Zennie Coughlin and her husband raised two daughters, three years apart in age. Both girls swam competitively. The younger one, Megan, walked away from the sport during her first year of college. Natalie, now 29, swam on, eventually winning 12 Olympic medals–including one this week in London–and tying the record for most medals among U.S. women.
Because of the different paths Natalie and Megan chose, the Coughlin family provides a good example of how parents can successfully encourage kids to follow their passions without pushing them too far. While I was in London last week for the Olympics, I had a chance to sit down with three members of the Coughlin family–Zennie, Megan, and Zennie’s mom–while they relaxed in the days between Natalie’s races. (Alas, Natalie was not available. But the photo at right shows Zennie posing in front of a large ad featuring her daughter.)
From an early age, the girls’ parents insisted they become involved in something, some sport that would teach them discipline and keep them out of trouble. But beyond that, the Coughlins didn’t push. The girls didn’t have to stick with one sport, and each dabbled at times in other activities, only to return to swimming. But swimming competitively–certainly at the elite level Natalie has achieved–came completely from her own desire, Zennie Coughlin said.
“When she was going to her junior prom her hair was totally wet, she had to swim a relay and get ready for the prom that evening,” she said. “She has been the one to balance everything, and I think it has to be driven by the athlete and not the parent. Parents are there to support but you can’t force your kid into loving something that they might not love.”
Natalie’s competitive spirit and drive to push herself further showed from an early age.
“She always was very gifted in the pool with winning all her events,” Zennie Coughlin said. “She loved the competition–didn’t like practice that much but loved the competition…. She almost skipped over the junior times right into the senior times, and that was about the time we knew, when she was about 14, when she was at senior nationals making the finals in those events, which is pretty impressive.”
John Macready competed in the 1996 Summer Games as part of the men’s gymnastics team. He’s now a motivational speaker, dad to three kids–9, 7, and 9 months old–and was in London to cheer on Team USA. Fun fact: Macready said he’s childhood buddies with the lead singer of the band LMFAO, and sang me a line of “Sexy and I Know It” during our conversation. I spoke with him at the P&G Family Home last week while I was in London. (Procter & Gamble funded my trip and arranged the interview).
At what point did you realize gymnastics was more than just a hobby?
I think for me it was when the ’84 Olympics came to Los Angeles, and I got to see it first hand and ask all about it. I was just like, “That’s what I want to do.”
What about it made you so interested in it?
It’s the entire world coming together in the most peaceful manner you can come together. Obviously, we have wars, and you see in some of our sporting events how people are fighting. I think we’re more apt to fight than ever. But at the Olympics, it’s all put on hold. Athletes are able to leave it on the floor, and they’re able to respect each other. There’s nothing better to me than to see someone be upset to lose and then to shake the gold medalist’s hand and show them respect. That’s just awesome. And you see it over and over and over again here.
What advice do you have for kids who are starting to get into sports and might be dreaming of the Olympics?
You’ve got to always understand the big picture. I think people get lost in success and in trying to go for something they forget why they’re going for it. When you make a goal, whether it’s an Olympic gold medal or maybe something outside of sports, you have to be willing to do everything to protect that goal and go after it. But you have to be completely okay with not having that goal and not making it.
You’re going to be on this Earth, hopefully, if you’re lucky, for seventy, eighty, ninety years. You’re going to have many chances to be successful. Maybe it wasn’t your plan, but you learn that it’s going to bring something else more successful. There’s more to come.
What advice do you have for the parents of those kids?
Teach your kids how to motivate themselves. If you can’t teach them how to motivate themselves you’re never going to motivate them. You’re never going to be able to push somebody to be successful. You have to teach them how to find it themselves.
Do you think you’ll be here in the future as an Olympic dad?
That would be so cool. But that would be cool for me. I want whatever’s going to be cool for them. And I also want to see different stuff. Maybe my kid will be an amazing piano player, something I’ve never experienced. For me, my biggest dream for my kids is to get to watch them do something they love, for them to be passionate. I don’t care if it’s the Olympics. I don’t care if it’s school. I just love seeing passion.
More in Parents.com’s series on Olympians, former Olympians, and parents of Olympians:
Connie 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.
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:
First of all, I’m laughing that my post yesterday, about how it’s going to be nervewracking to watch the Olympics with my almost-7-year-old daughter, comes right before a post by a mom who shares what it’s like to watch the Olympics when your daughter is actually in the Olympics.
But I figured I’d update you on how it went last night when we watched the rest of Sunday’s gymnastics competition with Julia. Short answer: totally fine! I’d drilled it in to her that one person was going to be eliminated, and as soon as Jordyn Wieber teetered on the beam, Julia declared, “I think she’s going to get cut.” Soon after that, she announced that Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman were her favorites. So when Jordyn was indeed cut from the all-around finals, Julia wasn’t so fazed. And there you have it. On to today’s team competition…
Photo: Keep Calm and Carry On Against the British Flag via Shutterstock.
In just a few days, Michelle Obama will be traveling to London with the Presidential Delegation to attend the Opening Ceremony of this year’s Olympics. As the leader of the delegation, which includes former Olympians (such as gymnast Dominque Dawes and soccer player Brandi Chastain), the First Lady will visit the U.S. Olympic Training Facility this Friday. In addition, SpongeBob and other celebrities will help host a Let’s Move! event for 1,000 children of U.S. ambassadors. Healthy foods such as nuts, granola bars, and water will be served.
Back in the U.S., the White House (with the help of MeetUp.com) will be hosting a Let’s Move! Olympics Fun Day on Saturday. The goal of Fun Day is to cheer on Team USA and also “turn the Olympic spirit into action” by having different events across the nation. As part of the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) initiative, the White House is committed to get 1.7 million kids moving and to ”inspire a new generation to strive for excellence,” said Michelle Obama. Growing up with fond memories of watching the Olympics, the First Lady believes that “winning isn’t the goal” of the games; instead, it’s being able to “push and believe in yourself” and to refuse to give up despite obstacles.