Young Athletes, Pushy Parents, and Teaching Sportsmanship

Connie Carpenter-PhinneyConnie Carpenter-Phinney won gold in cycling at the 1984 Summer Olympics, and this year is attending the London Games to watch her son, Taylor Phinney, compete in that same sport. Taylor, 22, came in fourth in both his races at this Olympics–or, as his mom put it, he beat all but three competitors.

Far from being disappointed, Carpenter-Phinney repeatedly told a crowd she addressed last week in London that Taylor had two great races, and she implored the highly competitive Olympians, and their families, to stop treating anything less than gold as a failure.

As an Olympian who’s also raised an Olympian, Carpenter-Phinney brings a unique perspective to the topic of parenting young athletes, and offered strong words about some of the parents she’s encountered throughout the years. We spent a few minutes talking together while I was in London last week covering the Olympics. (My trip was funded by Procter & Gamble, which arranged the interview as well.)

Which is harder, competing yourself or watching your son compete?

The hardest ones are the ones when your child is competing. When your child is competing, you feel like you want to help and there’s not a whole lot you can do at the end of the day.

How do you feel about your son competing in the Olympics?

It’s been a good experience but it’s been stressful. Cycling is a dangerous sport, and I know more about this than the average parents, so I think I worry probably more than them. I know how hard it is, and I know how dangerous it is.

How do you deal with the disappointments and setbacks that are inevitably a part of athletic competition?

As a parents, you always want the best for your child, and it’s heartbreaking when your child is heartbroken. To be an elite athlete, you’re going to have more struggle than you are success. So that’s just something you need to learn to deal with.

On the other hand, if I went to the race yesterday not thinking he could medal, he would say, “Don’t you believe in me?” So there’s a fine line we parents need to negotiate between believing in our kid and not setting unreasonable expectations.

What advice do you have for young athletes and their parents?

Until a child is 15 years old, they should not specialize, unless they’re in a sport like gymnastics where you have to be a specialist at a very young age. I believe that you can’t find your sport without trying a lot of other sports. How will you know what you’re best suited at?

The child is in the driver’s seat, not the parents. A lot of times parents try to push and live too much through their children and it’s their deal. They [the kids] need to take ownership and deal with it in their way. I saw a lot of pushy parents who took it way too seriously.

I think youth sports should be about learning the rules, learning a little bit of discipline, and particularly, learning how to do your best. But I think a lot of parents have lost site of that. I really believe parents need to behave better at sporting events and with their children.

What’s the most important thing for children to learn from participating in sports?

The thing that happened yesterday that I will never forget is that the defending Olympic champion from 2008, who is my son’s hero, entered the race with a severely compromised shoulder. He finished behind my son, which wouldn’t have been expected. We were in the same hotel, and we were having a family party, and he came to our party to congratulate my son on his result.

To me, it’s all about sportsmanship. That was the classiest move of the day. So teach your children sportsmanship, because sportsmanship is what will serve you well as you go through your entire life.

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  1. by Jodi Murphy

    On October 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    “he beat all but three competitors.”

    I love that attitude! Obviously competing on the Olympic level is a little more stressful than on a youth soccer team, but if a former Olympian turned Olympic mom can feel that way I think we all can.