Raising an Olympian

One mom weighs in the commitment, sacrifices, and drive behind raising a future Olympian, and when a sport can just be a hobby, not a career.



How do you raise an Olympic athlete? The first question you want to ask yourself is not “How?’ it’s "Why?" Do you want your child to be an Olympic athlete, because it is their dream, or yours? In the former case there is a foundation for success, as you are supporting your child in something they have a burning desire to do.  In the latter case, it can be a recipe for disaster and ultimately lead to the disintegration of your relationship. I have not raised any Olympic athletes, but I have a dear friend who was a nationally ranked athlete and continues to coach athletes who have gone to the Olympics. She concurs that there's a lot of gray area in between those two ends of the spectrum, but the rule hold true: if you’re raising an athlete in the United States, successful Olympic dreams are athlete driven and parent supported, not the other way around.

Being an U.S. Olympic athlete is beyond difficult. There are three requirements: mastery of the sport by the athlete, exceptional coaching, and long-term parent support.

The mastery requires an almost superhuman focus of long hours, little to no social life, and a lifestyle that is sparse on luxury. There is very little gold on the road to a gold medal. All money and time is spent on training. Having a well-rounded childhood is not a possibility for an Olympian in training. This is why the dream must be child-driven, or it will fall apart.

The coaching required to become an Olympian does not come cheap or easy. It requires that parents bring their kids to the ideal coach, whatever that may entail. Not just any coach will get your kid to the Olympics; they are a rare breed, and they run the show. Olympic programming is completely coach driven and to be successful, parents must sit on the sideline. That is why the next requirement is so important.

Parent support must be ongoing and committed. An athlete cannot do it all alone, no matter how talented they are. The parents must commit to long term financial, emotional and physical support on the medal road. All of this is without any guarantee that their athlete will make the team. That’s a tall order for any parent, especially if they don’t have a flush bank account. The time and monetary commitment scares off most parents before they even start, especially if their child does not live and breathe that sport.

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In my own life I have a story about volleyball. My daughter plays volleyball with a girl who is a volleyball phenomenon. She wants to go to the Olympics, and she's doing everything in her power to make that happen. She has great skill (as a 14-year-old, she plays on a 16-year-old team who has won every championship they've entered), but, more than that, she really wants it. She is fortunate to have parents who support that desire. Her mom drives nine hours a week and sits outside a closed practice for six hours-every week. This is with a public schooled kid. A great number of Olympic athletes are tutored, so that they can practice daily. She attends national qualifiers and camps to better her exposure. This family is all about volleyball, all the time. But it's not parent driven; it's parent supported. The drive comes from within that athlete.

And then there's my daughter. She has great talent and potential, but she doesn't have Olympic drive. She doesn't want to sacrifice that much of her life for volleyball, and that's okay with her. However it is not so easily accepted by me. I am hyper competitive by nature. Even though I was never an athlete, I live for a challenge—the harder the better. My daughter is not like that. I had to do a lot of my own work on my disappointment and what it meant to me that my daughter wasn't driven to be the best of the best. I had to walk my talk and meet my daughter where she was, not where I thought she should be. When I got right down to it, I am not willing to go the distance either. I’m not an Olympic parent—and that’s okay.

I talk a lot about plugging-in to your kids where they are, not where you think they should be. When you make it a priority to support your kids in their dreams, you can help them in a way that isn't dragging them behind you or pushing them ahead of you. You can reach a place where you walk side-by-side. Whether that means you’re walking down the road to a medal or not depends upon your child’s desire, not yours.