This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Karen Thomas‘ 10-year-old son wanted to try tackle football, she was happy to enroll him in a Pop Warner program. “There are a lot of rules about weight limits and age to keep it as safe as possible,” says Thomas, an entertainment market research consultant. Still, “it was really hard to watch these little kids slamming into each other,” she recalls, not to mention the aggression on the sidelines. “Parents would yell things like, ‘Crush him!’ It was so intense.”
That level of intensity seems to be growing among L.A. parents, who will do just about anything — and spend just about anything — to ensure their children’s athletic success, sometimes whether their kids want it or not. Starting sports classes as young as 18 months, conscripting professional athletes as personal trainers, targeting the right sport-specific private school to boost a kid’s college prospects and even having middle schoolers repeat eighth grade so that they’re bigger, stronger and more agile for their freshman year of high school now have become common practices among a certain set of L.A. parents, whose ambition on their kids’ behalf can be as aggressive as their workplace dealmaking.
Driving the dream are such standouts as John Mellencamp‘s son Hud, who plays football for Duke, and Jon Bon Jovi‘s son Jesse Bongiovi, who plays football for Notre Dame. Then there’s LeBron James‘ son Bronny, who, at just 10 years old, already is fielding college offers.
“Kids used to play sports in parks. Then they’d play in high school, then college coaches would come to high school games to watch,” says West Los Angeles teen and adult therapist Larry Green. “That’s all changed. Now coaching kids has become an incredibly specialized business, and a big part of this is driven by celebrity culture: Sports heroes are also celebrities now. Parents want that status for their kids.” And for themselves, he adds: “I’ve had to work to help parents accept when their kid stops playing ball because Mom or Dad were so involved. … They love watching the games,” which, he notes, give parents a public forum to celebrate kids’ achievements. “You don’t get to cheer at an SAT exam.”
Psychiatrist Robin Berman, a parenting consultant based in Brentwood, says parents often tell her their child “can’t” quit basketball. ” ‘Why can’t he quit?’ I ask. ‘Because I didn’t play basketball!’ That’s what the parents say.” Meanwhile, their children are telling her: “I want to quit swim team. But it would kill my parents.” The American Youth Soccer Organization encourages Silent Saturdays to calm heated competition, she notes. “It’s one day during the season when parents aren’t allowed to scream from the sidelines. Kids say that is the best day because it’s the one day they can breathe and just play the game.”
Many sports leaders and pro athletes, notably former L.A. Laker Steve Nash, are vocal opponents of such heightened pressure on kids — especially when that pressure now can start earlier than ever before. Launch Soccer in La Canada Flintridge offers classes beginning at 18 months. In Pasadena, former football pro Steve Clarkson, who has trained such A-list quarterbacks as Ben Roethlisberger, Terrelle Pryor and Matt Leinart, offers one-on-one coaching to would-be QBs as young as 8. The going rate? Four hundred dollars an hour. Clients have included Joe Montana‘s sons Nick and Nate as well as Cordell Broadus (son of Snoop Dogg), who will play for UCLA this fall, along with Justin Combs, son of Sean.
At the 5-year-old Velocity Sports Club Brentwood, where parents take their kids for training beyond the hours of school and club practices and games, all of the performance coaches are former college, pro or Olympic athletes. “We’re the missing piece in training kids,” says sports performance director Matthew Mosebar, who played football at UCLA. “Kids have their high school coach, their club coach, their skills position coach. What we fulfill here is the performance strength-training component that you really don’t get anywhere else.” Kids as young as 6 come to the 13,000-square-foot gym for private instruction that starts at $120 an hour. And in its just-opened Lab, they now can receive a full fitness assessment with a series of state-of-the-art machines that includes 3D body mapping, core biofeedback testing and hydromassage. “This provides parents with a HIPAA-compliant database of information that can then be shared with doctors, dieticians and coaches to optimize health and performance,” says Lee Brandon, director of the Lab and the NFL’s first female assistant strength coach. The cost for an assessment: $280.
“This current craze isn’t about getting your child into the NBA. It’s about getting them into Penn,” said Nat Damon, former head of school at private Westside elementary.
