The mastery gene

Maciej Szczęsny and Wojciech Szczęsny. Janusz Gortat and Marcin Gortat. Tomasz Świątek and Iga Świątek. Relay races between generations.

If I had to bet on who pushes their children more to practice competitive sports - sportsmen or non-athletes parents, I would definitely point towards the latter.

Just ask instructors or coaches what's going on behind the touchline during youth soccer classes or tennis training to find out what's going on. Dads and moms don't give up for a moment. They do not so much support their descendants as try to manage them.

First of all, they control the kids, telling them how to play. Secondly, they act like trainers telling them how to play. They interfere in everything, causing confusion and pressure on the event participants, which of course does not help but hinders.

The reasons may be similar or exactly the same. Sports careers in fashionable disciplines are today expensive, especially in the initial stages. For parents, it is an investment, often a serious one, as in tennis. The sooner it pays off, the better.

Except it's impossible. A young football player will not become Lewandowski in five minutes, and a young tennis player will not become Iga. It won't happen in one year. It won't happen in two or three years either. There are no guarantees that one will ever succeed. This is a sport, and there is nothing done quickly or forcedly.

Apparently, in Poland, everyone knows football and medicine. If that were the case, we would not hold the record for swallowing pills that pharmaceutical companies push us throughout the day, with breaks for necessary and intimate activities.

If that were the case, no one would have heard the chant “Fellow Poles, nothing has happened" on the occasion of another bravely lost match of our Eagles. But it's not like that. The nation's knowledge of both sports and medicine is poor and shallow.

The prospects for improvement are poor. Young people who are forced to pursue a career by their family will become discouraged with sports faster than they will acquire the necessary habits and discipline. Young people who like to be relaxed according to the principle "You don't have to do anything, you can do everything", will probably not be tempted by sport.

You can't do anything in sports if you don't do what you have to do. To do what you need to do, you have to want it bad enough. Sometimes successfully, but more often without success. That's why athletes don't force their descendants to relive their careers. But when a kid has talent and passion, they usually help.

Despite some caution resulting from experience and knowledge, the sons and daughters of former players manage to break into the professional market and make a career. Sometimes bigger, often smaller. Not necessarily according to the saying - like father, like son.

Truth be told, there is no hard and fast rule for transferring family traditions in this industry. Each case is different. There are many variables at work here, some of which are very personal and concern the relationship between children and parents over the years.
Maciej Szczęsny during the training of the Polish national team in 1995. Photo PAP/Paweł Kopczyński. Wojciech Szczęsny as Juventus' goalkeeper in 2023. Photo PAP/PA
However, the list of sports heirs is long. It sometimes happens that a son or daughter practices the same discipline as their father or mother. Then it is easier to compare, although indirectly, because young people train and compete in different, usually better conditions, which translates into achievements.

Maciej Szczęsny and Wojciech Szczęsny are the first example of such a relay of generations. Not very original, actually a family standard. The father was a goalkeeper, so the son became one too. What made this happen? When did the young man realise that this was what he wanted to do?

     It is usually a process related to the overall atmosphere of the home, the atmosphere of growing up, and the influence of authority. It is easier for athletes' children to make decisions because their fathers pave the path they will one day take. Preferably following in the parent's footsteps.

Just because it's the same doesn't mean it's the same. Maciej started his career at the age of 18, and Wojtek when he was 14. He played for Agrykola as a striker. They both made it to the national team. Father for 5 seasons, and the son has already played 16.

Dad played mainly in friendly matches and one qualifying match for the European Championship, and the younger Szczęsny played in 79 matches, setting a national record in the "national team goalkeeper" category, playing at the World Cup and European Championship.

The son's popularity is incomparably greater, as are his earnings. However, it is worth remembering about the sources of popularity and earnings differences. The first Internet servers in Europe began operating in 1991, in Poland much later. Social media did not exist and money in football was constantly piling up until it grew to absurd proportions.

Janusz Gortat was a two-time light heavyweight Olympic bronze medalist in boxing. Marcin Gortat became a Polish star in the NBA. The father wanted his son to fight in the ring. In his second choice, he saw him as a volleyball player. But the son had his way.

