For many parents, the dream of nurturing a sporting prodigy is strong. But as a parent or mentor, how do you help your child and how do you avoid hampering their chances? What sport is your potential prodigy suited to? How much practice is too much? How much will it cost? What school do they need to go to? Where do you go for advice? All these questions matter, some more than others. In the first of a new Herald series, Dylan Cleaver reveals the must-dos for a life in sport

Parents are, without question, the biggest enablers of a child's success. Parents are, without question, the biggest impediment to a child's success. You want to raise a sporting superstar? Some would say the best piece of advice would be to get the hell out of the way and let trained professionals take over, but it is not that simple.

For a start, professional coaches aren't much interested until your child shows a modicum of talent; then they can't wait to raid your wallet with promises of "accelerator programmes" and "advanced coaching" clinics.

Those formative years, that's up to you. The first challenge you've got is to recognise when your child has genuine talent.

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"The tricky question is 'when'," says Alex Chiet, talent development manager at Sport New Zealand. "To be honest, trying to identify talent pre-puberty is a crapshoot. You'll see kids standing out but it means nothing at this stage.

"You might have kids that were born a few months earlier than the others, so are bigger (see the graphic), or there might be kids whose parents had more time to kick the ball around with them when they were younger."

It's impossible to look at your progeny and see him or her in the same way others do, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. There's no harm in being average at sport, there can still be a lifetime of fun and camaraderie in that, so don't be discouraged. At the same time, don't push a kid beyond their physical capabilities.

Dangers of burn-out

The other thing parents are cautioned against is forcing their children to specialise. That goes against modern research that suggests kids who play a number of sports when they were younger prosper. A recent study at the NHL combine - where the most talented young ice hockey players gather to trial for the pro leagues - discovered that of 322 players there, 87 per cent had played another sport at high school.

"We're better here than in some countries, where they force specialisation at 10 and in some cases even younger," says Chiet.

"Diversity is good. The key is to make the decision to specialise at the right time and for most of our sports it's around 16 or 17, not 12 like a lot of parents think.

"Kids burn out otherwise. They get stale; repetitive injuries start to happen and boredom sets in."

Richie McCaw gives Christchurch school children a rugby lesson they'll never forget. Photo / Getty Images
Richie McCaw gives Christchurch school children a rugby lesson they'll never forget. Photo / Getty Images

A sideline presence at your child's practices and games has been identified as important in sporting development, but only if you're behaving properly. If you're reinforcing negatives, it's the worst thing you can do.


Why is it important to be there? Because it subliminally tells them that what they are doing is healthy and, yes, important. Your children might not show it in the present, but when they're older they will appreciate the time spent together, travelling to games and training, and be thankful for the sacrifices you made of your own time.

Some parents are qualified to be more than a sideline presence... and don't they know it.

Andre Agassi was a child prodigy. Photo / Getty

I'm seven years old, talking to myself, because I'm scared, and because I'm the only person who listens to me. Under my breath I whisper: Just quit Andre, just give up ... But I can't. Not only would my father chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, won't let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice.

The above quote is taken from Agassi's searing biography and highlights his submissive relationship with his first coach and father, Mike, an Iranian immigrant and unlovable martinet happy to sacrifice his son's affection in order to build a champion.

But what Agassi also reveals in the above passage is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Agassi senior is bullying, guilt-tripping and cajoling his son towards excellence, but it is only Agassi's internal motivation - "something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, won't let me [quit]" - that allows this to happen.

This is intrinsic. If Agassi didn't have it, he would have quit. Many parents mistake their drive for their kids. For every Agassi, there are a hundred other promising talents who give it away too young because their motivation was never allowed to develop naturally.

Odds are against them

For a great example of intrinsic motivation, look no further than 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson.

According to the Telegraph, at 12 he told his teacher, "I want to play for England - that's all I want."

Easier said than done, because the odds of making it to the professional ranks is small, even for the most talented children.

