Here is the advice the father gives his child, the tennis prodigy, when he’s reached his teens. It’s from page four of a new novel titled "Trophy Son" by Douglas Brunt.
“A friendly game will ruin you,” says the father. “Play with adversity, with animosity. No friendly games.”
My father never said anything like that to me. Neither did any baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, or tennis coach for whom I played. They’d have had to be blind or witless to have said anything like that.
I suppose when I was very young, I might have been flattered if anyone had tried to motivate me by saying a friendly game would ruin me. I guess it would have meant that somebody thought I had a future as a serious athlete.
But by the time I’d started playing team sports involving uniforms and a score-keeper, it would have been evident to anybody watching that I would never be in the game for anything other than the fun of it.
Which must have been OK with me, because I kept playing.
And they were all “friendly games.” I remember moments from some of them. In one particular tennis match, I beat a guy I had no business beating, and neither of us could quite believe it.
On another day I was nearly disqualified from a doubles match because my partner and I went to the movies after we’d each lost in singles, and, blinking in the sunlight, we almost didn’t make it back to the court in time to compete again.
There was a freestyle relay event in which the summer camp line-up for which I was swimming was Littlefield, Littlefield, Littlefield, and Malouk. My uncle watched that race. I don’t remember whether we won. I do remember that he asked, “Who’s Malouk?”
Obviously the camp counselor who put together that relay team had a sense of humor. He and most of my coaches helped me learn to have one, too.
None of this is to suggest that young athletes who demonstrate great potential shouldn’t work hard at their games. Somebody has to make the pros. I guess it’s only to say that I’m glad I wasn’t that good. And maybe that sounds like sour grapes. And maybe there is some essence of sour grape in there.
But what the father’s advice in "Trophy Son" – “a friendly game will ruin you” – triggered in me was gratitude that nobody ever said that to me. Probably I would have laughed at anybody who did. But I might have taken it seriously, which would have been worse.