Commentary

The wizards of odds

Self-help gurus promise to help athletes excel, but success is still a long shot

Updated: December 1, 2010, 11:41 AM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

A LONG TIME AGO, in a technological age far, far away, young athletes intent on improving their skills had to rely on primitive means of instruction. They might stand in a line with bats in their hands, as my high school baseball team once did, while someone pressed a button on a cassette deck. Out would come the mellifluous and educated strains of University of Arizona baseball coach Jerry Kindall, who would dedicate the next 15 minutes to making us better hitters. Those players near the machine would follow along dutifully -- stride softly, weight back, hands back -- while those at the end of the line, straining unsuccessfully to hear, would attempt to mimic those who could. Coach Kindall's impact on our hitting mechanics would be in direct proportion to our proximity to the tape deck.

Marcos ChinSelf-help gurus guarantee athletes the moon, but what are the chances their promises come true?

Now consider the scene last January in a near-empty gym at Spartanburg Methodist Junior College in South Carolina. As the area's worst ice storm in three decades rages outside, 15-year-old Ashley Aberton tries to maneuver to the hoop while a heavily muscled, 38-year-old basketball trainer shoves her from baseline to sideline.

It is important to note that Ganon Baker's rough treatment of the 5'3", 105-pound point guard from suburban Salt Lake City is a test, and only a test. He wants to see if she has the requisite fire, and his constant haranguing -- "You have no left hand at all!" "Are you really this soft?" -- is intended to draw that fire into the open. He steals the ball from her. He pulls her ponytail when she rises for a layup. He tells her she'd be destroyed by city girls. He begs her to stop tilting her head and saying "Unh-kay" whenever he tells her how to do something. The method is clear: tear down to build up.

The scene is all the more remarkable because of its complete endorsement by Ashley's father, who stands behind a tripod-mounted video camera and gives Baker a big thumbs-up each time the trainer challenges the ninth-grader's toughness. "This is exactly what Ashley needs," Mark Aberton whispers. "He's trying to find out how much she wants it." And how bad do the Abertons want it? Mark and Ashley flew 2,000 miles from Utah to South Carolina, rented a car to slide sideways down the icy, unplowed roads of Spartanburg, stayed two nights in a hotel, and paid Baker $2,000 for two days of instruction.

The Abertons are just an extreme example of a growing phenomenon, those who partake in the industrial-instructional-inspirational complex of American youth sports. What started with coaches like Kindall, in all their earnest honesty, has exploded into an underground economy of limitless choice. There are DVDs, training devices, camps and one-on-one sessions, all peddling the same dreams, whether in the form of a college scholarship, a pro contract or a starting spot on varsity. Never mind that these dreams may take years, and major amounts of money, to realize -- if they can be realized at all. The self-help industry is selling an idea as much as a product: Practice might not make perfect, but you've got a better chance if you have the right program, the right trainer and the right accessories.


IT'S EASY TO see why Ashley Aberton was captivated by Baker when, early in her freshman season, she discovered a YouTube clip of him teaching the crossover move. He is charismatic and enthusiastic, the kind of guy who changes his voice mail greeting almost daily to impart a life lesson. To wit: "You can't ask a person to do something special, if you don't treat him that way." Likewise, his Twitter feed is a veritable stream of pithy inspiration: "A man's Greatness sometimes lies in the fact that he can admit when he is wrong! Humbleness is an asset!!"

Baker views basketball as a mixture of John Wooden fundamentals and the brand of hoops he himself played growing up as one of the few white guys on the outdoor courts of Hampton, Va. He used to call his business Shake N' Bake Basketball Services. His website and commercials refer to him as Hoops King. He says his 35 DVDs, which sell for as much as $39.99 each, are his "retirement account," grossing between $200,000 and $250,000 a year. A standard feature is Baker dribbling two balls at once, in a variety of ways. He tosses one, then the other, against a wall without missing a beat. He dribbles standing up, sitting down, lying down, even while doing crunches. His scissor dribble -- two balls between the legs as he kicks in and out -- is like a circus trick. Most amazing, Baker carries on a running commentary the entire time. It's as if the And1 Tour had come home with a Southern accent.

Unlike many in his line of work, Baker hasn't inflated his résumé. The son of a high school basketball coach, he played at Duquesne and UNC-Wilmington and as a pro in Europe. Now he works for Nike as a skills coach. He has trained Amar'e Stoudemire every summer for several years, and has even created a smart phone app called "23 Ways to Destroy Your Defender With Ganon Baker."

When Ashley showed her father that YouTube clip of Baker, she asked, "Wouldn't it be great to learn from him?" Mark, who's a physical therapist (as is his wife, Laura), said he would make it happen if Ashley did some of the legwork. She proceeded to cold call and text Baker, who at first expressed misgivings. Given his level of expertise and his demanding nature, he didn't want to bring a teenager more than halfway across the country without assurances. "I don't work with beginners," Baker says. "It's not fair for me to just go through the motions and take the money." He needed to know Ashley had the drive. Eventually, one of her coaches in Utah, former Olympic gold medalist Natalie Williams, vouched for her, and Baker said yes.

Mark Aberton says he will do whatever it takes to enhance the interests of his children. "If Ashley wanted to excel at piano, I'd expose her to people who would give her a different perspective on piano," he says. "Sports is something she can do as long as she gets the job done in the classroom. It's a reward, and she's incredibly driven to succeed."

