It's the reason Andre Agassi, winner of every major tennis title, now hates the game. It may also be why Baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle wet his bed up to age 16. Sports parents can guide their children to greatness -- or go too far and push them over the brink.
What would you do if you heard a parent cross the line and berate a young skater for failing to live up to expectations on the ice?
- The hidden cameras of "What Would You Do?" capture the crowd reaction to an overbearing sports mom who ridicules her skater daughter at an ice skating rink in Yonkers, N.Y.
That's the scenario played out before the hidden cameras of ABC News' "What Would You Do?" at the E.J. Murray Memorial Skating Center in Yonkers, N.Y. Actors were hired to play an overbearing skating mom and her daughter, Olivia, who is actually a real-life skating champ.
As Olivia twirled on the ice, the nightmare mom pounded on the rink's glass wall and screamed at her. "Ugh! Olivia! That's not a champion! That's pathetic! That is absolutely pathetic."
Passersby immediately took notice and watched as she ordered Olivia off the ice to scold her.
"This is embarrassing. Unless you go out there and you skate harder and skate faster than I've ever seen you skate, I'm not doing this any more," snapped the skating mom, who turned on her heel and walked off in a huff.
Immediately, a woman watching the scene came over to comfort the upset girl. "Are you all right? You're just mad at yourself because you didn't skate well?" the woman asked.
Olivia's pushy mother returned and sent the sobbing athlete back on the ice. Standing at the side of the rink, the adults began talking and the woman, who turned out to be a skating coach, asked whether the demanding observer was coaching the teenager.
"No, I'm her mother," the actor said.
"If you're her mom -- as a mom and as a coach -- you need to separate the two and remove yourself. That's what I would tell you if I was her coach," the woman said. "Let her help herself. You can probably do more damage than you realize."
Over-the-Top Parents May Be Eyeing College Scholarships
Over-the-top parents sometimes suffer from "frustrated jock syndrome" and desperately hope their children will secure the titles and championships that they dreamed of but failed to win themselves as young athletes, said Frank Smoll, professor of psychology and co-director of Youth Enrichment in Sports at the University of Washington.
"It's reverse dependency," said Smoll. "Normally children are dependent on their parent for own self worth. When a parent over-identifies with their kid so it's no longer Johnny playing the sport, it's an extension of the parent ego. It's the frustrated jock syndrome, the father or mother living through the child to accomplish the goals they were never able to achieve themselves."
Other times parents misguidedly view sports as a route to a college scholarship for their child, and invest enormous amounts of time and money to pave the way.
Rose Malara, a coach for 26 years, told ABC News, "The more money invested, the more time invested, many of the parents come down very hard on their children. Parents want a return on that investment, so they run the risk of crossing the line when they push their child to work and succeed."
Purely as an investment strategy, it's a poor choice, according to numbers compiled by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body of college sports. Only about 3.1 percent of male high school basketball players go on to play college ball, and just .03 percent make it pro. For female basketball players, 3.5 percent will play in college and .03 percent will break into the pros. The numbers are similar for boys playing other high school sports (football, 6 and .08 percent; baseball, 6.4 and .44 percent; soccer 5.6 and .07 percent and ice hockey 10.8 and .32 percent.)
Back at the ice rink in Yonkers, the dreaded skating mom notched up her demands for nothing less than a championship performance from her daughter.
"You're not going to eat until I see better, until I see perfection!" she shouted over the ice.
Agassi, Mantle Suffered Overbearing Sports Parents
The performance was judged as imperfect by the mother, who said the girl had shamed her. That prompted two fathers at the rink to speak out.
"Honey, you should be embarrassed, not her," said one of the fathers, Bob Thomas. He later told ABC News, "She said she was embarrassed to be her mother. It was something that caused us both to feel like we needed to intervene. Let's face it, the chances of your child becoming an Olympian? It's a long shot. So let 'em enjoy it."
