Olympic Parenting: Purr or Grrrr?

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This ran in the NY Times Mother Lode Blog. More food for thought during Oly mania and for sports parents in general. Here’s the link and the original version.


Five Circle Parenting

Chilling out may be the secret to raising an Olympian, or not.

Every two years, when the Olympics roll around, my Olympian-ness reappears like a virtual laurel wreath halo. For those two weeks my kids think I’m pretty cool. My boys, at 11 and 13, fantasize regularly about being in the Olympics, and that dream is part of what fuels the passion with which they pursue their sports.

Instead of feeding the fire, I do my best to maintain a deliberate nonchalance, to balance reverence with a heavy dose of reality. So many things can derail or divert the most promising athletic career, that your chances of making it to the Olympics are like your chances of seeing the Queen of England jump out of a plane…for real. I worry that the added pressure of having an Olympian mom could make the odds even worse for my kids, which is partly why I curb my enthusiasm.

The other part is my fear of unwittingly becoming one of the cringe-worthy sports parent stereotypes. I do not want to be a micromanaging helicopter parent, stalking my kids competitions from afar on live streaming results, then calling them with immediate consolation, congratulations or reminders to gather their gear and eat their veggies. Neither do I want to be some Tiger Sports Mom, cramming sports specific repetition into my kids schedules, doubling up on sports during each season, and urging my kids to try out for all-star, travel teams so they can reach the magic “10,000 hours” it takes to be a phenom, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.

I sometimes wonder if this knee jerk reaction to the Heli/Tigers will foil my children’s dreams, so when watching the Olympics I always look for ammo to support my intentional slackerliness.

The case against the helis is pretty straightforward. Mike Maroney, father of one of the Fab Five gold medal gymnasts said it best in his advice to parents of aspiring athletes: “… let them live their dream. Don’t make it your dream. It has to be theirs, because if they want it bad enough they’re going to be able to achieve it.” Sure, we parents have to provide the opportunity, and occasionally remind our kids that watching Family Guy and playing Minecraft for hours on end will not an Olympian make. But then we have to get out of the way, support as necessary and watch.

That last part can be the hardest. Constant connectivity has enabled parents’ natural Bactine response, the urge to help the hurt stop hurting, right away. We hope to pre-empt every disappointment with comfort, when what our little darlings might need most is time to reflect and retrench. What parent wouldn’t want to jump right out of the stands and hug their kid after a crushing loss? But not hovering takes real discipline. Ted Ligety, a “surprise” skiing gold medalist in 2006 fondly recalls his parents’ apathy. “My parents were not invested in the results. They just wanted me to have fun and of course were happy when I did well, but nothing changed when I did poorly.”

Taking on the Tigers is a little more complicated, especially since Outliers hit the bestseller list, feeding the fire for desperate sports parents who urge kids at ever younger ages to specialize. As logical and solid as the research behind Outliers is, a recent conversation with 1984 skiing gold medalist Debbie Armstrong reminded me that context always matters. Armstrong missed two entire years of skiing when her family lived in Malaysia. And they weren’t just any years. They were the pre-growth spurt years of 11 and 12 years old, arguably the most critical years for sports skills development. Athletically, she should have been doomed. Nonetheless she cites Gladwell’s theory to explain her success in a sport that demands daily adaptation to changes in weather, terrain, snow conditions, diet, equipment, etc. “So much of our sport hinges on being able to cope. It’s part of the 10,000 hours, and that’s what those two years were all about. I could eat ants. I did eat ants. After those two years there was nothing I couldn’t handle.”

Neither Armstrong nor Ligety had Heli/Tiger parents. Their parents, and mine I now realize, did their most important work by letting go. It’s only as adults, looking back at all the sketchy situations we faced on the road as teenagers, that my teammates and I have asked, “Mom, Dad. What the hell were you thinking?” And their answers are always the same: “It’s what you really wanted to do.” Now I see my own kids motivated by a passion for something that is healthy and positive, something that is neither electronic nor illegal, and I get it. I’ll do anything—or not do anything—to keep that going.

Watching these Olympics, I am reminded that there are as many approaches to raising an Olympian as there are Olympians. Swimmer Missy Franklin swam against the tide to stay home in Colorado, while gymnast Gabby Douglas begged to move across the country, alone, to be with the right gymnastics coach. Each situation requires a unique sacrifice or compromise, with the common success factor being the athlete’s role in choosing the path.

Will my kids make it to the Olympics? Maybe, but I’d never bet on those odds. Are they pursuing a sport that makes them happy, confident and independent? Unquestionably yes. Will I be able to let them go when the time comes, without tucking a checklist, emergency numbers and snacks in their bags? I’m still working on that one.




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