The Chang Gang

It takes a family to raise a tennis star, but not all families have done
it as well as Michael Chang's

by Christin Ditchfield They're all over the place in tennis. Players like Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Tommy Haas, and others. They have talent, for sure. But do they have what it takes to survive and thrive on the professional tennis tour? Some do and some don't. Often their chance for success has less to do with their athletic gift than their ability to handle the pressures of life on the tour. It is not uncommon for a tennis player to become rich and famous before he or she is old enough to have a driver's license. Every sport has its horror stories. Unfortunately, most of tennis sad statistics are teenagers kids who were pushed too hard, too fast by greedy parents, agents, and coaches who were living off their income. Michael Chang was once a teen sensation. Not only did he have potential, but he also lived up to it, setting a string of youngest ever records that still stand.

Youngest player to win a match at the US open.

Youngest player to represent the US in Davis Cup competition since 1928.

Youngest to win a professional tournament title.

Youngest player to rank in the Top 5 in the world.

And the biggest youngest designation: Youngest man ever to win a Grand slam event - the 1989 French Open.

Now a veteran in his eleventh year as a pro, the 26 year old star has captured more than 30 tournament titles, earning more than $16 million in prize money. He's reached the finals of three of the four Grand Slams, and he's been ranked as high as No. 2 in the world. Last year, he finished in the Top 10 in the ATP Tour world rankings for the sixth straight year. Only Michael Chang and Peter Sampras have achieved that feat.

So how has this former teen sensation and his family handled the stress and the pressure that comes so naturally to people in this sport? The answer comes in seeing how this family handled things in a way far different from those who self-destruct.

Like many other tennis families, the Changs have been involved in their son's career since the beginning. Unlike many of those families, their goal was not to raise the next superstar athlete.

Joe Chang was just looking for a fun sport he could play with his sons one that would help them develop physically and mentally and perhaps provide for their education in the future via a college scholarship. After putting in a full day at work as a research chemist, Joe would spend hours on the courts hitting balls with his sons, Michael and Carl. Both boys took to the sport immediately, and Joe became their first coach and teacher. He read instruction books and studied coaching techniques, doing everything he could to stay one step ahead of their growing skills. It wasn't long before they were ready for professional instruction.

We didn't have enough money for both of us to take lessons, Michael recalls. Carl would take the lessons, and I would sit on the side and try to learn as much as I could. Later, we alternated.

It soon became obvious that Michael had a special gift for the game beyond anything Joe and his wife Betty could have imagined. Yet his parents were careful about pushing him into the pressure filled world of professional sports. "Nowadays, a lot of parents push their kids into it because they see the financial side the glamour and prestige and money." says Betty. "They push their kids so hard that they end up despising the game instead of enjoying it. You have to be really careful about it. Understand your child and what he wants. We as parents are to support our child's dreams, not our own."

Clearly, they communicated this to Michael. He says," My parents always told me that it didn't matter what I wanted to be, as long as I enjoyed it and tried to be my best at it. When they realized that I enjoyed tennis, they guided me and encouraged me and did everything they could to help me become better at it".

Michael and Carl both competed in junior tournaments and earned national rankings. The expenses of coaching and equipment and travel grew. Like many parents, Joe and Betty struggled to make ends meet. And like the parents of some particularly promising players, they found themselves face to face with a tempting solution . The coaches at one tennis academy recognized Michael's acute potential and offered him a scholarship to their school. It would mean free training and coaching from world-renowned experts the break any youngster with professional aspirations is looking for. But it also would mean that the Changs would have to send their younger son to a boarding school hundreds of miles away.

The Changs turned the offer down.

Out in the world it's easy for a child to lose his perspective, to forget what is right and what is wrong, what things in life are important, Betty explains. Like your relationship with the Lord. If you don't spend time in prayer and daily devotion, you lose contact with Him you lose His guidance. The parent child relationship is the same. We didn't want to lose our relationship with our son.

The Changs decided instead to move the whole family from New Jersey to Southern California. The weather allowed year-round play, and many top coaches and junior players were already living there. The decision to put the family relationships first didn't hurt Michael at all. On the contrary, at the ripe old age of 15, he was ready to turn pro and take on the world's best!

This left Joe and Betty facing another difficult decision. Should they let him?

They considered the importance of a good education and its lifelong benefits, as opposed to the one-in-a-million chance of succeeding in pro sports.

