While I was in London for the Olympics, I had the privilege to speak with several current Olympians, moms of Olympians, and former Olympic competitors. I asked them all for the best advice they would give to young children–and their parents–who are starting to get interested in sports and might be dreaming of competing in the Olympics someday.
Here is the advice they gave:
Margie Walsh, mother of beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh-Jennings:
I would tell them to dream big. Even if they aren’t going to be Olympic athletes, it’s okay to dream big. Support them and encourage them and tell them they can do anything they want to do. They’ll know when they don’t love it anymore, and they’ll know when it’s time to give it up. But it’s got to be their choice to play, and it’s got to be their choice to give it up. And if they’re just tired, you don’t let them give it up yet. And if they’re not good enough to get to the next level, just remind them of what they have achieved. Support them, encourage them, love them, and listen to them. And make sure it’s their dream, and they want it.
Christian Laettner, former Olympic basketball player:
Have your kid play as many sports as he can. Nowadays, the parents and coaches want to have them focus in on just basketball at age 12 or 13. You don’t have to focus in on your one sport until maybe 16 years old.
Diana Lopez, taekwondo star:
Stick to something you believe in and don’t ever quit. Here I am, a two-time Olympian. In 2004 I barely made the Olympic team, and I was crushed after that, but my parents always taught us to persevere, to keep going and to do your best, no matter what obstacles may come. And here I am.
Diana Lopez won the bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2008 Games and is currently competing in London.
Gary Hall Jr., former Olympic swimmer:
You have to start somewhere, and it’s never the top. If you stick to something long enough and you love it, eventually you will be successful.
There are life skills that are instilled, qualities that are taken away from a playing field or swimming pool, and you may not be able to appreciate that when you’re a 12-year-old youth soccer player. But later on in life, you start applying those things you learn to other things that aren’t necessarily sports related.
Gary Hall Jr. won 10 medals over three Olympics, 1996, 2000, and 2004.
Maya Moore is playing in her first Olympics as the youngest member of the U.S. women’s basketball team. But Moore, 23, is already a professional player, a forward for the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA. If she’s nervous about being on the Olympic stage, Moore doesn’t show it, displaying the poise and confidence of a veteran who’s done her share of media appearances.
Moore spoke briefly today at a barbecue at the P&G Family Home, a space here in London for Olympic athletes and their families. The topic was American patriotism, and Moore had the day’s winning quote: “When I think about the heart of this country, I think of my mom.” Later, I sat down for a short interview with Moore, as her mom sat nearby.
How long have you been preparing to be in the Olympics?
My whole life. As a kid, you don’t necessarily know if you’re going to get the opportunity, but as I got a little bit older and I was able to see the Olympics as a potential opportunity, I just worked for it. I’ve been soaking up every moment and making sure that I’m doing whatever I need to be doing to help this team win.
At what point did you realize that basketball was more than a hobby, that it could be a career?
Right around middle school. You start thinking about what you want to be, what your skills are. At least I did. And I saw that going to college, playing basketball, that’s a possibility, so let’s go for it. Every level that I go up, I look up to the next level. After high school, I looked to college, and going to college, the pros was always something I wanted to do, knowing we had a professional league to go to.
London is bustling for sure, but aside from the Olympics-only traffic lanes and occasional five-ring flag, you wouldn’t necessarily know from wandering around that the Summer Games are in town. There are, of course, reminders such as the display of flags in the shadow of Big Ben (pictured to the right). But overall, London and its tourists are going about business as usual, it seems. Even the taxi drivers are saying that the expected traffic nightmares have not materialized.
Find yourself in any Olympics-related place, and the story, of course, is entirely different. For me, I’ve experienced it up close at the P&G Family Home, where athletes and their families gather to relax and socialize. Many former Olympians are around, still connected to their former teammates and to the Games as a whole (and, truth be told, paid to be there as spokespeople). The Olympic spirit, a sheer enthusiasm for all things Games related, pervades the place. And I’ve been privileged to spend time here, thanks to Procter & Gamble, which is funding my trip.
The athletes and their families may come to the Home to escape the intensity of the Games, but they still gather at the omnipresent TV sets to watch, clap, and cheer for their fellow athletes at their events. No one’s gawking at the many celebrities around, but no one’s oblivious to it all, either. There’s Gabby Douglas’s mom! Shawn Johnson just walked by! Did you hear that Michael (that would be Michael Phelps to the rest of us) broke the record? And is that girl who just passed by wearing a silver medal?!
I’ve had my share of these moments—that was a silver medal around that unidentified girl’s neck—and it’s impossible not to be swept up by it. I rode the van back to my hotel with the mom of weightlifter Sarah Robles, and we chatted about her daughter’s accomplishments and what it feels like to be at the Olympics. Though at home I am glued to the TV for any Olympics, I am not by nature a fanatical Olympics fan. Here there are only fans, and happily so.