It is no less difficult to assume that the example of his sports father had no influence on Marcin. That he received an invitation to play sports from Santa Claus for Christmas. But he made the choice on his own, against his father's will, and he made no mistake. If he became a boxer, it would be a mistake. If only because of his height. It is not known what kind of volleyball player he would be. However, it doesn't matter because he fulfilled himself as a basketball player. Both sports-wise and financially.

Is it at the expense of his relationship with father? It is difficult to pass judgment on such matters. It would be equally difficult to say that their contacts are rough when they have not existed at all for years. His parents' divorce also took its toll. Contusions remained on both sides.

In one of the interviews, Marcin revealed that he would try to put it together somehow. It would be nice if the attempt was successful. But this is the area of privacy that should be left alone. Athletes' private zone is their exclusive domain. They don't let you in with tickets.

Choosing your own sports path does not necessarily generate resentments and tension. You can do it softly and with empathy, without coercion or orders. All you need is the encouragement and support of your loved ones for your career to take off. This is what many former players who know the sport in real life, not just virtually, do.

Tomasz Świątek, father of Iga and Agata, is such a sports patron of his daughters. Neither he nor their mother put any pressure on the girls. They wanted them to grow up healthy and active and develop a routine of daily exercise.

Tomasz Świątek was a rower who participated in the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988. He had no sick ambitions. Nor any plans to clone his own career with the help of his daughters, who were keen on sports themselves. But he had a certain pedagogical idea.

He decided that the best way for girls to develop their personalities, if they persevered in their desire to practice a sport, would be one of the individual disciplines. So that they can be responsible for their victories and failures and learn to deal with them.
It started with swimming, but Agata's health problems pointed in a different direction. It was tennis, where Agata was better than her younger sister, and the young one wanted to imitate her and win. And that's how it went.

The older sister was often plagued by injuries, and as a result she gave up sports. Iga flew fast and high. Her father's role in her career was important and significant. Iga claims that if it weren't for her dad, she wouldn't play tennis. He appreciates how much he owes him.

This case can be considered exemplary. The involvement of a parent who was an athlete in the career of a child who is trying to become one should be balanced, and this is one of the cases.

What is most valuable on the father's side? Undoubtedly a sporting experience. What does a child need most? Father's sports knowledge and experience. You can't buy this in a grocery store. You can't buy it from the Internet or TV. But you can get it in a family package.

Of course, not everyone can. Not only because not all kids have fathers or mothers who played sports. It depends on the approach to the issue. From the way you treat your own child. Subjectively or objectively?

Anyone who is counting on their offspring's great career at the very beginning, is confusing them by the fact that he or she is not trying hard enough or lacks ambition. And if one is nervously waiting for success, will probably never see it. No kid is a racehorse. It need support and self-confidence.

And someone who knows and understands professional sports can help with this. Who knows how much patience this requires. What iron discipline it takes to succeed. That failure does not mean the end of the world, it is a lesson in humility. That the enemy of winners is triumphalism and the success that goes to their heads.

Tomasz Światek did not interfere in Iga's training and did not lecture the coaches. He passed on his knowledge and experience to his daughter. We know the sequel well. Her mega talent is indisputable, that's clear. But the mental preparation for sport fulfilled its task perfectly.

Family sports generation relays are a phenomenon as old as sport itself and a common one. Public curiosity is mainly aroused by famous figures. Either parent or offspring. In both cases, the relay change itself is assessed - who completed their section better.

But only when a son or daughter achieves greater success can we talk about family genes. There is no issue when children remain in the shadow of famous parents. As if the gene transfer had not occurred. But it's not like that. Genetic affinity exists so much that it does not determine anything.

The result of a sports career is a composition of many factors. Genes are a component of talent, but talent is only 10 percent of performance. Everything else is hard work, daily rigor, tough character, which requires and which strengthens sport.

In short, the rest, i.e. the final effect, depends on one’s own contribution. Perseverance and determination of the heir to family genes. You have to work hard to use this gift. Sport rewards the strong, both in body and spirit. He eliminates the weaker ones quickly and brutally. This is the truth about sports that is worth knowing.

– Marek Jóźwik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

-translated by Maciej Sienkiewicz
Main photo: Iga Świątek in conversation with her father Tadeusz Świątek during the BNP Paribas Poland Open tournament in 2022. Photo Jacek Szydlowski / Forum
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