That was one of the toughest decisions we ever made! Michael's mother says, In my family, everybody went to college and beyond. Especially to a Chinese family, education is considered a necessity. For Michael to turn pro and not completely finish high school, let alone not go to college, was almost unthinkable. We prayed and prayed about it, and little by little God led us in that direction.

I asked Michael how he felt about it, and he said, Mom, there's really no more challenge for me as an amateur. I'm already playing with college kids. I really enjoy playing, and I like to be challenged. There's nothing else left but to turn pro.' We knew that this was true, because we had tried every other option. We continued to pray about it, and God showed us the way.

Even so, Joe and Betty weren't comfortable with the idea of sending their 15 year old out to face the adult world of pro tennis all by himself. They were concerned about the unhealthy lifestyles of many star athletes, the dangers of peer pressure and the enormous temptations afforded by fame and money.

Like the mothers of other tennis teens, Betty Chang ended up quitting her job (she, like Joe, was a research chemist) to travel with her son on the Tour. For the first 4 years of his career, she managed everything from hotel arrangements to cooking and laundry to finding practice courts and hitting partners. Joe kept his job and joined Betty and Michael when he could. At the time, Carl was attending the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a top tennis player for the Golden Bears.

For all their prayer and seeking God's wisdom and careful planning, the Changs did not escape criticism as they ventured onto the pro scene. Like many other tennis parents, the Changs found themselves the subject of negative comments from the media and the tennis community. But they weren't being derided for taking advantage of their son or abusing him when he failed to perform (which is the usual complaint). The Changs were being criticized for being too loving and too protective.

Their involvement in their son's career was thoroughly analyzed and criticized.

The Changs were characterized as smothering or overprotective or even pushy. One tennis legend openly suggested that Joe Chang was not qualified to be coaching his son. Sometimes the criticism was so unfounded it seemed that it could only have been motivated by racial or religious prejudice.

But Joe and Betty didn't back down. They believed they were acting in Michael's best interests, and they refused to apologize for doing what they knew was right.

You know, no matter what you do, people will say things, Betty says. Like being a Christian, you know where you stand and you know your values. You have to stand firm in your beliefs and not be easily moved.

Unbelievably, some parents are now so apprehensive of the criticism that awaits them that they choose instead to send their children out on their own in effect throwing them to the wolves.

But Joe and Betty didn't back down. They believed they were acting in Michael's best interests, and they refused to apologize for doing what they knew was right.

"You know, no matter what you do, people will say things," Betty says. "Like being a Christian, you know where you stand and you know your values. You have to stand firm in your beliefs and not be easily moved."

Unbelievably, some parents are now so apprehensive of the criticism that awaits them that they choose instead to send their children out on their own in effect throwing them to the wolves.

For his part, Michael is not among those criticizing his parents. Instead, he praises them. I think that to be a top ranked player there are a lot of things involved besides just coming out and playing good tennis, he says. For me, my family plays a really important role. I feel blessed to have such a giving and unselfish family. They have always been by my side to encourage me, love me, and support me throughout my life and my career. I definitely wouldn't be where I am without them.

As a career continues, Chang's family remains deeply involved in his life. Joe manages the financial affairs of Michael's career, with arrragement and advice from Betty. Since 1991, Carl has been Michael's full time coach. With his help, Michael has dramatically improved his serve and other aspects of his game. Carl's wife, Diana, travels with the family on the Tour and handles the web site and fan club they launched last year.

While the Changs have been exposed to all the same struggles, pitfalls, and challenges that other tennis families have faced, there is a striking difference. Unlike many of those families, the Changs have not only survived the pressures they've grown closer and stronger as a family. How can that be?

The answer is amazingly simple. In a word, perspective. To the Chang family, tennis is not the ultimate focus of the ultimate goal. It is a means to an end. They point to the many opportunities Michael has had as a celebrity athlete to influence people's lives for good.

Each one of us has a role in God's kingdom, Betty says, For Michael, it's a very visible one; for Joe and me, it's not as visible. But each of us has a part. As a family, we know how to help him perform his best and go out there and glorify God's name. That's our goal.

To Michael, playing tennis means far more than winning. He calls it an opportunity to spread the Word.

If I'm able to draw people to the Lord, then they'll always have that joy and that love for Him, he says. The fame and the money and the rankings can't compare to touching people's lives and encouraging them in the Lord, because that's something that lasts a lifetime and beyond.

The Chang way of raising a tennis teen sensation seems to have worked out just fine.


Reprinted by permission, Sports Spectrum