Lester Cook offers private tennis instruction for kids and adults starting at $100 an hour at the Larry Ellison-owned Malibu Racquet Club. “A lot of the parents come to me and say, ‘I want my kid to be No. 1 in the world,’ ” says Cook, who once dated Kaley Cuoco and now trains LMFAO’s Redfoo. “I say, ‘Let’s first see if they can get a tennis scholarship. If you can get an education out of this, that’s a true success.’ “
Individual sports like tennis can generate a special type of parental frenzy, notes Rodney Marshall, strength and conditioning specialist for player development at the USTA, which identifies and coaches promising young players but doesn’t train them. “Parents call us and almost beg us to teach their kids, which gets weird,” notes Marshall, who is based in L.A. “You see parents become too attached to their kids’ performance. The worst parents are the ones who have never played themselves.”
Says Corey Vann, a former Harvard-Westlake varsity football player whose high school teammate Jonathan Martin went on to play for the Miami Dolphins: “I was obsessed with sports ever since I can remember, but I didn’t do any kind of private training until I was 11.” Vann, who now works as an instructor and coach for Corona del Mar High School’s varsity football team, sees the change firsthand. “Parents have me train their kids as young as 6 years old. They want me to coach them in footwork, which is a pretty advanced skill for that age,” says Vann, now 24, whose stepfather is CAA agent Rick Kurtzman and whose aunt is Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. “By the time I hit eighth grade, I knew I wasn’t going to play professionally. I’m a 6-foot-tall, 150-pound Jewish guy. But I knew football could get me into a great university,” says Vann, who played all four years at Dartmouth.
That sports-to-university pipeline is a key force, says Nat Damon, a former head of school for a private elementary school in West L.A. “This current craze isn’t about getting your child into the NBA,” he says. “It’s about getting them into Penn. This is something that’s changed dramatically over the past 10 or 20 years as colleges have become increasingly competitive. Parents see sports as not just a way into a great university but, more specifically, a way into East Coast colleges.”
Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore‘s son Riley, now 19, opted to attend all-male Loyola High School, the better to hone his volleyball skills. “It has one of the best volleyball programs in the country,” says Moore, who often traveled with his son’s team to matches and even fielded business calls from the sidelines. “The hardest part of watching is when the referees are bad,” he says. “But I do want the record to state I have never received a yellow card!” Beyond his paternal pride, Moore also notes the sport’s value as a gateway to academic opportunity: Riley now plays volleyball for Harvard. Producer Steven Siebert brags that Santa Monica’s Crossroads tennis team, which includes his son Henry, 16, “has the highest GPA of any tennis team in L.A.” But Siebert won’t be piling extra coaching hours on his kid this fall. “Eleventh grade is so intense, so he’s going to devote more time to schoolwork,” says Siebert. “He wants to go to an Ivy. And that takes more than just sports.”
Still, sports hysteria has infected L.A. private schools, which now must compete on the field, not just in the classroom, to score with parents and college admissions committees. “At most private schools, teachers used to be expected to coach sports as well,” says Damon. “Now these schools are hiring professional athletes to coach the kids.” At Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, eight-time gold medal Olympic swimmer Matt Biondi now coaches the swim team, while Brentwood School tapped basketball coach Ryan Bailey, formerly an assistant coach at athletic powerhouse Loyola. And at Westlake Village’s Oaks Christian School, College Football Hall of Famer Bill Redell has coached Nick Montana, Wayne Gretzky‘s son Trevor, and Trey Smith, son of Will Smith.
Another factor that’s professionalizing kids’ sports: “Hold-back” years are becoming more common in L.A. The practice of repeating a year of middle school — to buy a year of growth, training and strength before entering the more competitive high school level — is common on the East Coast, says Green. “Kids do this in Washington, D.C., for lacrosse scholarships. Many parents there see it as a meal ticket into the Ivies. Now I’m starting to see hold-backs here, too. I recently heard two moms talking, and one said her son told her that if she didn’t hold him back, he’d hold her responsible for not making it into the NBA.”
But given the choice, not all kids will get caught up in the accelerated-sports frenzy; Karen Thomas wasn’t sorry to see her son say goodbye to the Pop Warner football program after one season. “He was a little taken aback by it all,” she says. “We wanted it to be his decision, but we were very relieved when he decided not to pursue it. It was stressful to watch.”