Parents of world-class athletes reveal secrets to raising a superstar

Parents of world-class athletes reveal secrets of raising a superstar

At the height of his pursuit of a spot on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, the boy who would one day become the world's most decorated swimmer approached his mom with an impractical idea.

Michael Phelps wanted to take a sabbatical from swimming to try out for his high school's football team.

More from the 'Coming Attractions' Series on sports phenoms:

• June 22: Parents of world-class athletes reveal secrets to raising a superstar
• June 23: Teenager Kaylin Whitney hailed as America's next great sprinter
June 30:
Linebacker has 11 scholarship offers before starting high school
• July 2:
DeAndre Ayton's rise from Bahamas project to basketball's No. 1 prospect
The teen phenom who one day could be the new face of American men's tennis

Chasing swimming glory sometimes became a lonely quest for Phelps in those days because it required sacrifices other teenagers didn't have to make. Seldom could Phelps carve out much time for his friends because his coach insisted he spend six or seven afternoons a week in the pool grinding through grueling training sessions.

Phelps' desire to play high school football was an attempt to reclaim some semblance of normalcy since many of his buddies were on the team, but his mother helped him recognize dedicating himself to a second sport made little sense when he had a chance to be world-class in the first one. By the time Phelps was a freshman in high school, he was already smashing national age-group records and outperforming older competitors.

"When he told me he wanted to play football, I didn't say, 'No, you have to swim," his mother Debbie Phelps said. "I told him, 'Only a small percentage of varsity football players get a scholarship to a D-I school and an even smaller percentage make the NFL.' Then I told him, 'Think about what you have already accomplished in your sport and where you could possibly go.' I thought the best way of teaching would be to explain his options and help him make the right choice."

The tug of war between Phelps' swimming ambitions and his desire to be an everyday teenager illustrates the central challenge facing parents raising exceptionally talented young athletes. They must devote ample time and money to helping their kids achieve their full potential without pushing so hard it robs them of their childhood or leads to a breakdown.

Striking the proper balance is not easy for parents because there's no instruction manual to consult and no blueprint to follow. Sports history is littered with stories of young phenoms whose parents erred too far in either direction, from ex-USC quarterback Todd Marinovich, whose drug habit was an open rebellion against his father's draconian training regime, to former basketball prodigy Lenny Cooke, who was left to fend for himself at times during high school and squandered his considerable talent.

"These young people struggle with the fact that they want to be normal but they can't be," said sports psychologist Larry Lauer, formerly of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. "They want to be like the kid down the street that plays high school sports, watches movies and goes out with his friends, but there's always this conflict with the sacrifices it takes to achieve this dream of theirs.

"My advice for parents is if their kids really want to do it, you have to work to help them understand that what they're doing is unusual and that's the choice they're making. But if at some point they don't want to do it anymore, they shouldn't do it. If it's not coming from within their heart, it usually doesn't end well."

Spend time learning how some of the nation's most successful former teen phenoms were raised, and it will become clear there's no universally foolproof approach. What's ideal for one child can be disastrous for another.

The father of two-time WNBA player of the year Candace Parker worked her and her brothers relentlessly as kids, insisting they run up and down steep hills or chase his car through the snow-covered streets of Naperville, Ill. If Larry Parker didn't think Candace and her brothers were working hard enough, he'd drive off, leaving them to find their way home by foot.

"He knew we wanted to be great and he was there to help us achieve our goals and guide us along," Candace Parker wrote in a blog entry published on Father's Day 2011. "Often times he played tough guy and sometimes the bad guy because he knew eventually I would reap the benefits and see results. My dad saw greatness and believed in me before I ever did."

Gold medal winner Missy Franklin celebrates after the Women's 200m Freestyle Final at the World Championships (Getty Images)
Gold medal winner Missy Franklin celebrates after the Women's 200m Freestyle Final at the World Championships (Getty Images)

Such a ruthless approach probably wouldn't have been as effective for another young female star who ascended to prominence a few years after Parker did. Four-time Olympic championship swimmer Missy Franklin instead flourished under the calming influence of parents who believe in love and affection, win or lose, and a coach who never loses sight of the fact that sports are supposed to be fun.

In a sport in which most swimmers train six or seven days a week, Colorado Stars coach Todd Schmitz has long given Franklin and her teammates weekends off when they don't have meets. Schmitz also places just as great an emphasis on keeping practices lighthearted as he does on making sure Franklin's splits continue to improve.

