I see so many athletes, particularly males, who are looking for that wonderful, all-giving, all-caring, totally accepting father figure, said Bruce Ogilvie, who has interviewed tens of thousands of elite athletes. Ogilvie became a high achiever from a dysfunctional background, too, and is known as the father of modern sport psychology. His father left the family when he was young, and his mother was a runaround who was rarely home. I grew up from age 10 pretty much living alone, but I went looking for a father figure to confirm me. Ogilvie took up football and wrestling and quickly became what he termed an overachiever. I overtrained, overpracticed; I had an obsession to achieve my goals. I never wanted to lose my position on the team, so I played with terrible injuries. Part of that went back to confirm me as a man. All that male pursuit drives a lot of our athletes today.
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The void left by missing fathers can be partly or totally filled by others, especially by the mother, but also by grandparents, uncles, cousins, teachers, and athletic coaches. Yet a missing father’s shadow can have a profound effect, says Aminifu Harvey, associate professor of social work at the University of Maryland. No matter how strong your mother is, a boy emulates his father, from going to the washroom and peeing like his father to hanging out with the guys at the park. He walks and talks like his father. Even if a stepfather or uncle is close to him, there is often still anger at the natural father for leaving.
T oronto sports researcher Varda Burstyn believes the missing father is one of the key motivators for elite athletes who try to fill the parental void by reaching for the top of the sportsworld, which to them may represent a false societal view of masculinity. Sports has been one of the most important institutions to take the place of, or augment, the missing familial father, she said. It sets up heroes who are supposed to be masculine, but ifs based on fantasy ideals, rather than what real men are like.
Damon Stoudamire of the Toronto Raptors, former NBA Rookie of the Year, said part of his fierce desire came from trying to become a better player than his father Willie, who starred at Portland (OR) State University, but didn’t make the NBA, then left Damon’s mother to find a job in the eastern U.S. because the family was poor. It’s common for children to use sports to prove to others that they can be successful coming from the inner city without a father, said Bob Wade, who coached six players at Baltimore’s Dunbar High School who went on to the NBA, including Houston RocketsSam Cassell and Charlotte HornetsMuggsy Bogues. I was their surrogate father and ruled with an iron fist, Wade said. It can really leave a tremendous hole in a kid’s life if he does not have one.
Many pro athletes have used their missing father as motivation, Harvey said. Anger can make you win. If the father leaves, the boy can feel deserted and even responsible. He may want to unconsciously prove to the father that he was worthy to be his son and that by becoming a success, the father will come back.
Harvey added that people should not be misled by the many examples of athletes who have risen up from challenged childhoods to become successful athletically. There are, of course, thousands of gifted young athletes who never recover from disadvantaged childhoods because they do not have the opportunity or the same support network of family and coaches that the successful athletes have.
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