Olympic Fever

We all watch the Olympics and get inspired by the accomplishments. But what is the price of pushing our kids to be professional athletes?

I’m not a sports fanatic. In fact, I’m probably almost the opposite of a sports fanatic. Sure, I watch hockey (I do live in Canada, after all), and key sporting events (if they don’t collide with home and work duties). But I don’t participate in any sport, I’m not good at any sport, and my career as an amateur gymnast was cut short by repeated knee injuries in middle school. Some people are just not meant to be athletes. We are called bookworms.

I always watch the Olympics though. When I was in grade school the Olympic games were reason enough to miss school, and now they are reason enough to work from home and give my kids some independent play practice. We watched the opening ceremony as a family (well, my 1 year old daughter wasn’t paying much attention, but we’ll work on that for the next time), and we were watching the women gymnastics qualifications on Sunday together. My son is very excited (as he should be), and is cheering for Canada. He also started to practice for his Olympic debut (if jumping off sofas and running around flailing your arms will ever be included as an Olympic sport).

The Games Are Inspiring

The Olympic games are inspiring for adults, and exciting for teens and children. Naturally, especially with all the nicely done (and not so nicely done) commercials out there, I started thinking about training kids to be athletes from a developmental researcher point of view. Granted, representing your country is awesome. Being crowned as the best in the world in anything must be such an incredible feeling that really no words can describe it. But you take one look at Muhammad Ali (roll to minute 6:00; he’s 54 in the video), and you realize this may come with a great price later on in life.

But The Price is High

And what about the price being paid early in life? The fact that there’s a book chapter discussing the increased possibility of child abuse in competitive sports is reason enough for pause. The issue of intensive training and its effects on physical development is obvious to anyone who is watching women’s gymnastics. In addition, imagine the pressure that young children experience when they are pushed by their parents to compete in games before they have the cognitive ability to understand formal rules (and, indeed, the point of a competition). This must result in some psychological effects. And these effects do not apply only to professional athletes. Practicing the piano for 4 hours a day is likely to have similar psychological effects. And what is the cost to the parent’s relationship with the child?

You could argue that being the first athlete in your country to ever win a gold medal in your field is worth the price of 5+ hours of training a day, not to mention the numerous hours (and funds) invested by the athletes and supporting family members in competing in various events. But consider this: what does a 15-year-old girl do after she has won an Olympic gold medal? Will anything she ever does compare with that rush?

Whose Dream is it Anyway?

So, am I vying for mediocrity? I don’t think so. I personally think that if your child is really gifted then it’s your responsibility to your child and to society to make sure they fulfill their potential – that they have the tools to make a difference in the field they’re in, be it professional sports, innovation, or music. But as a parent I believe it’s our responsibility to look at our motivation long and hard, and to ask ourselves: whose dream are we working towards making true?


2 thoughts on “Olympic Fever

  1. Great post! The odds of having an Olympic champion are so tiny, I think the rewards outweight the risk.

    Here’s another benefit to having a dedicated athlete child: it keeps them out of trouble. My own strategy is to back way off on sports and let my child try everything until she hits her early teen years, then help her to zoom in on something she can become serious about. I sailed through my teen years because of my focus on my sport. Have you ever met a young competitive rower or cyclist or gymnast who was rude to adults and wanted to sit around and play video games all day? Sports is an amazing set-up for life: dedication, handling success/failure, independence, respect for coaches and fellow athletes. It should be every parent’s card up the sleeve!

    1. Thanks! 🙂
      I agree with you that sports can give teens focus, but I have two points: first, it doesn’t have to be *professional* sports to give them all those good things you mentioned – recreational sports have those same benefits. Second, I think those benefits can be found in any focus – it can be acting, music, chess, knitting – whatever. I think teens need something to focus on that is not school, something that they can be passionate about. Adults need that too, by the way.
      As for your comment about all competitive athletes being respectful – I think there are quite a few examples in the current games that show otherwise (for instance, this: http://sports.nationalpost.com/2012/07/30/swiss-soccer-player-could-be-kicked-out-of-olympics-for-racist-tweet/). So I agree that sports give people focus, but I disagree that it’s fool-proof. I think it really depends on your coach(es), your parents, and your team.

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