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Parenting Elite Athletes Is A Special Challenge

We've come a long way

I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. My older son, Luke, was nine when he was watching me playing tennis and expressed an interest in learning the game. I handed him a used kiddie racquet, showed him how to grip it, and started tossing balls over the net. Since he missed most of them, his 7-year-old brother, Dan, ran over from the playground and starting fetching and tossing the balls back to me. Finally, in frustration, Luke heaved the racquet against the fence.

"I don't play tennis with boys who throw their racquets," I said.

"I don't care!" Luke yelled as he stomped off.

Dan trotted over. "I won't throw the racquet, Mommy," he said.

"Okay, honey," I said. "Then you can try."

Eleven years later, Dan is beginning his freshman year playing NCAA Division I tennis at Old Dominion University in Virginia. In between, Dan and I have been on a sports odyssey negotiating the labyrinth of USTA competition, playing a sport that became the passion of his life. Along the way, I met dozens of coaching and academic professionals, national officials, and, of course, parents and players in what had previously been a completely unknown world for me. I also spoke with people in similar positions in other elite sports.

Meanwhile, I continued my life as a single working mother trying to make ends meet and maintain balance in my family. From these competing demands has emerged my keen interest in exploring beneath the surface of elite youth competition, particularly its demands and effects on family.

For the love of the game

I learned to play tennis from my aunt Ruth, who played every day of her life. Had she been born in 1991 instead of 1919, she would have become a nationally ranked player. Instead, she taught tennis to all her children, nieces, and nephews, and all in the same precise way: racquet back, eye on the ball. At 58, she was diagnosed with a heart murmur and told either to get off the court or prepare to die on it. At 63, she won a match with an amazing overhead smash and dropped dead on the service line.

Today, the game Aunt Ruth loved with such a passion and fervor and passed on to the next generation has evolved into a multimillion dollar business, supporting and supported by highly paid coaches and sports psychologists, selective academies, national and international competitions, and the twin goals of college scholarship and professional status.

Parenting the elite athlete: a special challenge

Had Aunt Ruth been born in 1991, my grandparents would undoubtedly have gone prematurely gray trying to figure out what was best for their daughter and their family in a world that strained their finances, their time, and their sense of fair play. With any luck, they would have hit on this channel for parenting the gifted athlete at MomsTeam for some solid advice and a chance to share their hopes and concerns with other parents of so-called "elite"athletes.

There are all kinds of elite athletes, from 12-year-old baseball players playing in the Little League World Series in front of a packed stadium and a national television audience to the tiny 14-year-old gymnast living far from home in order to train with the best coaches in the hopes of realizing her dream of a shot at the Olympics. No matter what sport they play, elite athletes' goals require a commitment that is by its very nature all-consuming, and parents' involvement has ratcheted up to the point of swamping other concerns or projects involving their child.

The amount of time, money, and effort devoted to the sport in question makes no sense in terms of fame-and-fortune goals. Parents' bookshelves sag with the weight of experts promising to set their golf prodigy on the course to PGA Tour riches, but the chance of a talented, hard-working junior succeeding as a tour pro is less than that of being struck by lightning. Moreover, for the price tag of $46,000/year, the renowned Leadbetter Academy graduates golf athletes who rake in an average of $4,500/year in college scholarships. Not exactly a good return on one's investment, if by "return" we mean the glory of prize money or media coverage.