Tonight I got to see the actual Olympics. You know, the sporting events that take place between the pomp and ceremony and festivities. It was awe-inspiring to walk through Olympic Park, the site of many of the Games’ biggest events, on my way to the Aquatic Center to attend an evening of swimming. There was a different race every few minutes, plus a couple of medal ceremonies thrown in.
I got to see familiar names win their semifinal (Lochte, Phelps), and someone new to me, Nathan Adrian, take home gold for the U.S. (pictured at right). Hearing our national anthem playing and seeing our flag rising to the ceiling gave me goose bumps. I loved seeing fans from around the globe waving their own flags in the audience and hearing small pockets of cheers when an athlete from, say, Hungary or Columbia was introduced.
We hear so often that the Olympics bring the world together, and that phrase can lose its meaning from the repetition. Being here, though, I feel its meaning deeply. And for me, I’ve come to understand what it means that the Olympics is something larger than a series of athletic competitions.
And, just for fun, a few more pictures from today:
I finished up my first of three days in London at the Olympics, exhausted but energized. I spent time at the Procter & Gamble Family Home — a huge space that is part oasis, part Oz — where athletes and their families can chill out, grab a meal or drink, relax, and watch the Games on TV. (Full disclosure: P&G’s Thank You Mom campaign is funding my trip and connecting me with the athletes and moms I’ll be interviewing.)
It’s a place where athletes walk around nonchalantly with medals, and everyone looks sort of familiar, since you’ve probably seen them on TV. Last night, I caught up briefly with Shawn Johnson, just a few hours after the U.S. women took the gold in team gymnastics. Johnson is a gymnastics pro and Olympic gold medalist, having competed valiantly for team USA in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. She recently announced her retirement from the sport and is joining P&G in London as an Olympics correspondent.
How have you been dealing with the unexpected news of the past few months and having to drop out of Olympic competition?
I’ve been dealing with it pretty well. It was something that I couldn’t really change. I couldn’t push my knee any further than it could go. Physically and mentally I wasn’t ready, and I had to accept that. Since then, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to do wonderful things, like coming to the Olympics and being a part of the whole Olympic movement. It’s been an easier transition than I thought it would be. I’m doing pretty good.
Our readers generally have kids who are pretty young, who may be in their first gymnastics class. What would you tell those moms and kids, looking ahead at their own Olympic dreams?
Just not to force anything. Kids should be kids and they should have fun. They should try things and not take things too seriously. Success comes on its own, and if you just encourage them and support them, they’ll work hard enough for it.
How did you know when this was something real, as opposed to just having fun in the gym?
I didn’t. I had a dream and I wanted to be an Olympian, just like every other kid. I just loved gymnastics, but I never thought it was possible. I just kept practicing and continuing and pushing myself. I probably was 13 or 14 years old before I said this might be a possibility.
Did your lifestyle change at that point?
It was more gradual. I never did anything drastic. My parents and my coach were really big on me keeping a balanced life and still going to school and not dedicating every ounce of it toward gymnastics, because they didn’t want me to get burned out.
What advice would you give kids on handling disappointment and setbacks?
It’s a part of life. It’s going to happen. You’re going to come in last, you’re going to fall, you’re going to make mistakes. But you have to learn from them. It makes you stronger when you overcome it instead of letting it defeat you. My coach always said you have to fall a hundred times to make one perfect, and I believe that.
What’s next for you?
I will be heading to L.A. for Dancing With the Stars, and then heading off to college.
Any other advice for parents out there who want to raise the next great Olympian?
If you have the mentality that you’re raising the next Olympian, you may be doing it a little wrong. Just let your kid be normal and things will come on their own. Have fun.
How do you know if you are raising a future Olympic athlete? What if her love of somersaults and flips could make her the next Shawn Johnson? What if she really is the fastest runner or highest jumper or most synchronized swimmer on the planet?
I’m not asking because I think my couch-potato self actually produced an athlete who’ll compete in the 2024 Summer Games. But it’s not just about athletics: How do you know if your kid’s sweet singing voice is Broadway material, or if her drum-banging signals the perfect ear for music and not just a love of noise?
To put it another way, what really nags at me is: When should we push our children to develop and deepen their interests and talents, and when should we step back and follow their often-apathetic lead? When should we stand our ground and insist they stay in that swimming class or keep practicing that piano teacher, even when their inclination is to want to quit?
I am posing these questions not just to muse–welcome to my Inner Father Insecurity #437–but because I am going in search of answers. Yes, I am heading to London for the Olympics, with many, many thanks to Proctor & Gamble, which is funding the trip as part of its ”Thank You, Mom” campaign.
It’s a tough assignment, but I am doing my journalistic duty and will report back on what I find out. While I am there I will be interviewing as many athletes–and their moms or dads–as I can. In addition to asking them how it feels to, you know, compete in the Summer Olympics, I will also be interrogating them on when they started focusing on their sport (“Did those diapers slow you down, Mr. Phelps?”), and how they knew.
As children, how did they realize that this sport is their passion, that they’d rather be in the pool or gym than doing whatever it is their peers were doing all those years? As parents, how did they decide to allow their children at such young ages to focus their lives so intently and uncompromisingly on this passion?
