When I first saw the trailer for Top Spin, a new documentary about three American teenagers immersed in the hyper-competitive world of table tennis, I was expecting a film about young athletes driven to extremes by helicopter parents and cutthroat coaches. As a former sportswriter, I’ve seen too many kids’ lives practically ruined by the demanding, obsessive adults around them—especially in professional tennis.
And when I screened the movie recently, I thought my concerns would certainly be realized when these words appeared onscreen, right after the opening credits: “Athletes start training for the Olympics as young as 10 years old, sacrificing their childhood in pursuit of a dream” (italics mine).
Uh-oh, I thought. This could get ugly. And given that two of the three protagonists were Chinese-American kids only added to the worry, what with stereotypes about super-strict Asian parents . . . especially in the wake of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and self-deprecating memes like these.
Thankfully, those concerns were put to rest as we get to know Michael Landers, 17, Ariel Hsing, 16, and Lily Zhang, 15, the ping-pong whiz kids at the center of the story.
Those concerns drop further by the wayside even more as we meet their parents, all of whom seem perfectly sane, loving, and encouraging—not at all the rabid stereotype living vicariously through their children’s victories. You get the feeling that if ping-pong were suddenly banned, the kids would be all right . . . and so would their moms and dads.
Not to say that the film is devoid of tension, because there’s plenty of it. It’s just that most of it involves the competitions themselves, as our three protagonists work hard in hopes of making it to the 2012 Olympics in London. (Yes, it was filmed several years ago, but is only just now getting a release—partly because the filmmakers had to wait on funding from a Kickstarter campaign.)
But there’s little tension between these rising stars and their parents—far less than you’d see in most American homes, much less in families with elite young athletes. Either the filmmakers weren’t around when Michael, Ariel, and Lily argued with their parents, or they opted to cut those scenes. Or, there’s a third possibility: These kids are so good, and their relationships with their parents so strong, that they just rarely, if ever, get into squabbles. And given what is depicted in this 80-minute film, that just might be the case.
We do see some minor disagreements between parents, especially Ariel’s. Her father is also her coach, and works with his daughter 4-6 hours a day. He keeps saying that “we always talk about the process, not the results,” but when Ariel competes, he admits that it’s hard to follow his own principles; he desperately wants her to win. At one point, when he and Ariel’s mother are interviewed, Dad declares that after college, Ariel will play professionally. Her mom rolls her eyes and shushes him, saying, “I don’t see that happening. I just want her to get an education.” Dad frowns, but nods.