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Giving Kids a Sporting Chance

Athletes, Coaches and Parenting Experts Wrestle With How to Sit on the Sidelines

June 11, 1997|DON PATTERSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it came to choosing sides, it didn't matter if the sport was football or kickball. Bob Boone knew he was expected to be better than every other kid on the playground. That's the way it works when your dad is an all-star baseball player.

Fact is, following in the tall shadow of Ray Boone never really bothered Bob, for one simple reason: He always was the best. He eventually became an all-star baseball player himself, playing 19 years in the major leagues--nine with the Philadelphia Phillies, seven with the Angels and a couple of more with the Kansas City Royals, the team he now manages.

But Boone didn't forget about the schoolyard pressure when he and his wife had three boys of their own. He has seen enough of this game to know that parents can push kids to take ground balls for 10 hours a day, but if they don't have natural ability, they won't grow up to be an Ozzie Smith.

While he encouraged his kids to have fun and give their best effort, Boone says, he made it clear that they didn't have to play baseball.

Athletes at the top of their professions wrestle with issues of what's best for their children--how much sports is the right amount--just like the rest of us.

Well, not quite like the rest of us.

They know firsthand what it takes to make it to the top. And they know what can keep people from getting there--or keep them from being happy if they do.

At a time when parents of Little Leaguers become so intense they can come to blows in front of their children, the perspective of many top athletes when it comes to kids in sports is a lot closer to "Hey, relax."

Besides Boone, other top Southern California athletes who believe that as parents their role should be to encourage, not push, include:

* Ann Meyers Drysdale of Huntington Beach, basketball Hall of Famer and mother of sons ages 7 and 9 and a daughter, 4;

* Rod Perry of San Diego, former Rams defensive back and now Chargers assistant coach, whose son has been a standout athlete at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana;

* Tracy Austin of Rolling Hills, former tennis champion and mother of a 1-year-old;

* Karch Kiraly of San Clemente; three-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist and father of a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old.

These athletes say they've seen how pushing too hard can not only take the fun out of sports for kids, but also lead to burnout just when the young athletes reach their stride.

Boone, who lives with his family in Villa Park during the off-season, says his biggest concern about his kids' athletic environment was that it would be filled with too much baseball.

As it turned out, after hanging out with their dad at the ballpark while growing up, all three of his sons ended up embracing the game.

Bret is now a second baseman with the Cincinnati Reds, Aaron is in the Reds' farm system, and Matt is a standout at Villa Park High.

Not everyone buys into the don't-push philosophy, however. Wayne and Kathy Bryan, tennis coaches and former pro players, argue that many parents abdicate their responsibility by letting children pick and choose.

"Most professional athletes who have attained greatness in a sport don't know how to do it for their own children," says Wayne Bryan, who teaches clinics for the Assn. of Tennis Professionals.

"The typical baby boomer always says, 'I don't want to push my child. Whatever they want to do, it doesn't matter to me.' But if you do that, you're leading them to Madison Avenue. What they'll do is play video games, ride skateboards, eat sugar-sweetened cereal and watch TV all day."

The Bryans, who live in Camarillo, say their emphasis with their twin boys, Bob and Mike, was to funnel them directly into tennis. Wayne Bryan also emphasizes the importance of academics and learning a musical instrument--which he chose for each.

Bryan says he and his wife "pushed like hell," but in such a way that the boys never knew what hit them. When the twins were toddlers, the family played tennis-like games with pingpong paddles and balloons. Later, the Bryans brought them to the tennis club and to professional tournaments and even arranged for them to have pizza in the locker room with John McEnroe.

Rather than demanding hours of practice, which Bryan likens to telling a kid to make his bed, they left them wanting more. That, he says, created a passion that helped them get to where they are now: freshmen at Stanford on tennis scholarships.

"In the 17th and 18th century, when we had the greatest painting, the greatest furniture making, the greatest clockmaking, the greatest everything, there was an apprentice program where the child went in at age 5, 6 or 7," Bryan says. "And they became masters. We don't have that anymore. We have people watching TV."

Bryan, who played a variety of sports growing up, says he might have reached the top levels of pro tennis if he'd concentrated on that sport as a child.

*

Many athletes and coaches, however, make a case for encouraging kids to explore several sports.

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