On Halloween, Schmitz holds relay races in which competitors must swim holding a 15-pound pumpkin out in front of them. On Thanksgiving, Schmitz sets up a turkey bowling lane beside the pool with the number of pins swimmers leave standing determining the number of sets of sprints they'll swim. On days when Schmitz senses his team is fatigued, he'll end workouts early and start a game of water polo.

"Even though this is a job now for Missy, I don't want it to feel like a job," said Schmitz, who has coached Franklin for 13 years. "I want this to be her love and passion like it always has been. So I do try to step outside the box when I do things. I just try to throw in little things like that to break up the monotony of looking at that black line non-stop."

Determining how best to emotionally aid elite young athletes is often difficult for parents, but providing sufficient financial support can sometimes be just as great a challenge. In an era when parents are willing to fork over big bucks to help their kids chase college scholarships or pro contracts, the best coaches, trainers and equipment certainly do not come cheap.

Full-time boarding and tuition at the nation's premier youth tennis academy in Florida can cost parents as much as $71,000 per year. An hour-long private throwing session each week with renowned quarterback coach Steve Clarkson could add up to as much as $30,000 per year. Boarding and tuition for ski racers at prestigious Burke Mountain Academy costs as much as $48,552 per year.

Between sending their son and daughter to Burke Mountain for middle school and high school and shelling out thousands of dollars in annual travel and equipment costs, the parents of U.S. ski phenom Mikaela Shiffrin admit helping their kids pursue their dreams has been expensive. Sponsors have helped defer some of that since Shiffrin made her World Cup debut at age 15 in 2011 and captured Olympic gold in the slalom three years later, but before then her parents sometimes had to get creative to make it work.

"If they were willing to give up their sleepovers and camping trips to pursue skiing, we needed to sacrifice to find a way to support them," Mikaela's mother Eileen Shiffrin said. "We would change our vacations from Maui for example to going to skiing at Mount Hood instead. It's an expensive sport. I don't like to belabor that because I don't want to discourage families. Our family, I consider to be a normal, middle-class family. You can afford to provide your kids the same opportunities other kids have, but you have to be willing to cut corners and make some compromises."

Sometimes finding the best coach for elite young athletes means forking over thousands of dollars and entrusting key decisions to a stranger. Other times parents with backgrounds in their child's chosen sport risk trying to do it themselves.

Mike Bryant, a former minor-league outfielder in the Red Sox organization, started grooming the swing of his son Kris at age 9, yet the father of the Chicago Cubs rookie phenom was always wary of becoming more of a coach than a dad to his boy. His approach to avoiding that was keeping the game as fun as possible for Kris, whether by running a horse shoe over his bat to change his luck during a rare slump or by quoting Will Ferrell movies to ease his frustration after a bad at-bat.

Gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates after the women's slalom at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics (Getty Images)
Gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin celebrates after the women's slalom at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics (Getty Images)

The only times the elder Bryant struggled to keep his cool was if he felt an umpire cost Kris an at-bat with a bad third strike call. It was then that his wife Susie would usually send him a not-so-subtle message to pipe down by getting up from her seat alongside him, leaving him to fume all alone.

"Kris would be called out on a pitch 12 feet out of the zone — OK, three balls out of the zone — and I'd go nuclear," Mike Bryant said. "Just a few sentences is all it took, and she'd get up and leave. That's how she reminded me to be a dad and to be a role model for my son."

The unconditional encouragement and support Mike Bryant demonstrated for Kris is one of the few common threads uniting all these parents of thriving former youth phenoms. Otherwise the paths each set of parents took to help their child achieve success could not be more disparate.

Some involved themselves in every key decision about their kid's athletic future. Others authorized a coach to do that and favored a hands-off approach.

Some spent tens of thousands of dollars per year funding their child's dream. Others found no need to dig so deep into their savings.

Some favored a tough-love, drill-segeant approach to practice or training. Others showed greater leniency if their child asked for more free time.

To this day, Debbie Phelps feels comfortable with how she handled the conflict between Michael's desire to be an everyday teenager and his quest to become one of swimming's all-time greats. She urged him to explore numerous interests when he was young, she offered her full support when swimming emerged as his greatest passion and she helped him understand the sacrifices necessary to achieve his Olympic dream when he threatened to careen off course.

"Michael would get frustrated sometimes, but he always told me enjoyed going to the pool," Debbie Phelps said. "We all want our kids to be phenomenal, but the child has to have that passion and that drive to become what Michael became. Parents can't push their kids to the top rung. The child has to want to get there himself."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!