) to admit that the world of pro-athletes is more than a little odd.  Without exception, all sports on a professional level require more out of an individual than would be considered normal.  Sure we laud our athletes, heap stacks of cash upon them, and daydream about being them, but this is because we have not counted the cost of what it takes to actually be them. To put this into a personal context, let me say that I love all aspects of tennis—the sport itself being played, the equipment, and the professional tour that I can watch nearly year round.  I dreamed of being a pro tennis player as a kid but never got farther than getting my butt kicked in the first round of the Illinois state tennis tournament as one half of a doubles team (shout out to my partner, Jason Vanecko). Despite my love for the sport, I soon realized I did not have the competitive drive to make it to a higher level of the sport, irregardless of a lack of adequate natural athletic abilities.

Now to extrapolate to my sons: I happen to think they possess some athletic abilities, young though they are, and although I plan to involve them in tennis along with other sports, I do not think I actually want to subject them to the insane lifestyle of the professional or semi-professional athlete.  Many sacrifices would have to be made.  Entire arcs of life would have to be altered.  Untold bills would have to be paid--for trips, and training, and equipment, and knee/back/wrist/elbow surgeries.  There is a joyous beauty involved in watching a legend like Roger Federer hit a tennis ball or Shaun White do his flipty-flips on a half-pipe, but I do not think I have what it takes as a parent to see my sons reach that kind of level as an athlete or world stage as a performer. And thus my sons "don't have what it takes" to become professional athletes themselves. Because let's be clear: in order for a person to reach a high level of success in sports they have to start young and parents are the number 1 catalyst for a child getting into sports, despite any natural talent a child might possess.

But I did not come to the realizations of my lack of qualifications for being a Pro-Athlete Dad alone. No, I was coached into it by author David Foster Wallace. Over the course of a number of essays Wallace gave a number of incisive insights into the strange world of professional athletes, simply by observing them at work. Although he only focused on professional tennis players in his writing, he wrote in a way that can easily be extrapolated to all of professional sports.  I highlight a few of his quotes here, laid out into thematic categories.  There are three essays I will quote from, which include links to online versions of the articles:

1. "Federer Both Flesh and Not" found in Both Flesh and Not and originally published as "Roger Federer as Religious Experience" in The New York Times, here abbreviated as "Federer".

2. "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" found in Consider the Lobster and originally published in The Philadelphia Enquirer, here abbreviated as "Austin".
3. "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, and Human Completeness" found in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, originally published in Esquire as "The String Theory", here abbreviated as "Joyce".

On the (often) inexplicable greatness of great athletes, in particular Roger Federer (but just insert your own athletic genius and/or favorite sport and the quotes usually make sense).

1. "...great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of..." (Federer)
2. "If you've watched tennis only on television, you simply have no idea how hard these pros are hitting the ball, how fast the ball is moving, how little time the players have to get to it, and how quickly they're able to move and rotate and strike and recover. And none are faster, or more deceptively effortless about it, than Roger Federer." (ibid.)
3. "The metaphysical explanation [for Federer's dominance in tennis] is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogs here include Michael Jordan [and] Muhammed Ali...Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he [Federer] seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces...a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light." (ibid.)
4. "...there is more than time and training involved—there is also sheer talent, and degrees of it. Extraordinary kinesthetic ability must be present (and measurable) in a kid just to make the years of practice and training worthwhile...but from there, over time, the cream starts to rise and separate."(ibid)
5. "But the truth is that whatever deity, entity, energy, or random genetic flux produces sick children also produced Roger Federer, and just look at him down there. Look at that." [Here Wallace is comparing the inexplicable greatness of Federer, the mere fact that he exists at all, to the inexplicable tragedy of the boy they brought out to do the coin toss before the match, a boy who discovered he had cancer at 2 years old.] (ibid.)
6. On watching two moderately talented tennis pros practicing, pretty insignificant in terms of tennis history and yet ranked in the top 100 during 1990's: "the players moving with the compact nonchalance I've since come to recognize in pros when they're working out: the suggestion is one of a very powerful engine in low gear." (Joyce)
7. On being overwhelmed after a week at a pro tennis tournament: "After the week was over, I truly understand why Charlton Heston looks gray and ravaged on his descent from Sinai: past a certain point, impressiveness is corrosive to the psyche." (ibid.)
8. "It is not an accident that great athletes are often called "natural," because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even...under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two...The real secret behind top athletes' genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player's mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all." (Austin)

