Dominique Dawes, a former Olympic gymnast, has competed in three Olympic Games, one of which was in 1996, when she and the Magnificent 7 -- the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team -- won gold in the All-Around. Now a motivational speaker and sports reporter, she chatted with Parents.com about ways to get kids to eat healthier; how parents can help their kids accomplish their athletic dreams; and her favorite Olympic memories.
You've teamed up with Hormel's Natural Choice to help parents be role models in the kitchen. What are some ways they can do that?
It's important for moms, but also dads, to recognize that they're role models when it comes to their kids' physical health, when it comes to working out, and when it comes to nutrition. I think the best way to get your kids engaged is to let them be a part of the cooking process, let them know why you're putting certain foods in their lunch. It may not seem that they're listening right away, but eventually they're going to take in that information, they're going to recognize good-for-them-foods that are going to help them reach their full potential in whatever they choose to do. Whether it be gymnastics, whether it be the arts, or whether it be getting through that long day at school, they need the fuel that's going to keep their minds and their bodies sharp.
How old were you when you knew that you were serious about excelling in gym?
Well, I started the sport when I was six and I started setting my sights on the Olympics when I was 11. Eleven years old is not an early age to set your sight on the Olympics for a gymnast, because we normally peak in high school. I first qualified for the Olympics team during my sophomore year in high school, when I was 15 years old. I knew that it was going to take from ages 11 to 15, four years, to make it to the Olympic Games. So I set these high goals. I wasn't always 100 percent confident, but I knew that if I worked hard and believed in myself, and listened to what my coach wanted me to do, I would increase my chances.
At what point did your parents know that you were serious enough about the sport to have that Olympic goal and to help you pursue it?
That's the thing with me; I was a little different-- I didn't need to be pushed by my parents. I think it's good for parents to be supportive, to motivate, and to somewhat nudge their kids because the majority of kids will want to quit something when it gets hard--that's just their nature. Children will normally take the easier road. But the way I was wired, I didn't really need to be pushed by my parents; I was adding enough pressure on myself because I already had such high expectations of myself.
Also, my coach Kelli Hill was very much like a mother figure to me. I was with her for much of my childhood, and I was at the gym with her for five to seven hours a day. She was the one who really lit a flame under me and helped me realize how good I really was.
At what point should parents recognize that their kid is a great athlete and that they should help her actively pursue a dream?
Ask your daughter if she really does love the sport. It shouldn't come down to whether she's going to make it to the Olympics or if she's going to surpass her teammates; it should really be about her loving what she's doing, her working hard, her challenging herself each and every day, and I think that's how she's going to win in the long run.
The majority of people who get in the sport of gymnastics do not go to the Olympics or get a Division 1 scholarship, but it doesn't mean that they can't get something positive from the sport. They can learn about being a goal-oriented person, which is helpful in life; they can learn about commitment; they can learn about coming back from injuries; they can learn about persevering. Psychologically, the sport is demanding, since you have to deal with so much, like fear and mental blocks and learning to work well with teammates. Even though it's an individual sport, you do have teammates around you who support you every step of the way, and hopefully a young girl will support her teammates. There are so many intangibles that a 7-year-old girl can get from gymnastics, even she's not the most talented athlete out there.
I've coached in the past, and I think the thing is that parents should respect the coach's role. If you're paying money to put your child in a gym, don't tell someone how to coach your daughter. Because if you're going to do that, just open your own gym. There are a lot of parents who try to coach their children and the sad thing is, I've watched this and they coach their children right out of the sport; they burn them out because they've got the coach adding pressure and they've got Mom and Dad thinking they're coaches, adding pressure, and it's too much on the young kids. That's why I'm thankful that my parents didn't really add any pressure; if they had, I probably would've burned out and walked away from the sport.