I, will, of course, let you know what I find out. Check back here on Goodyblog for my posts from London, and follow us on Twitter–we’re @ParentsMagazine–to experience it with me. I will also be shooting as many pictures as I can and posting them to our Instagram account, which is also @ParentsMagazine. And don’t miss the rest of our Olympics coverage, including craft and party ideas!
But before I go, I want to ask: What would you like me to ask the Olympic athletes and their parents? Post your questions in the comments section below or on our Facebook page, and I will try to ask as many as possible.
For a Jewish kid, there’s generally no greater highlight of the religious calendar than Hanukkah, with its abundance of presents, gooey jelly donuts, greasy latkes, and… did I mention the presents? But when it comes to truly getting into the meaning of a holiday, embracing it beyond the material and gastronomical, there’s no better time of the year than Passover. With its symbolic foods–bitter herbs for slavery, greens for springtime–and its central story of redemption and justice, the holiday’s meaning is easy to grasp. Catchy songs and kid-focused sederrituals certainly help, too.
At its core, Passover is about storytelling; we are all supposed to feel as if we personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. My older daughter is at the age where she is discovering and grappling with the Passover story, focusing on different details each time we read or talk about it, and asking pointed questions about it. Why was Pharaoh so mean? Were the Ten Plagues fair? For a 5-year-old, questions of justice–of evil being punished (but not overly punished) and good people being rewarded–are particularly salient. I had to laugh when, in a moment of frustration, she called someone a “Pharaoh” for some perceived slight against her.
She’s also discovering what it means to tell a story from different vantage points or angles. One of the books we’ve been reading is More Than Matzah: A Passover Feast of Fun, Facts, and Activities, which is a detailed (and, be forewarned, relatively lengthy for her age) retelling of the Exodus narrative. It sticks to a narrative, just-the-facts style that hews closely to the biblical tale. It’s geared toward an older kid than my daughter, but she’s still fascinated by the level of detail it offers about the story, and is looking forward to doing some of the Passover crafts it features.
Another favorite is A Little Girl Named Miriam, which confines itself to just a slice of the action, focusing on Moses’ older sister. It sweetly embellishes the Biblical tale, bringing in rabbinic commentary and the author’s own imagination to credit “little Miriam,” as my daughter invariably calls her, as the central hero in moving the early part of the narrative forward. It’s the perfect story for a quiet little girl with a keen sense of right and wrong, with the refrain “…little Miriam spoke up…” summing up each of the young heroine’s shining moments.
The books have sparked in our family some great discussions on why the characters look different in each retelling and why some of the details are different. The stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves, matter, and that’s one reason the Haggadah–the book we use at the seder table to guide our telling of the Passover story–is the most translated and re-interpreted Jewish liturgical book. If each of us is to feel as if we were personally redeemed from slavery, then what that redemption looks like is bound to be different for each of us. My daughter’s got her own ideas, and her own favorite images from her books. It’s been a fun and meaningful lesson to explore together.
Wishing everyone a holiday filled with great stories and great joy.
I am proud to say that my 5-year-old appreciates the beauty of Christmas lights and at the same time understands, in her own way, why we don’t decorate our own home. “These people must celebrate Christmas,” she invariably remarks when she sees a house decked out to her liking. It’s an observation without judgment or envy, a sorting of the world to make sense of it. We have Hanukkah. Candles, presents, latkes, dreidels, and not trees, Santa, flashing lights, or nativity scenes.
Last year, I wrote about my concerns over how to raise children who can embrace and celebrate and love what we are without dismissing or diminishing those who are different. In the black-and-white way we tend to speak to our children, other people can too often be painted as wrongheaded rather than just different. I try to instill in my children an appreciation for and understanding of the complexities and diversity of life; in the words of my friend Brad Hirschfield (who wrote a book with this title), “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
At least in this regard, Adira seems to have gotten the message. It helps that Hanukkah and Christmas are close to each other this year and that for the first time she understands Hanukkah enough to be truly excited for it. Still, it makes me proud to walk around our neighborhood and discuss the holidays, admire Christmas decorations, and plan for our Hanukkah celebration. She even told me that one particular nativity scene near our house reminded her of a scene from her Passover book. Sharp girl I’ve got.
Adira has also thoroughly interrogated Sara, her nanny, about her holiday observances. She knows that Sara celebrates Chirstmas and not Hanukkah and asked whether any of the kids she previously babysat for were Jewish. Hearing that they were not, Adira understood and got excited for Sara’s first Hanukkah. She told her all about our customs and how we light the candles and give presents, and asked my wife for a $1 bill. Why? To give to Sara as a present. “Is it ok to draw on money?” Adira asked, wanting her present to be fancy and worthy of the occasion. Instead, she wisely decided to make Sara a present that didn’t involve a dollar bill. I guess my next lesson should be about understanding money, but for now, I will celebrate Hanukkah proudly with my family.