5 Things Moms of Olympians Can Teach Us About Raising Athletes (and Parenting in General)

Five nuggets of wisdom from the women who (literally!) made some of our favorite winter sports stars.
Hitesh Toolsidass

"Imagine if the world could see what a mom sees"—this tear-jerking tagline of Proctor & Gamble's latest 'Thank You, Mom' commercial reminds us that behind every medal-adorned Olympian is a tireless cheerleader and parent. As part of P&G's #LoveOverBias campaign, the short but powerful video also highlights the social, racial, and economic hurdles so many of our most beloved athletes overcame with the love and support of their mothers. If you think your kid has what it takes to one day go pro, consider this sage advice from the parents who helped make their child's Olympic dreams come true.

1. Pushing your kid too much now will only backfire later.

There's always that one parent on the sidelines screaming at his kid, the ref, coach, or all three—as if his family's life depended on it. This kind of pressure leads to early burnout, says Jan Meyers, mom of two-time Olympic medalist in bobsled, Elana Meyers Taylor. In fact, 70 percent of children drop out of youth sports by age 13, according to a National Alliance for Youth Sports poll. The main reason: They just don't find the sport fun anymore, and that's largely because of their parents' unhealthy involvement. "No 12-year-old has ever made any professional team, so parents need to stop thinking about their kids becoming professional athletes at this age," says Jan, who, along with her husband, Eddie, didn't let any of their three uber-competitive and athletic daughters play organized sports until they were around 10. And even then, the girls didn't pick up basketball or softball with the goal of becoming professional athletes. They played to have fun, stay active and fill their free time, because watching TV and playing video games for hours weren't options in their household.

2. Drive and desire must come from within.

Sheer talent will only get you so far. Successful athletes like Olympic medalist and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy have both an endless supply of self-motivation and a genuine love affair with the sport. "Gus was always a very strong-willed child, so it didn't come as any surprise to me that he's gone as far as he has," says Gus's mom, Pip Kenworthy. Her son chimed in with his own advice for budding athletes: "Stay with it for the right reasons. If it's something you really love and want, then work hard at it, push yourself, and remember why you want to do it. Those reasons will really come in handy on the days when you don't want to get up early to go to the gym and train." While lots of kids ask Gus for advice on landing a sponsor or agent, it's the desire to play or ride—not fame or fortune—that should drive your child's decision to seriously commit to a sport, he says.

3. Remember: Your support really counts.

You can show your child you have her back through the simple, everyday things you do for her to help ensure she performs at her best. Serve healthy meals and make sure she gets plenty of sleep—especially before a big game. "Even being there with a cup of hot cocoa at the end of a race makes a big difference," says Pip. If your child faces biases from other kids in the sport because she looks different or doesn't have the required equipment, it's your job to provide emotional support by listening and driving her to practice, says Sequocoria Evans, whose daughter, Aja Evans, an Olympic medalist in bobsled, defied many stereotypes of what she could accomplish based on her race and surroundings growing up in Chicago.

4. Be open-minded to other sports.

Even the most successful athletes are forced to take a different path to reach their ultimate goal. Case in point: At age 9, Elana Meyers Taylor promised herself that she would one day be an Olympian, though it didn't matter in what sport. Elana ended up choosing softball, played in college at George Washington University, and later went pro—but didn't make the Olympic team. Soon after, softball was pulled from the Olympics, leaving Elana wondering how she would fulfil the promise she made to herself over a decade earlier. "Fortunately, my mom watched bobsledding on TV and saw that the women looked like me: They were big, strong, athletic, and many converted to bobsled later in life," Elana said. Jan suggested her daughter give bobsled a try, so the then 22-year-old from Douglasville, Georgia did some Googling and contacted the USA Olympic coach, who invited her up to Lake Placid for a tryout. That was 11 years ago, and the rest is Olympic history. Bottom line: Expect the unexpected, always listen to mom, and have a backup plan.

5. You will make worthwhile sacrifices.

While watching the 1988 Winter Olympics on TV, a 7-year-old Michelle Kwan (who was taking group skating lessons at the time) proclaimed that she wanted to be an Olympic ice skater. "It's amazing that my parents' response to a 7-year-old was "'Okay, let's do it!'" Michelle recalls. Ice skating is an expensive sport, and while her Chinese immigrant parents, Danny and Estella, struggled to make ends meet, they never once denied their daughter the opportunity to compete. Instead, they both juggled multiple jobs, and Estella (who Michelle lovingly refers to as 'Mama Kwan') also sewed competition costumes for her daughter. "People say that I gave up so much during my childhood, like not going to prom, seeing movies with friends, or having sleepovers. But I really never saw it like that—I was doing what I loved. My parents, on the other hand, didn't dream of becoming Olympic ice skaters," says Michelle.

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