On the work required to be a world class athlete

1. Hitting thousands of strokes, day after day, develops the ability to do by 'feel' what cannot be done by regular conscious thought. Repetitive practice like this often looks tedious or even cruel to an outsider, but the outsider can't feel what's going on inside the player—tiny adjustments, over and over, and a sense of each change's effects that gets more and more acute even as it recedes from normal consciousness. (Federer)

On the differences between professional and amateur athletes

1. "The idea that there can be wholly distinct levels to competitive tennis—levels so distinct that what's being played is in essence a whole different game—might seem to you weird and hyperbolic...But the idea of me playing Joyce [the tennis-pro he was writing this feature on] or even hitting around with him...to hit around with a hot young U.S. pro—is now revealed to me to be absurd and in a certain way obscene...This makes me sad." (Joyce)
2. Speaking of even lower ranked tennis players (100th ranked and above), the mere qualifiers in the tournament he was observing for a week: "I could not meaningfully exist on the same court with these, obscure, hungry players. Nor could you. And it's not just a matter of talent or practice. There's something else." (ibid.)
3. Speaking on Tracy Austin's (multiple grand slam winning tennis player) inability to articulate what it was like to win a grand slam or to define her own greatness: "It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence." (Austin)

On the professional athlete as "grotesque"

1. Speaking of Michael Joyce, a tennis player you've probably never heard of, but who at the time of the article was one of the best in the world, if only for a short-lived time (and who was once the coach for Maria Sharapova): "Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a figure of enduring and paradoxical fascination for me.  The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque [my emphasis added]. But the radical compression of his attention and self has allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art—something few of us get to be. It's allowed him to visit and test parts of his psyche that most of us do not even know for sure we have, to manifest in concrete form virtues like courage, persistence in the face of pain or exhaustion, performance under wilting scrutiny and pressure. (Joyce)
2. Again speaking of Joyce: "He wants to be the best, to have his name known, to hold professional trophies over his head as he patiently turns in all four directions for the media...He wants this, and he will pay to have it—will pay just to pursue it, let it define him—and will pay with the regretless cheer of a man for whom issues of choice became irrelevant long ago. Already for Joyce, at 22, it's too late for anything else: he's invested too much, in too deep. I think he's both lucky and un-. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well." (ibid.)

This last quote is the most telling of all. Read it carefully. It is especially potentially tragic considering Joyce never really rose any higher in the rankings after this article was written. He was a great great tennis player but is one of the many many athletes who basically amounted to nothing despite possessing so much talent and investing so much in his sport.  We all glory in a victor like Roger Federer, but it is truly sobering to realize how rare an athlete like him is. So, despite all the awestruck laudatory speech he conjure for these people, note how Wallace interlaces ambivalence, critique, and genuine concern for the way they live their lives.

So when it comes down to it, my heart speaks a resounding no! to the prospect of my kids making sports their life.  I do not want it to become their identity, I do not want it to become all they ever think about, and I do not want every moment of their lives spent training, practicing, competing, promoting, healing, or traveling in order to be an athlete.  Because even though we all become captured by the glory found in being the best at any given sport, the reality is that the vast majority of sports men and women are left in the middle of the pack where very little glory or financial gain is to be found.  (Let us not even speak of all the forgotten "losers" at the Olympics who came in fourth or greater place in some competition, narrowly edged out of the coveted top three spots by tenths of a second or a few points based on a judge's estimations; all those right at the top of their sport who find the actual summit just out of their reach.)

Let me reiterate: I plan on having my kids play lots of sports.  They will learn work ethic, how to play with others, how to strategize, and of course gain bodily health.  But becoming professionals are another matter altogether: I (believe I) do not have what it takes as a parent and they (consequently and therefore probably) do not have what it takes as individuals to become so. But really I am not exactly sure I even want them becoming professional athletes (assuming that was a possibility), and, if David Foster Wallace's thoughts are any indication—and I say this with some trepidation, only partially believing it to be true—it would seem to me that if they were to become so something had gone wrong along the way in my parenting.

Post Script: For your consideration: If any publishers ever read this post, I want to make is 100% clear that I will help Roger Federer write his autobiography and it will be amazing. I could help him write a work that everyone would want to read and feel enriched afterward for having read.  I would ask him the tough questions and get him unlock the parts of himself that lie under years of just "doing the job" of tennis. I would spend the years necessary in research and refining of the text. You can contact me through this blog. It will be done right. This I promise.

Related Article:
Aching for the Promised Land (England, that is)—an essay on Tennis, Wimbledon, England, Roger Federer and how taking in all four of them at once made me cry.

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