The woman at dinner last week quietly dries her tears on the napkin.
“Sorry,” she says.
She isn’t upset, just exhausted. Nothing tragic has happened, this is just a manifestation of pressure. Athletes feel it every day. So do sporting parents like this one. But no one notices.
Parents—a recurring subject with this writer—reside on the periphery of sport. They are found in the stands wearing tight faces and in their child’s Instagram pictures on Father’s Day. We ask them about a daughter’s first racket and how proud they are after a son’s victory. Then we politely shove them aside and hang out with biomechanists, seek out psychologists, quiz dietitians and corner physiotherapists.
We know better the stories about the parents who get in the way. The ones who chuck second-place trophies in the bin, inquire about a referee’s ancestry in impolite language and whip their child with a leather belt after a “mediocre training session”, as Damir Dokic did to his daughter Jelena.
In an interview with sports psychologist Gabriela Urban, Pat Cash said “95 per cent are detrimental to their kids’ career” and you can’t walk through an arena corridor without colliding with a pushy, puffed-up, parenting know-all. But this is about the other side of parenting, which is neither cruel nor glamorous nor cocky. This is about the ordinary fears of ordinary folk who are caught in a strange predicament. Raising the talented child.
The parent is everywhere but invisible. In Australia years ago, a colleague mentioned he would sleep in his car outside swimming clubs as his child trained. These parents would do a day job while also playing chauffeur, chef, therapist, fund-raiser and reader of body language better than any athlete. From 50 yards across a pool deck, they can tell their child is skittish. They watch, pray, holler. They become acutely aware of defeat’s price and that some moments are beyond consolation. They try to be careful with their words and draw difficult lines between advice and comfort.
Some can’t even watch, others stay away. Eventually, Sam Sampras comes to Wimbledon in 2000 but as Pete once told The New York Times: “My dad said they wanted two things to happen: he did not want to see or talk to me that day of the final, and he didn’t want to sit in the players’ box.”
The parent lives in the time zone their child is in. They may be in Kanpur but they are awake to check if the child got back to their Budapest hotel after a shooting final. Does he want to talk? Is she weeping after defeat? Children and champions are raised long-distance and there’s no school for this and no manual. In the 1980s there was no Google and Dr Vece Paes, who was raising Leander, had to scrounge for information. Even now, 77 years old, he remembers finding a SPAN article on East German sport in the USIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) in Kolkata. Parents learn, try, fumble, fail and keep going. Just like sport will ask of their children.
So many things about everyday parenting we have discussed with our pals in a walk in the park. That’s fine for dealing with too much TV-watching or declining academic grades, not for bringing up free soloist Alex Honnold, who was climbing the tallest trees at the age of three. It’s enough to make a parent giddy. Come down is the instinct, but eventually you have to let them go up.
His mother Dierdre Wolownick’s response was spirited. She told EpicTV’s Climbing Daily that she started climbing herself. To enter his world, to “find out what my son’s life was like, to see if I could learn the language he spoke”. Other parents in other sports will nod in echo. What’s an ascender, an enswell, a piste, a jib? It’s akin to going to class again.
Extraordinariness is a precious thing, it’s delicate, and so many people are trying to unearth it. A lawyer, a poet, a pianist, a weaver, but sport works a little differently. It’s high-strung because it’s time-bound and its progress is public. Every week even a junior ranking tells a story and in this turbulent planet parents must cup dreams like candles in a high wind. An accountant’s daughter somewhere wants to be a boxer. An airline pilot calls me for a chat because his son has grand ambitions about flight and high-jumping. There are days when calculus must feel easier.
Athletes are complex creatures, they are perfectionists and obsessives, fidgeters and egotists. They rage, or in Björn Borg’s case, can have a resting heart rate almost as slow as a blue whale. They can treat losing like a disease and wear more pain than seems natural. Last year in Singapore, for two series I was researching, I spoke to athletes about defeat and also what they write in their diaries. They spoke with candour about fluctuating self-worth, suicidal thoughts and being too scared to turn and look at a scoreboard because of what it might say. They talked about hating their bodies and diary pages stained with tears. I didn’t ask then but it strikes me now, who’s the one person always left in their corner in such times? The parent.
The woman at dinner is like most parents of rising athletes I have met. A solution-finder. Who’s the best sailing coach? Is it safe for a kid to sleep in a car at European petrol stations (why petrol stations? Because they are always lit)? Where is the next funding coming from? How do you fix a nagging injury and manage the leach of motivation? The clock ticks as the questions mount.
But this is love, isn’t it? A child’s mad, impractical, fulfilling, intense love for a game. And the love of a parent who must bring oxygen to all that. Who occasionally travels, fixes the child’s headband, listens, massages her legs and then from the stands must shout so that her child can locate her position.
Mama is here. Go play.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.