Are you watching the Olympics? I’m catching what I can. It’s the one time every four years when I watch sports that otherwise don’t hold much interest for me. And the TV producers always do a thorough job of digging up the personal stories of the athletes in order to boost the drama. Those stories sometimes involve parents who have made great sacrifices to support the careers of their kids, many of whom are still in their teens.
During the 2012s we hear the touching tale of gymnast Gabby Douglas staying touch with her father during his tour of military duty in Afghanistan. We hear that swimmer Missy Franklin wasn’t crazy about her dad promoting “Missy the Missile” as a nickname. And there’s even the ad nauseam speculation about runner Nick Symmonds’ relationship with Paris Hilton.
Rarely do we hear horror stories about parents pushing their kids too hard or about kids taking their commitment to the point of obsession, in part to please their parents. But a lot of us probably think those untold stories fuel the reality of what we’re watching. Competing at an Olympic level requires more than talent and a strong work ethic. Athletes need to be dedicated to the point at which most people would snap.
This well-reported article from the ABC News website sheds some light on this rarely mentioned aspect of The Games. One expert claims that three in 10 parents of Olympic athletes pushes too hard. Another offers this paraphrased observation: “No parent-child relationship is ever going to be completely ‘normal’ at this level of competition, according to Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.” Later in the article he says, ”Even well-meaning parents can get really caught up in five-ring fever.”
Given the level of commitment and sacrifice (in both time and money) made by parents of world-class athletes, their tendency to push their kids is more understandable than it is for the typical youth sports parent. But, as the article says, parents need to keep the situation a healthy one. The parents’ desire for success needs to focus only on their child, not on their own personal disappointments in the past.
I wish there was more coverage about the complicated role parents play in supporting their kids who reach this level of competition. The media tends to prefer telling the easy stories, ones with straightforward conflicts that can be understood – and resolved – in a 30-second or one-minute clip. Parents of competitive athletes even at far lower levels no doubt could learn something from the real stories. Maybe they would help us resolve our own questions about how hard to push.