By Terri Fedonczak
How do you raise an Olympic athlete? The first question you want to ask yourself is not “How?’ it’s “Why?” Do you want your child to be an Olympic athlete, because it is their dream, or yours? In the former case there is a foundation for success, as you are supporting your child in something they have a burning desire to do. In the latter case, it can be a recipe for disaster and ultimately lead to the disintegration of your relationship. I have not raised any Olympians, but I have a dear friend who was a nationally ranked athlete and continues to coach athletes who have gone to the Olympics. She concurs that there’s a lot of gray area in between those two ends of the spectrum, but the rule hold true: successful Olympic dreams are athlete driven and parent supported, not the other way around.
There are no hard and fast rules to raising an Olympian. The answer is the same for most parenting questions: “It depends.” Although the requirements are different depending upon the sport your child chooses, all Olympians need an extraordinary mastery of the skills required by their sport. There are some guidelines that are common to the mastery of any skill; especially if the skill is child driven and parent supported:
Commitment of time: mastery of any skill requires an almost superhuman focus of long hours (research on prodigies suggests that mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice). This is why it’s so important for this dream to be child driven; you cannot do the hours for them. The time commitment for mastery looks different depending upon the age of your child.
Strategies for younger kids: If your elementary school kid shows a desire to play a sport, just encourage them to have fun at it. Balance your family time with sports time. If they really want it, they will ask for more. Burning energy and money at this stage will not guarantee success, unless your child is having fun.
Strategies for tweens and beyond: As your child ages, the time commitment increases. For older kids on the Olympic path, this plays out as little to no social life in middle and high school. If this is their dream, they won’t mind.
Commitment of money: Older Olympians live a lifestyle that is sparse on luxury. There is very little gold on the road to a gold medal. All money is spent on travel and training. Having a well-rounded childhood is not often a possibility for an Olympian in training. No matter what age your athlete is, don’t be sucked into expensive programs which promise success at the cost of your family’s financial future—unless that feels right to you.
Success is program driven: The coaching required to become an Olympian does not come cheap or easy; again, this depends upon the sport and the age of the child. The most important focus for a parent is to find a program that reflects your family values. If your values are “win at all costs” then that will dictate a certain kind of program. If family time is important to you, then pick a program that reflects that.
Let the coach drive the bus: Olympic programming is coach driven and, to be successful, parents must sit on the sidelines. Finding the right coach at the right time requires effort from both parent and child; again let the athlete take the lead with you as parent providing support.
Parent support must be ongoing and committed: An athlete cannot do it all alone, no matter how talented they are. The parents must commit to long-term support on the medal road. This support is emotional, financial and physical. In older kids, this may require a family to move to be near the best program for their needs. All of this is without any guarantee that their athlete will make the team. That’s a tall order for any parent; all the more reason to make sure your kid REALLY wants it.
Teach your kids how to handle failure: This is the best use of your parenting energy for any long-term goal, whether it’s athletic or academic. The best way to teach your kids anything is to practice it yourself. Try new things and fail at them. Show your kids that failure and mistakes are part of life. The sign of a true champion is one who gets up after she falls without making a big deal about it.
In my own life, I have a story about volleyball. My daughter plays with a girl who is a volleyball phenomenon. She wants to go to the Olympics, and she’s doing everything in her power to make that happen. She has great skill (as a 14-year-old, she plays on a 16-year-old team that has placed in every championship they’ve entered), but, more than that, she really wants it. She is fortunate to have parents who support that desire. Her mom drives nine hours a week and sits outside a closed practice for six hours-every week. This is with a public schooled kid. A great number of Olympic athletes are tutored, so that they can practice daily—for hours. She attends national qualifiers and camps to better her exposure. This family is all about volleyball, all the time. But it’s not parent driven; it’s parent supported. The drive comes from within that athlete.
And then there’s my daughter. She has great talent and potential, but she doesn’t have Olympic drive. She doesn’t want to sacrifice that much of her life for volleyball, and that’s okay with her. However it is not so easily accepted by me. I am hyper competitive by nature. Even though I was never an athlete, I live for a challenge—the harder the better. My daughter is not like that. I had to do a lot of my own work on my disappointment and what it meant to me that my daughter wasn’t driven to be the best of the best. I had to walk my talk and meet my daughter where she was, not where I thought she should be. When I was honest with myself, I realized that I am not willing to go the distance either. I’m not an Olympic parent—and that’s okay.
I talk a lot about plugging-in to your kids where they are, not where you think they should be. When you make it a priority to support your kids in their dreams, you can help them in a way that isn’t dragging them behind you or pushing them ahead of you. You can reach a place where you walk side-by-side. Whether that means you’re walking down the road to a medal or not depends upon your child’s desire, not yours.
Terri Fedonczak is a Life Coach, Parent Counselor and Author of Field Guide to Plugged-In Parenting, Even if You Were Raised by Wolves