Game, set and mismatch — the line between pushy sports parents and supportive ones

Game, set and mismatch — the line between pushy sports parents and supportive ones
Tiger Woods of the US hits his tee shot on the ninth hole during the third round of the 2022 PGA Championship golf tournament at the Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 21 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Tannen Maury)

When you fail at something, it is all too easy to force a child down the same path so that you can succeed by proxy.

Speaking during a special appearance at the Monaco leg of the Formula E season, British boxer Anthony Joshua was asked about stories outside boxing that have inspired him and continue to do so.

After a few seconds the two-time heavy­weight champion responded. 

“Tiger Woods’s dad was a massive inspiration. He pushed his son to be one of the greatest. Basically, turned him into a computer. [In him] I saw someone who had a vision. Someone who implemented his vision and put it into someone. Followed his As, Bs and Cs and took him all the way to victory,” Joshua said.

“I like that story. Because I’ve got a son as well. [That story] shows you that anything is possible. His son, as a child, never wanted to be a golfer. But he went on to be the best that has ever lived.”

Indeed, it was Earl Woods – who served in the US Army for two decades and picked up the sport of golf in his forties – who introduced his son Tiger to it. At that point, the younger Woods was still just a toddler.

Having fallen madly in love with the sport by this time, Tiger’s father would often be found practising his swing, while his son watched in admiration. The older Tiger got, the more his father started to nudge him towards the golf course.

sports parents Tiger Woods Earl Woods

Earl and Tiger Woods at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Poppy Hills golf course in California. (Photo: Jamie Squire /Allsport)

By the age of five Tiger Woods had appeared in Golf Digest, in addition to garnering attention for his exploits as a prodigy. His father had identified an “innate talent” for the sport in his son. Earl would serve as his son’s coach for a number of years as the latter continued to fall further in love with sport.

Decades later, Tiger commands much respect for his impressive exploits as a golfer. He is a winner of 82 PGA Tour titles and 15 major championships, and is considered one of the greatest sports stars of all time.

Would he have reached this level of acclaim had it not been for the dogged determination of his father spurring him on? Would he even have been interested in pursuing it?

Over the years, there have been suggestions that his authoritarian father had not given him many options either way.

In an HBO documentary released in 2021, a former teacher of the younger Woods told a story of how he had allegedly approached her, asking that she speak to Woods senior to convince him to let his son try other sports he was interested in.

The teacher, who said Earl “had a master plan since Tiger started walking”, said her suggestion was shot down by the golfer’s father, with him saying there was no room to pursue other sports and that Tiger had to focus on golf.

That raises the question of whether Woods’s father was merely trying to fulfil his own dream through his son. Tiger has played down this narrative in the past. 

“I used to be so fired up to play tournament golf as a junior that I’d sit there and bob around, just couldn’t stand still. I wanted to go,” he has said, suggesting that even though the seed of golf was planted by his father, he grew to enjoy the sport.

sports parents Anthony Joshua

Anthony Joshua celebrates his victory over Otto Wallin in a heavyweight fight on 23 December 2023 at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Richard Pelham / Getty Images)

Fine line

Parents wanting the best for their children is normal. Most good parents do. However, the line is extremely thin between wanting what’s best for your offspring and forcing them down a path so that you can live out your failed dreams through them.

There are stories such as that of Woods and his father that can be said to have worked out for the best in the end, if the barometer is the success and acclaim that the golfer has attained. But there are instances where the opposite is true.

There are individuals stuck in occupations that they would never have pursued had they followed their own passions and not been pressured into taking ­other paths.

Even in school sports, overbearing and demanding parents are present. They intimidate coaches when their children do not make the team, and berate their own children for being “failures”. This can make or break a child, and affect them well into adulthood.

There are, of course, healthier ways to hone the talent of a child. The parents of tennis starlet Coco Gauff were athletes themselves. Her father played basketball at Georgia State University, while her mother was a promising heptathlon athlete.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cocomania – can rising tennis star Coco Gauff handle the pressure of expectation?

After observing their daughter’s innate passion for sports, the Gauffs encouraged Coco to try different sports. She voluntarily gravitated towards tennis, with positive role models in the form of the Williams sisters. So that’s where they focused their energy. 

Despite neither of her parents making it to the professional ranks, they did not approach her promise as an athlete with a singular view. Rather, they were open to letting her lead the process.

“[As a former athlete] you understand the process better. And so you don’t get too jittery about it. You don’t feel like you’re running out of time. You are not rushed. You kind of meet your kid where they are at,” Corey Gauff told The New York Times in 2019.

Another example is South African golfer Trevor Immelman. As a youngster, he told his parents that he wanted to become the best golfer in the world.

They could have easily snuffed out this dream and told him about the minute odds of his succeeding. They didn’t. Instead, they went out of their way to support him.

“When my son said he was going to be a great [golfer], I took it seriously,” his father, Johan Immelman, was quoted as saying by Golf Week.

Immelman would work his way up the golf ladder and eventually end up wearing the prestigious green jacket in golf when he clinched the 2008 Masters title. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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