What it takes to be an Olympian

 In Professional & Olympic Athletes

In an age where youth start specializing in a sport by the time they are 10 or 11 years old the dream to be great in my experience can take on a couple of different routes – burnout or Olympian. How do we know which direction a child is going to go?

10-20 years ago Olympic athletes were (really) the only ones specializing in their sport at 10 or 11 years old and although their parents initially ‘got them involved’ (as they do today) it seemed different. It felt like there was very little pressure from parents around whether or not a child stayed in the sport or didn’t stay in the sport. One of the very important elements of Olympic parents seems to be not taking over, but rather supporting their child’s endeavors; whatever they might be. It used to be more of a ‘catch and release’ system based on what the child wanted.

And to me, that seems like the huge difference between 10-20 years ago and now. Parents get their kids involved with sports at 4, 5, 6 years of age and they continue to be really involved. Some too involved, kids feel it, it adds too much unnecessary pressure and kids feel like there’s no way out. How do I know this? I work with a lot of kids! Here’s what the cycle looks like: a parent enrolls a child in swimming at 4 years of age. It is important for a child to learn to swim. That child is still swimming at 8, 9, 10 years of age because they liked it but usually more so because their parent saw a glimmer of excellence and thought their child ‘has it’. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t but more important maybe that child wants to play some other sport. By 11, 12 & 13 years of age, this child is not only specializing in swimming but their identity is already intertwined in it. At this age kids are becoming more rational and conscious. They start to feel guilty about quitting because their parents have sunk so much money into lesson’s, team’s and travel. By the age of 13 many kids are confused and anxious about their performance and now feel trapped – I will let my parents down if I quit and it’s too late for me to do something else.

I understand that parents are balancing a lot. They want their kids to have a great life and sports promises that: college scholarship, Olympics and/or being a professional athlete. I also understand that parents want to teach kids a lesson about quitting but there’s being a quitter and on the other side, a kid wanting to try out different sports to see which one they want to do. You may have gotten your child involved with swimming at a young age (why?) and they may be good at it but they may be even better at something else. Story – one of the Olympians I had the good fortunate to work with started off as a great basketball player. She played basketball through college. She was so good in fact, she could have played professionally. Midway through college she decided she wanted to be an Olympic water polo player and she was.

In order to get closer to the Olympic dreams here’s some of what I think needs to happen:

  • Parents should not choose the sport their child specializes in.
  • Parents should not be too involved with their child’s sport.
  • Parents should let a child choose what they do or don’t want to do in sports.
  • Parents need to learn to take a back seat and understand what it means to be ‘supportive’.
  • Parents need to learn to better communicate with their kids so that kids don’t carry guilt around with them and so they are able to make their own choices.
  • Parents need to understand what their kids need: before, during and after competition.

When a kid has the opportunity to decide, they no longer feel guilty because it’s their decision. They are able to take responsibility for their decision. The chances are likely that in this environment they flourish, there’s less anxiety, burnout, frustration and more enjoyment! Definitely more opportunity to be an Olympian!

Reference articles:  Research on psychological preparation for OlympiansThe importance of parental support for Olympic successThe Olympic mindset

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