Chances are, your kids are watching superstar Olympians like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and Simone Biles rack up Olympic medals in Rio, and are suddenly inspired to go for the gold themselves. These Olympic aspirations can generate positive parenting moments, or they can become a source of family dysfunction. Whether your child wants to be an Olympian or play professional football, here are a few tips for supporting your child's newfound passion and lofty goals.
Find out what sports are available in your area through your local school system and clubs. Even if your child doesn't have Olympic talent, this could be the start of a new healthy habit. Dr. Joseph Wehrman, chair of the Counseling and Human Services department at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, notes that sports can play a positive role in a child's development "Young people can benefit from team sports activities that allow for collaboration and developing themselves as a member of a larger, connected community," he says.
Many coaches and youth sports organizations push parents and children to lock into a single sport. In fact, Jack Roberts, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, has called the trend towards single-sport specialization a "public health crisis." And according to a position statement by the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine, early specialization can lead to injury and burnout. Experts recommend avoiding intense, year-round training in a single sport until late adolescence.
Even elite athletes take breaks, sometimes for extended periods of time. Oftentimes coaches will question a child's commitment, drive, or dedication if he wants to step back. In reality, time away from a sport can be healthy. Dr. Wehrman points out that kids can also benefit from unstructured activity outside of the context of an organized sport. "Children deserve the opportunity to focus on physical activities and play that are less rule-driven and competitive," he says. "This provides the opportunity for the development of the self, creativity, self-efficacy and overall health and well-being."
No parent wants to crush her child's dreams. In reality, though, fewer than one percent of athletes reach an elite or professional level. Help your child set reasonable, shorter-term goals.
Yes, Katie Ledecky is an incredibly fast swimmer, but she is also disciplined, dedicated, and hardworking. Make sure you point out those qualities to your child—and discuss the role they play in her success in and out of the pool. Your child might not grow up to be an Olympian, but she,too, can strengthen, or develop, traits that will help her in all areas of her life.
Family, leisure, academics, and social relationships are critical parts of a child's development that should not be neglected at the expense of sports. Charlie Batch, a former NFL quarterback and co-founder of Impellia, a sports performance and rehabilitation technology company, knows first-hand the importance of having talents and goals outside of sports. Batch also mentors retired NFL players and connects them with resources through The Trust, an arm of the NFL Players Association. "You need to ask yourself: 'If this were to end today, what would I be doing?" he says. "Single-minded focus is not the way to go."
Keep sports in perspective and be careful about the emphasis you place on your child's athletic endeavors. Sports should be one facet of your child's life, not your child's whole identity. When kids' sense of self-worth is tied to athletic performance, it can lead to anxiety, depression, and disappointment. Batch has seen many elite athletes struggle when their careers come to an end. "You wake up with no purpose and it is easy to slip," he says. The Trust promotes the hashtag, "I am more than football." Parents also need to let their children know that they are more than their sport.
It is common for parents to live out their dreams through their children. Dr. Steven Walker, a Denver-based sport psychologist and editor of Podium Sports Journal, explains this unhealthy phenomenon: "Some parents want to fulfill their own athletic aspirations through their children." Your child's participation in a sport shouldn't be about you. If your sense of self-esteem and well-being depend on your child's success at his sport, it is time to check yourself.
Sports can be fun, but they can also be a source of emotional angst and physical injury. Some sports can be particularly taxing on the body, while others require a certain type of physique, the quest for which can result in long-term health problems. Even if your child is prodigiously talented, anxiety, unhappiness, and chronic injuries are all reasons to rethink his participation. Children are minors and cannot fully consent to the ill-effects of their sports. Where there is short-term misery, or the risk for long-term damage, physical or emotional, parents need to step in and be the voice of reason.
Sports should be a fun, positive experience for children. "The greatest joy for parents should be to see their children having fun," Dr. Walker says. "Let kids be kids."