• 48°

Youth sports expose worst in ‘grown-ups’

By Staff
Tennis phenom shuns fame, glory
By RayMcKeithan
I have two sons who are actively involved in sports. It seems most kids are these days, doesn’t it?
An entire industry has grown around equipping, training and commercializing athletics at the youngest ages. Call me cynical, but in some ways, I think youth sports today can be more about winning and losing than about how the game is played. Have our kids’ activities become a smokescreen for parental competition and pressure?
I am surprised at the way “grown-ups” are acting at some athletic events. They fight with each other, curse officials and generally act in ways that would shock Emily Post. Baseball games for 7-year-olds shouldn’t be more out-of-hand than a Jerry Springer show.
I guess that makes me an idealist.
There are many kids with dreams of athletic stardom. Such aspirations can be a very positive thing if these dreams are counter balanced with a dose of reality. Statistics show that the chances of a child becoming a professional athlete are slimmer than Nicole Richey. Can I tell my kids that without seeming like a dream basher?
Perhaps, I won’t need to. Sometimes, reality sinks in for children when parents remain blinded by ambition. Suddenly, a kid quits playing a sport upon which parents have already pinned hopes for a college scholarship.
Surprise!
Do we put too much pressure on our kids? I have identified three basic types of parents that can be found at any local youth athletic event. (I won’t say which of the three I am.)
1) The I-was-not-a-good-athlete-and-I-will-live-vicariously-through-my-child’s-success parent. There were no All-Star teams in this person’s childhood. Little Johnny can make up for Pop’s ineptness and prove that the family gene pool includes markers for hand-eye coordination.
2) The I-was-an-exceptional-athlete-and-my-child-will-be-too-darn-it parent. Sure, sweet Sarah is intelligent and well-behaved, but if she doesn’t get three hits today she’ll be in timeout until April.
3) The I-just-want-my-child-to-be-happy-and-learn-about-good-sportsmanship parent. The future of the world is not riding on their child’s shooting percentage. Participating in sports is just one outlet of many that combine to make a well-rounded individual. If this child is successful in sports, fine. Most importantly, is this child successful in life?
Attending these games, I am often reminded of my near-brush with athletic Superstardom.
I once dreamed of being a professional tennis player. Don’t laugh. It almost happened in the days when racquets were made of wood and tennis shorts looked like underwear.
Worldwide fame was in my grasp just after I received the runner-up ribbon for the Robeson County 12-and-under tennis tournament. Finishing second out of four players saddled me with the “next big thing in sports” tag.
Sure, I reveled in the adoration heaped upon me after the mention in the local newspaper. My story was placed under the standings of the “Just Happy to Be Alive” senior bowling league. If memory serves, it read like this, “ … and Ray ‘Questions’ McKiethen (note misspelling of name) earned the runner-up ribbon.”
I still get chills.
In case you’re wondering; “Questions” was my nickname. I’ve had many nicknames. (I’m told I have several here at the WDN, but no one will tell me what they are.) “Questions” is one of my favorites. I was the annoying kid hanging out at the tennis center who peppered the pro, Tony Leonard, with thousands of questions each day.
I’m stringing a racquet … what does it look like I’m doing, ya’ goof?
Silence.
Silence.
Faint mumbling.
Sigh.
Go practice your serve, Questions.
I don’t think he liked me very much. Coach Leonard had a question mark painted on the strings of my racquet and avoided me a great deal, for some reason.
Sadly, my tennis glory days were short-lived. I folded under the intense pressure of the media spotlight following the newspaper story and its prominent placement on our refrigerator. I wanted so bad to be “just a regular kid” at school but jealousy and envy caused classmates to shun me.
So, I stopped wearing my Questions line of clothing and 24-carat bling. I smashed my Tad-Davis Highpoint racquet and left it all behind.
If the time comes that my kids’ dreams of athletic stardom aren’t realized; I hope I’ll be grown-up enough to leave them behind, too.
Thankfully, there are alternatives in youth sports for parents, and kids, who want to have fun in organized leagues without focusing solely on wins and losses. Upward Basketball is a Christ-centered youth program that enables kids to learn about basketball, sportsmanship and God. Thanks to Stacy and Walker Lynch and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church for bringing this community-wide, open-to-all program available in this area.
Ray McKeithan is associate publisher of the Washington Daily News. If you have questions or comments about operations, policies or content in the WDN that can be addressed in future columns, please send an e-mail to: ray@wdnweb.com or call 252-940-4205.