While overbearing parents are nothing new to sports, sometimes the truth about the damage they have caused surfaces only after an athlete has achieved the greatness in their sport that the parent demanded.
In his autobiography, U.S. Open champ and tennis great Andre Agassi said he ended up hating the game because of his overbearing father, who relentlessly pushed him. Decades earlier, baseball legend Mickey Mantle revealed on "the Dick Cavett Show" that he wet the bed up to the age of 16 as the result of the pressure he felt from his father to make it in the big leagues. Family members later said his emotional problems were tied to his father's enormous expectations.
In Yonkers, some adults who watched the mother's demands build on her daughter chose to intervene. But what would happen if the scenario changed and the actors portrayed an abusive coach harassing the young skater?
Abusive Coach Calls Student 'Disgrace'
Skating coach Jeanne Governale trains young skater Olivia in Vermont -- and they have a great relationship. But at our request, she became cold as ice towards her star skater, becoming verbally abusive on and off the ice.
"You look like you had to go the bathroom. Honest to God, Olivia, we have drilled this so many times," Governale said. "Get over here and show me how that leg is going to swing through, that's terrible."
Governale insulted Olivia as the skater attempted a jump.
"You know what? You're embarrassing me. You are an absolute disgrace," Governale said with disgust.
It's not the norm in figure skating to have a coach be this abusive. Governale really turned it up at our request. Figure skating coaches police their own and abide by a code of ethics set forth by the Professional Skater Association. A coach doing what Governale did would suffer severe consequences.
While people do hear what's going on and give looks, no one intervened until a man nearby moved in and approached our nasty coach.
"I think this a little abusive?" said Rob Sylvestri.
"Her mother's paying me a lot of money," Governale replied.
"This is definitely unacceptable .... I would get another coach. Do you want me to call your mother for you?" Sylvestri asked Olivia.
"Her mother left. She left her in my care," Governale said, "She's taking a lesson with me"
"I don't feel comfortable. I don't think anyone else feels comfortable," Sylvestri, a little league coach, said, adding he would never treat a young athlete the way our mean coach did.
Pretty soon, another mother put in her two cents: "Don't speak to the child like that! You don't tell her that she isn't worth it or that she is lazy you don't do that. You speak to her nicely! "
Finally, John Quinones came into the scene with cameras, surprising Sylvestri, who had no idea the scenario was staged.
"I just couldn't believe the way she was talking to her. Then I saw her crying," he told Quinones."I guess I just got fired up. You know enough's enough."
Coach Insults Skater's Weight
The next day at the skating rink Governale was at it again, but her comments took a more personal turn, touching on a topic that has become an issue in many sports: an athlete's weight.
"That extra weight isn't going to help either and you know that. You have 10 pounds to lose, 10 pounds," Governale screamed, leaving Olivia crying rink side.
Governale's rant left Olivia in tears, prompting a spectator to come over and try to comfort her. But Olivia kept crying and when her coach returned, she continued to let the insults fly.
"You are a waste of space, air, oxygen -- let's go," Governale said to Olivia.
But bystander Edwin Ruiz stepped in, getting into a heated exchange with our aggressive coach. "You know what Miss…. Why are you talking to her like that? What gives you the right, does it look like she is having fun?"
"She is my student. She's here to learn something," Governale said. "She has a lot of people riding on her…. Are you going to make sure she wins a gold medal?"
"A gold medal? What's she going to do with a gold medal? She doesn't want a gold medal. Her mother and everybody else wants a gold medal. Not her," Ruiz said. "She looks like she don't even like to ice skate."
When Quinones walked in with a camera crew, Ruiz was shocked. He said he got involved because he saw abuse.
Governale said she gets tough on Olivia during training sessions, but is never abusive. When asked how it felt to play the role of a verbally abusive coach, she said was "awful."
"It's absolutely not my style at all. Your kid shouldn't be crying on the ice because of the coach," Governale explained.