Could You Be the Parent of an Olympian?

As the families of the world gather around their TVs to watch Olympic athletes perform unbelievable feats of strength, speed, and agility, I wonder how many mothers out there are thinking to themselves: Could my child be an Olympian?

I already know my children will not be for various reasons, not the least of which is because I know I don’t have the drive or the discipline to do what the parents of Olympic athletes do. Who wakes up and makes breakfast at 5 am for practice everyday? Who drives to and attends all those practices, meets, matches, games, tournaments, and competitions? Who pays for the training, the uniforms, the various fees, the travel? Who sacrifices their own interests and ambitions (and maybe those of their other children) for the success of their young Olympian? The parents, of course! And while the athletes themselves certainly have natural talent, discipline, and drive of their own, there’s a reason the media frequently highlights the parents–they are a big reason their child is where they are.

But it isn’t just my love of sleep and a lack of self-discipline that leads me to the conclusion that my kids will not be headed to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The other reason is the one that matters most: being an Olympic athlete is just not a priority in our family. As much as I admire anyone who qualifies to compete in the Olympics, I’m just not the type who could eat, drink, sleep, and breathe only one thing for years on end. Both my husband and I agree that we are definitely the well-rounded, Jack-of-all-trades type, and there’s no doubt that will rub off on our children. Do we still prioritize success? Of course we do! Just not of the Olympic variety.

Even so, every time the Olympics rolls around and I hear the personal stories of the athletes and their families, I start second guessing myself as these tough questions roll around in my head: Am I doing all I can to nurture the potential in each of my children? Should I be pushing my children harder? In what areas do I want my children to succeed? Should I choose early on what I think they should succeed in or let them find their own way and in their own time? Which areas should take priority? Is it different for individual children? Isn’t being a kind, moral, hard working person the most important thing anyway? Isn’t it even better if you can be all those things and also succeed in academics/sports/music/the arts? Won’t the process of trying to succeed in those areas actually help them become those good people on the inside?

It reminds me of the discussions last year surrounding the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Would Amy Chua’s daughter have become a concert pianist if she hadn’t driven her incessantly to practice for hours on end at the expense of other “normal” childhood activities? No way! But was that the right sacrifice to make for that child? The right priority? And therein lies the debate. In the end, only the parent (and eventually, the child) can answer that question, and that’s always going to be a tough one to answer.

This leads me to the question of all questions: What’s the definition of success anyway? Is it simply being the best in something? You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule which says that–contrary to the popular belief that success is often based on innate talent–anyone can master a skill with just 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. (In case you’re wondering, that’s 3 hours of practice every day for 10 years.) So is that the formula for success? 1) Choose a “talent” for your child. 2) Drive them to do that thing for 10,000 hours. 3) Sit back and enjoy success. Somehow it doesn’t seem to be that cut and dried.

And what happens if you put in your 10,000 hours and you still don’t come out on top? Watching the Russian female gymnast cry after earning a silver medal made me feel sad for her. Not because she “lost”, but because she couldn’t rejoice in the silver medal. A silver medal in the all around women’s gymnastics competition at the Olympics seems like a huge accomplishment in my mind. (But what do I know about the inner workings of an Olympic athlete!) Personally, I would hope that both my children and I would always feel their personal best was worth a gold, even if it meant they came in second (or third, or fourth).

How important is it for you to have your child be the valedictorian, the first chair violin, the star quarterback of the football team? How often does your definition of success reflect your own priorities based on societal pressures or your own unfulfilled childhood dreams, and how often are your definitions of success driven by your children’s priorities and goals? And at what point do we let them decide these things for themselves?

Whatever conclusion you come to, and I’m certainly still working it out for myself (maybe I’ll figure it out by the time my last child graduates from high school!), I think the most important parenting lesson to be learned from the Olympic experience is this: Success, no matter what your definition, can be achieved as you help your child learn how to set goals and then make the sacrifices and do the work to reach them. Sounds simple enough, right?

Do I think Olympians and their parents are crazy to do what they do in the quest for a gold medal? A little bit. But I also greatly admire their ability to prioritize what matters most to them and then sacrifice and work their tails off to achieve success.

As for me and my kids? Well, we’re happy to sit back and watch it all happen on TV.

QUESTION: How do you define success? Do your children feel the same way? How do you prioritize your children’s success?

CHALLENGE: Work on finding your personal answers to some of the tough questions above. Talk them out with your children.




  1. Cheryl says

    I know I couldn’t be the parent of an Olympian especially after watching a story of Gabby Douglas moving 2000 miles away for training. Would not could not do it! My nieces are amazing gymnasts and are on the verge of making it to a very elite level. They are both stopping because they don’t want to spend 30 hours a week at the gym. They want or be more wel rounded.

  2. Ericka Winkfield says

    This was an interesting article to read. I had a hard time with taking the whole well-rounded issue and comparing it to the Olympians. An Olympian’s heart is one that I don’t think most of us should question and some may not even understand. I believe Olympians have been given special talents. We should be very careful to judge what they choose, even if we think they have paid to high of a price. Gabby Douglas gave her praise and honor to the Lord. How can we judge someone else’s price or choice they have made to come to know themselves or God. As for the Russian gymnast that cried over the silver medal – Do we really know why she cried or are we guessing why she cried? No one could ever become an olympian unless they really believed in their heart that they could make it. Children need to experience natural consequences even if they hurt at times. It’s okay to see your child cry after they have worked so hard on something and they knew they could have done better in at that one moment. Isn’t that what life is all about? Sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to. Even though children know that they are worth gold deep down, life will often judge them as silver. Yes it hurts and yes it is sad. That is why we have mothers to help them along their journey and to remind them that they are worth gold. Every child is differnt, but if you had a child with a deep dream, I think as a mother you would be surprised what you would do to support your child in that dream. My mother taught me that the sky is the limit and I know for many that is a ‘false’ idea to present a child. I want my children to feel the sky is the limit. Why? Because if we as mothers can not believe in there dreams, who will? I don’t want my children to grow up thinking, it is too hard, too long, or too much money. I compare it to hiking in the mountains. Many trails I go on, I am not sure if I would have ever started if I saw some of the steep slopes. At the end, looking down at the grand view from the top makes it all worth it. Remember, hikes happen one step at a time. I don’t think most of our children’s dream will end up taking them 2,000 miles away from home. At the age of 13, my mother and I lived apart for 3 years. Yes, it was difficult. But, during that time I grew and developed characteris that have shaped my life for the better. Everyone wants a well-rounded child, and just as children are so different so are the roads they can travel to becoming well-rounded. Looking back, my mother and I are grateful for that opportunity. I would do it again. For most children this will never be the case, but remember not to judge other choices. We can never really understand another’s heart.

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