The first edition of an HBO Sports documentary series called “State of Play” is pretty unforgettable. “Trophy Kids,” which debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m., is a profile of four sports parents who are trying to push their children to athletic excellence. The key word is “push,” and by the end of the film we see some of the kids starting to push back against the pressure imposed on them.
“Justus” is a defensive back on his high school football team somewhere on the West Coast. (The kids are identified only by first names.) We first see him being put through drills by his father, who even by sports parent standards is more like a drill sergeant than like a dad.
“Pull your head out of your butt, dude,” his dad says during training, using a more colorful synonym for butt.
We eventually see a game in which Justus – who is a starter on offense and defense – is taken out of the game by his coach in favor of another player. On their ride home in the car, the dad interrogates the boy on why the coach took him out, and on why Justus didn’t ask the coach for an explanation.
“How could you not ask him?” the dad says. “You KNEW we would be having this conversation together” in the car.
Justus keeps saying he doesn’t want to talk about it, but that just makes the dad even more relentless in his trying to hold his son accountable for his football performance. In his eyes, he is trying to make a man out of his son, but to Justus the constant pressure from his dad is only counterproductive, to say the least.
Amari is a golf prodigy who looks to be about 10 years old. Her father is trying to turn her into the next Tiger Woods. At one point the dad displays several books that he owns that are about Woods’ life, including one authored by Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. There is little doubt that Tiger’s molding into a champion is the blueprint that Amari’s father is trying to follow.
The girl seems happy swinging a golf club on the practice tee, and she looks to be very gifted. But when she takes her game to the golf course to play in a competition, she begins to face adversity, as every golfer does.
But having an off day when there is a trophy and possible sponsorship dollars at stake does not sit well with her dad, who is her caddie and coach during the tournament. Poor swings, putts or chips are met with many discouraging words from dad. Amari tries to stay away from her father, which proves impossible. She is no more successful at fighting back tears as the pressure builds on her and her father expresses his disapproval. At one point, she makes an errant shot and her dad, in the most self-incriminating line in the film, says to himself, “That’s it, I’m done. I’m done, it’s over.”
Excuse me, sir, but YOU are done?
Derek is a basketball player from somewhere outside of New York City. Some early success he had in youth leagues convinced his dad that he had the next Larry Bird or Kevin Durant on his hands, so dad sharply curtailed his career in order to become Derek’s full-time coach and trainer.
Derek is a decent player in high school, but clearly not All-American material. Dad, however, turns into the dreaded “coach in the stands,” screaming out instructions during games that can heard by every person in the gym. We witness one game in which Derek hits a big three-pointer in the fourth quarter, but his team loses a close game. Afterward, sitting in the bleachers after the gym has emptied, his dad does the postgame breakdown, reminding Derek of some free throws that he missed.
“Free throws!,” the dad says. “You hit the two free throws, you win the game.”
Derek just hangs his head.
Of the four families profiled, the hardest for the viewer to get a handle on is the one featuring two tennis-playing twins, Blake and Tanner. (They surely were named after James Blake and Roscoe Tanner.) Blake and Tanner’s sports parent is their mom, an upper-middle class woman who seems unhealthily obsessed with her sons’ development as tennis players. At the same time, she talks frequently about not wanting to push them, not becoming preoccupied with winning, and just wanting to do God’s will. They pray a lot; they talk about owing their skills and tennis opportunities to their Lord.
It doesn’t seem as if the mom pushes quite as hard as the other parents in “Trophy Kids,” and she talks a pretty good game about not becoming too concerned with her sons’ rankings in the tennis world. In her own way, though, she is every bit the domineering presence in the boys’ lives. It is hard to imagine Blake and Tanner having much free time in their lives that does not somehow involve their mom, who on the way to tennis practices or matches gives them pep talks about trying “to have fun, to dominate, and try to get out of your heads and into your bodies.”
The boys seem pretty happy to just be along for the ride, with few signs of rebellion. They also don’t show much killer instinct on the courts that we can see. Their mom observes at one point, “It’s like you want to win, and yet you don’t want to.”
Whether or not Blake and Tanner become Division I or professional tennis players, or just let their skills fade away as they find other interests, one gets the sense they will end up doing something to get them out from under mom’s thumb.
For the last 20 minutes of “Trophy Kids,” there is a roundtable discussion about the film with executive producer Peter Berg, former NFL prodigy Todd Marinovich and sports psychologist Dr. Larry Lauer. It provides a nice postscript, but it’s the footage of the four featured families that will stay with you, particularly if you’ve been exposed to a sports parent or two yourself. And if you haven’t, just head over to YouTube and type in “hockey dad” or any other sport that comes to mind. Some of the videos you see will make you not only want to give up sports, but in some cases to renounce your possessions and citizenship and move to an ashram in Tibet.
What’s remarkable about the four sports families profiled are the access they gave to the documentary makers’ cameras and microphones. In every case, the sports parent thought he or she was doing the right thing, was making great sacrifices to help their offspring pursue their dream.
As Berg mentions in the roundtable, Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” posited that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master any activity. Derek the basketball player’s father says toward the end of the film that it’s all been worth the 30,000 hours that he and Derek put into his basketball career – suggesting that Gladwell was guilty of understatement.
Another revealing remark is made by Amari’s father, the Earl Woods wannabe, who says, “Once you can get your kid to buy into your dream, then you’ve really got it made.” That line resonates with Marinovich, a football prodigy who was coached pretty relentlessly by his father, Marv Marinovich, a former star player at USC who became a strength and conditioning coach. Todd tried to make his dad’s dream come true by being a star quarterback, but he rebelled by using drugs and the result was a very brief career in the NFL.
Any parent who tries to be the driving force in his or her child’s success in athletics, music, academics or any other field would benefit from watching “Trophy Kids.”
The documentary will play again 11 more times in December on HBO and seven times on HBO2. There is also an expanded version that will be shown on HBO2GO.