In America, it is infinitesimal. The American National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) discovered the following about the US' major pro leagues. They make for sober reading:

Of 482,629 high school baseball players, just 6.9% of them will play in college. Of those college players, 8.6% will be drafted by the MLB.
Of 541,054 high school men's basketball players, just 3.4% will play in college. Of those, just 1.2% will be drafted by the NBA.
For women's basketball, read 433,344 high school players of which 3.8% will play in college. Just 0.9% will be drafted by the WNBA.
1,093,234 boys play American football in high school, but just 6.5% will play in college. Only 1.6% of them will then be drafted into the NFL.
417,419 boys play high school soccer, with 5.7% of them playing at college level. Just 12.4% of college players will make it to the MLS.

It is difficult to look at those numbers, to see that only 1100 of the more than one million high school football players in America today, and say that professional sport is a realistic pathway, but here increasingly there is the belief that sport can pay your way.

The roots of that are recent - 1995, in fact, when Ross Turnbull and his revolutionary World Rugby Corporation came within Jeff Wilson signature of snatching rugby from the hands of the game's establishment.

That precipitated the advent of professional rugby in 1996 and the code, financially speaking, has never looked back. Coupled with the fact that the Warriors had been formed in 1995, there was new-found riches to be had in our oval-ball codes.

In 2002, New Zealand Cricket edged towards genuine professionalism after a painful and divisive strike, while in the transtasman netball league came into being, offering fulltime jobs for the country's best players.

Even Olympic sports like rowing, kayaking and cycling, once a domain for committed enthusiasts who had to rely on benevolent employers and who had to drum up their own sponsors, can now live and train fulltime for their sport.

"Look at it as an Olympic team and certainly there's a professional pathway there," says former athlete manager Roger Mortimer. "The government puts in around 150 million pounds in a four-year cycle and a lot of that is PEGs [Performance Enhancement Grants]. The likes of Val; Aadms are making good livings, then you have someone like Julian Dean who carved out a $1m per year job in cycling."

High costs

There is nowhere near as exhaustive research done in New Zealand, due largely to the fact that our major professional codes - rugby, league, cricket and netball do not draft talent from university. (On Friday, we will look at the numbers of professional athletes in each of the major codes compared to how many play those sports).

Usually long before the age of 21, young New Zealand talent has been spotted and nurtured through either secondary school or sports academy systems. This presents its own set of challenges for the athlete and the parents.

There's picking the right school, which will be analysed tomorrow, if you even have a choice. There's choosing the right club. many kids are proficient in more than one sport - when do you have to prioritise one over the others?

Then there's the cost. While sport and recreation remains largely accessible in New Zealand, there is a reason, for example, why there are not many skiers from low socio-economic backgrounds and its not because they don't like the cold. It is not even sports that require state of the edge technology, like skiing and golf, that are becoming cost prohibitive.

Black Caps' Tom Latham puts children through their paces during an ICC coaching clinic at Hagley Oval before the Cricket World Cup. Photo / Getty Images
Black Caps' Tom Latham puts children through their paces during an ICC coaching clinic at Hagley Oval before the Cricket World Cup. Photo / Getty Images

At Forest Hill Milford Football Club on Auckland's North Shore, fees jump from an annual subscription of $180 to $180 + $400 coaching costs as soon as your child makes a graded team. It is an eye-popping number for a lot of parents, but the fact the club's catchment is relatively affluent means few argue for fea of embarrassment.

For kids excelling at tennis and golf, the only way to improve is with overseas competition and flights are not cheap.

Marina Erakovic has won more than US$2 million since turning pro in 2004, but how much has she spent to fund her life on the WTA Tour? She was left lamenting High Performance Sport NZ's carding system last year after she failed to get funding to bring trainer Ryan Curtis from the United States to help her with her off-season programme.

Yes, these could be classified as First World problems, but they are all part of the fabric that makes a life in sports so complex... and potentially rewarding.

The best, most enduring, piece advice a parent of a talented child should remember is this: they see sport differently from you.

You see opportunities, they see fun. The longer you can make it fun, the better chance they have of accessing those opportunities.

• Tomorrow: Part two in our week-long series examines TALENT DEVELOPMENT