Let me say this right up front – not every child masters the monkey bars. Unlike sitting, standing, walking, potty training, or riding a tricycle, the monkey bars are not considered a developmental milestone. At well-child visits, doctors don’t ask, “Has your child mastered the monkey bars yet?” the same way they ask, “How many words are in your child’s vocabulary?” Trust me, I’m a pediatrician. There are even successful adults working alongside you who have never been able to master the monkey bars. Trust me, I’m one of them. I was never able to climb a rope or do a pull-up either. I always blamed my inabilities on a poorly-centered center of gravity. But enough about me. This is about our daughter who, happily, did learn to master the monkey bars. She absolutely had to.
Emily’s best friends in grade school were tiny wisps of girls who didn’t touch the ground when they walked because they were too light for gravity. For them, the monkey bars were as natural as breathing – they didn’t have to think twice before sailing from one end to the other, with each girl outdoing the other in speed and panache. When the monkey bars became the “must” place to be during recess, Emily was in a tough spot. Her feet did touch the ground while walking and the monkey bars were not automatic like breathing – they were more like hyperventilating. Not being a wisp came in very handy for Emily when she played sports later in life, but this was first grade and nothing mattered except the monkey bars.
Knowing no one would be at the school playground on Saturday, we packed everyone in the van and headed there for a monkey bars crash course. First, our oldest child (who was in third grade) tried to inspire Em by hopping onto the launch step and zipping all the way across, gracefully swinging from each arm to get to the next bar. He dismounted and encouragingly said, “See, Em, it’s easy!” Emily didn’t find this inspiring. In fact, she started crying. Next, the youngest child (who was in preschool) needed a turn. We held him up and walked beneath the monkey bars as he touched each one with his hands. Then he was off to the sandbox.
Finally, Emily stood on the launch step, grabbed the first bar with her left hand, stepped, and…just dangled there. Her right arm waved toward the next bar, but her body did not obey. She dropped to the ground and sobbed, “See?! I told you I can’t do it!” Of course, we asked ourselves how much of the obstacle was physical or mental. We pretended to be sports psychologists for a little while, probing her deepest monkey bar phobias. Yes, she was afraid of failure. Yes, she was afraid of embarrassment. Yes, she was sure everyone else was better at monkey bars. Yes, she would never, ever, ever have friends, in her whole life, if she couldn’t conquer the monkey bars. Ok, enough psychology – there were fewer than 48 hours before Monday’s recess. A miraculous cure was in order, and it had to be immediate.
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.
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.
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.
There are just over 50 days left until the start of the London Olympics and we couldn’t be more excited! While all of the athletes are undeniably talented, we’ll be cheering a little louder for all of the parents who will be competing. Raising kids and preparing to win gold? That deserves a medal in and of itself.
But there’s one other person (well, more like a monster) we’ll be pulling for: Elmo!
To show the International Olympic Committee (IOC) how serious he is about his quest, Elmo has made a video where he tries a few sports. Yes, he struggles with the hurdles and has some difficulty with weight-lifting, but we admire Elmo’s determination. Those of you with toddlers know how difficult it can be to teach them to persevere.