Andre Agassi hated tennis? That’s the surprise in his new autobiography Open, but the surprise evaporates when you read why: Agassi didn’t choose to play tennis. He felt forced to play. His immigrant dad wanted his son to live the American dream, to have the life choices he’d not had himself, but ironically thought he had to remove his own son’s choices as a youngster. It wasn’t until Andre dropped in the rankings, and chose to keep playing that he began to appreciate the game.
That should slam the lid on any parent’s nagging question about pushing a kid harder in sports “for his own good.” Indeed, Agassi’s story illustrates what psychological research has found: that you enjoy an activity only when you’re pursuing it autonomously — because you want to not because you have to. And it provides a rich lesson on how adults with the very best intentions can get hooked into the competition their children face, producing fractured relationships rather than the joy they envision.
Wanting the best for his son, Agassi’s father tyrannized him not only by making him hit thousands of tennis balls daily, but also by acting coolly when his son had a bad practice day or lost a match. That night, as Agassi said on the Today show, the atmosphere would be icy at the dinner table. And when Agassi got a trophy for sportsmanship rather than for winning, his father smashed it to pieces. Nothing shows better the harm of controlling a child through conditional love — bestowing or withdrawing warmth based on a child’s performance. That produces the exact opposite of the parent’s goal, as it did in the Agassi family. Andre confesses that he hoped he’d get injured, so he could quit tennis.
The focus on competition tortured the father as well, as he agonized watching his son compete and when scouting younger players coming up who might threaten his son’s standing. And, Agassi says, his father hated how much tennis alienated him and his son from each other.
The most successful and happiest athletes aren’t pushed by adults, but push themselves because of their passion for the sport. Here's how Olympic gold medalist swimmer Summer Sanders puts it: she wants ambitious parents to understand that the only thing that will take a young athlete “to the furthest edge of her potential is the sheer pleasure she takes in exercising her God-given ability.”
That’s not to say that parents and coaches can’t have a tremendously positive effect on young athletes. In fact their support is crucial: studies have shown that the more parents encourage and support their children, the longer they keep playing a sport.
The critical caveat is to follow children’s lead, guiding them without pushing or controlling. That means, notably, adopting their goals, which surveys have found are usually having fun, being with their friends, and building their skills. Winning is not high on most kids’ list, despite adults’ tendency to focus on it. But kids who have a passion for a sport along with their parents’ support are those who both excel and are happy.
Today Agassi’s great passion is a charter school he began for kids from a poor neighborhood in Las Vegas. Its educational philosophy recognizes the import of adults supporting kids while letting them choose their own aims. Andre Agassi College Preparatory School provides kids an “array of choices and opportunities” while giving them the resources and support they need to reach their own goals. As Agassi puts it, “These children are going on to lives of their choosing.”