He knows how this all looks, and he knows what you're probably thinking. "Please don't make us out to be crazy parents," Mark says with a laugh, repeating it so many times it travels the uncomfortable distance from joke to request to outright plea. His son, Kyle, is a defensive back at Yale who also played quarterback in high school. For the Abertons, that meant Kyle attended the Manning camp and trained regularly with ultraexclusive QB guru Steve Clarkson in California. Ashley, meanwhile, is a 3.9 student and a three-sport athlete (soccer, basketball, track and field) as a sophomore at Skyline High. Mark himself runs an athletic performance lab with an alumni list that includes the offspring of Jeff Hornacek and John Stockton. In other words, Aberton is both a consumer and provider in the sports-dream marketplace.

Aberton says the takeaway from her private session with Baker was invaluable.

Like everyone else in this world, he owes a nod to Tom Emanski, the Henry Ford of youth sports self-help. In the early 1990s, Emanski's best-selling instructional baseball videos entered our consciousness through his cheesy commercials and the foam-fronted cap of slugger-cum-endorser Fred McGriff. Emanski's contribution to pop culture campiness might be incalculable, but his sales weren't. He made a rumored $75 million and disappeared into the retirement wilds of Florida, where he remains unreachable.

The early VHS pioneers endured ridicule so the self-help DVD industry could become a lucrative, mainstream business that draws everyone from Coach K ("Developmental Drills for Point Guards," $44.95) to Coach Marty, who sells his modest 59-minute youth baseball practices ($24.95) out of his New York house.

To borrow from the language of agents and marketers, Coach K may be "furthering his brand," but Coach Marty (Schupak) has no such grand aspirations. His biggest obstacle isn't Roy Williams' recruiting power; it's all the free online content that cuts into Marty's slice of the niche market. (After all, what if someone comes up with "The 58-Minute Practice," (and gives it away for free?) Coach Marty's website touts no claim greater than this: He managed his 200th Little League win in 1998. "I'm not trying to do anything fancy," he says. "I just want to help coaches run creative, stimulating practices."

For many young athletes, these DVDs are merely the gateway to the self-help way of life. Training aids that promise quick improvement are a booming business. Sales of a product as obscure as "The Xelerator," a pitching trainer devised by Oregon civil engineer and softball dad Steve Farnsworth, have increased an average of 25 percent a year over the past six years. Farnsworth now ships close to 1,000 units annually from his garage. Not bad for a $39.99 product that relies on word-of-mouth advertising. "Even in a down economy, parents spend money on their kids' sports," Farnsworth says. "I've seen a drop-off in my engineering business, but not the Xelerator."

Meanwhile, independent coaches for just about every aspect of every sport -- pitching coaches for baseball, shooting coaches for basketball, passing coaches for football -- have become de rigueur among suburban high schoolers. Most of these tutors charge between $50 to $100 an hour, although the best, such as Baker, command five times that. Of course, their lessons don't always end when their sessions do. Ashley Aberton, for instance, follows Baker's regimen for skills development at home while also adhering to her father's plan for improving broader performance. She has a 26-inch vertical leap and a 2.8 in a quickness drill Mark calls "20-yard laser." Intuiting confusion on the other end, he says, "That's a phenomenal score."

While it's impossible to track what the total self-help industry is worth, given its varied components and the cash-only nature of many of the transactions, it's not hard to pinpoint one of the primary factors fueling the growth: the increased competition for, and value of, college scholarships. There are nearly a million more prep athletes today than there were (during the 2000-01 season, but there are only 14,000 more Division I roster spots, according to the NCAA. The percentage of high school seniors who go on to compete at college's top level as freshmen is as low as 1 percent in some sports. Meanwhile, the average cost of attending a four-year school has grown by 64 percent since 2000.

Not surprisingly, services that promise to market athletes to universities have sprouted everywhere. At an estimated cost of $500 to $2,500, these recruiters will assemble a profile and a highlight reel for a prospect, then send it all to college coaches. The promised exposure sells well in the backbiting world of prep parenting, where coaches are often criticized for not doing enough to promote Little Johnny's career. The website for a company called Athletic Scholarships says, "Every year thousands of student-athletes miss out on scholarship opportunities because they were not marketed to college coaches ... Our student-athletes average more than $18,000 per year in financial assistance." But when a D1 baseball coach was asked at a prospect camp about the value of these packages, he told the assembled family members, "They go right in the trash."

Still, there is no slowing the dream sellers, or deterring the dream buyers. Sometimes the promised reward is bigger than just a scholarship (Clarkson's company motto is "The Shortest Distance Between You and the NFL"), while other times the payoff is as simple as a better bond between parent and kid. Aberton, whose manner is calm and cerebral, says his aspiration is to use athletics as a means of augmenting his children's education: "At first blush, people think we're crazy. But we've found this is a way to enhance the college application process."

Whatever the goal, dreams are the product, and all else is just a detail of commerce. In his sessions with Ashley, Baker remains intent on dashing the hopes of the plucky little point guard. At one point, he puts the basketball on the floor and says, "Listen to me: You've got to stop being so polite. You don't stand a chance unless you get tougher."

A few minutes later, after a second round of ponytail-pulling, Aberton finishes an up-and-under move by firing an elbow into Baker's crotch. Suddenly, the girl enamored of the man with the crossover is replaced by someone more sinister. "That's better!" Baker yells. "Maybe you do have some fire!"

On the baseline, standing behind his camera, Mark doubles over in laughter. Then the proud dad gives another big thumbs-up. This time it's directed at Ashley.

He knew it all along.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com