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Giving Kids a Sporting Chance

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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

Rod Perry, a former Pro Bowl defensive back for the Rams, is now an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers. Perry says that when he talks to athletes who have NFL potential, he likes to hear that they’ve played other sports because it usually means they’ll be more well-rounded football players.

Perry played a number of sports growing up and encouraged his son, Rod Jr., to do the same. Rod Jr. was a standout athlete at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana and will play football and baseball next year on a scholarship at USC.

“High school is a fun time in your life,” Perry says. “I think you should try to play them all. Some kids excel at an early age and then start to burn out at the end of high school, and you see a decline. And then you see other guys begin to take off [who didn’t start early], and they’re more motivated and . . . might not be as burned out.”

Meyers Drysdale participated in seven sports in high school, then went to UCLA to play basketball and volleyball, and was also a member of the Bruins’ 1975 NCAA Championship track and field team. From there, she played on the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team and later played professionally.

When she was a kid, she played a variety of sandlot games and says the process of picking captains, choosing teams and settling fights helps children develop leadership skills.

“There were no adults around to handle the situation,” she says. “You dealt with it.”

Given her background, it isn’t surprising that she and her husband, former Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale (who died in 1993), shared a philosophy that a broad athletic experience is important. She lets their three kids--DJ, 9; Darren, 7; and Drew, 4--play anything they want, providing their schoolwork doesn’t suffer.

“I think what made us such good athletes is the fact that we never got burned out on a sport,” says Meyers Drysdale, who is now a TV analyst for ESPN. “I think people are just too keyed on ‘This kid is going to get a scholarship.’ ”

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Tracy Austin spent much of her childhood at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills, where her mom worked, and she focused exclusively on tennis. In 1979, at age 16, she became the youngest player ever to win the U.S. Open, and the following year she became the youngest to earn a No. 1 ranking in the world. When she won the U.S. Open again in 1981, Sports Illustrated wrote that she was poised at the edge of domination. But soon after, a series of injuries slowed her down, and she never won another Grand Slam event.

Austin is now a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, but she has no plans to steer her year-old son, Dylan, down the same narrow path. Dylan already owns a tennis racket, but Austin is quick to point out that it was given to him by a friend.

“I think the key is to let the child decide,” she says. “If he likes four different sports, then he should play four different sports. Who am I to pick one for him?”

In the opinions of Austin and Meyers Drysdale, the qualities that carry athletes to the summit of a sport come internally, not from parents.

“The drive within me was what was so strong,” Austin says. “If a kid doesn’t have that toward one sport, I personally don’t think you can instill it in him. And if he doesn’t want it himself, he’s not going to make it to the top anyway.”

Volleyball great Karch Kiraly began playing the sport with his dad at age 6. While he believes there are some benefits to an early start, he questions the wisdom of planning a child’s athletic career.

“My worry is, what if you pick the wrong area?” he says. “What if you pick one where he has no aptitude? I think it’s pretty hard to know at 6 years old that a kid is going to grow up to be 6 foot 2 with a 41-inch vertical jump.”

His plan is to play a variety of sports with his kids--Kristian, 6; and Kory, 5--until they get older, and then help them narrow their focus, based on which sports they prefer. Kiraly didn’t get involved with organized volleyball until he was 11, and he has fond memories of playing games that weren’t overseen by adults.

“If you were 7 or 8 years old, you got together with some of your buddies and chose up teams and played,” he says. “I think kids now are much too organized and competitive at much too early an age, and I think that leads to burnout sometimes.”

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No matter who your parents are--or what their philosophy--the odds are stacked heavily against becoming a professional athlete.

Which is part of why so many child development specialists urge parents to concentrate on raising an emotionally healthy, self-confident child whose view of success is not tied to just one goal.

By all accounts, the wrong way to develop a child’s motivation is through external rewards.

Boone cringes when he sees parents at Little League games stand up in the bleachers and yell, “Get a hit here and I’ll buy you an ice cream!” Kiraly tells the story of a friend who heard a parent at a soccer game yell, “Score a goal and I’ll give you 50 bucks.”

One problem with such incentives, says Linda Levine, a UC Irvine psychology professor, is that research indicates they don’t produce lasting results. In studies where one kid gets paid to get good grades and another learns about a subject simply because he’s interested in it, the child who’s not being paid tends to be more persistent, she says.

The same principle applies if kids are doing something only because of their parents.

“If parents are pushing kids and the kids are doing a sport because they know they need to do this to please the parent, as soon as that is taken away the kid is no longer motivated to keep doing it,” Levine says.

Kiraly says he is puzzled by parents at youth soccer games who are forever yelling at their kids to do this, then do that, then do this--stopping just short of moving them around the field by remote control.

He prefers to do “very little yelling and instructing and just let the game happen.”

Along those lines, Meyers Drysdale tells the story of how DJ, at age 5, would sometimes sit on the ground playing with rocks when he played goalie in a soccer game. His dad would get all over him about it.

“And then when you have the second child, you realize that that’s what a 4- or 5-year-old does,” she says. “You get a lot easier with kids the more you have, and they can have a lot more fun, too, because you understand that they’re out there to have a good time.”

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Lawrence Budner, the head of the psychiatry department at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, says narrowing a child’s focus is “skilled parenting” as long as the parents are in touch with their children’s interests.

“I think you want to expose your kids broadly to things, but there’s also a point--and I suppose you can debate when that point is--for teaching a kid what it means to restrict a focus and put in an intense amount of effort to get very good at a particular thing,” he says. “Teaching a kid they can’t have everything at the candy shop is a useful lesson.”

Bryan says that by raising his sons focused on one sport, they’ve ended up with a robust and varied lifestyle, one that has included extensive travel and the acquaintance of many intriguing people.

“To have a wide life, you have to go down a narrow path,” he says. “Some parents are so into the wide thing that the life becomes narrow.

“If they shoot a few baskets, hit a few baseballs, kick a few soccer balls and do everything, what are they? What have they learned about discipline and goal-setting? They learn you can come in and out of sports, in and out of grades and in and out of relationships.”

Where parents run into problems, Budner says, is if they want a great athlete and the kid doesn’t happen to be a great athlete. Or, if a kid pursues a sport exclusively and then turns 12 and wants to quit.

Budner has found that kids run a much lower risk of going in a negative direction if they’re involved in three areas: a sport, a favorite subject at school and a non-sport activity such as music.

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Levine says her research on child prodigies indicates that the ones who grow up to be geniuses often have a combination of aptitude and parents who help out by putting them in the right environment--say, the tennis club--and making it fun.

“You’ve got to take cues from your kids, but you also don’t want to be so into having the child be a wonder child that they’re doing everything in the world and not learning anything very well.”

One of the biggest things parents can do to help children reach their potential is give them a sense that there is always “someone behind them who is really cheering them on,” Budner says.

That holds true, he says, whether they’re playing sports or attending medical school.

Kiraly attributes his rise to the top of volleyball partly to parental support, and so does Austin, whose mother was right there beside her at countless juniors tournaments.

“That’s key to being successful in the long run,” she says. “I think everyone who has been successful has had someone who’s really been in their corner and really kind of helped them through the bumps.”


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