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Want to raise a gold medallist? Six tips for sporting success

Leisel Jones (centre, in 2010) has 10 gold Commonwealth medals to her name – on par with Susie O'Neill and Ian Thorpe. Is the next swimming star in your family? AAP/Dave Hunt

Want to raise a gold medallist? Six tips for sporting success

Australia has kicked off the Commonwealth Games with a bang, winning 17 medals in the first day of competition, including five gold medals.

The women’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay had a particularly successful race, smashing a five-year World Record.

Now picture your young son or daughter watching the race, then turning to you and saying: “I want to do that.”

Let’s imagine you’re not a complete novice to sport, and you’re fully aware that substantial sacrifices, early-mornings (or late nights), and an array of upsetting defeats and injury setbacks lie ahead of the child choosing such a path (with no guarantee whatsoever of becoming world champion).

There are certainly stories of parents who have deliberately raised their children to become world-beaters in sport: the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods and Andre Agassi.

What cost a few early mornings, a few extra coaching lessons, or a summer camp every year, compared to the returns on your investment?

The cons of turning pro

First of all, we need to remember the odds of the bet. While the rewards are enormous, the numbers wouldn’t appeal to many investors.

martha_chapa95/Flickr, CC BY

The American National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) examined the raw numbers and found of athletes still competing at age 14 (which is many fewer than first started):

  • only 0.03% (1 in 3,300) will turn pro at basketball
  • 0.09% (one per 100 full competitive teams) for soccer
  • 0.08% (1 in 1,300) in gridiron.

And turning pro is still a long way short of becoming world champion. There are much better ways of making money.

There is also a significant bias in relying on the stories of celebrities (known as the survivors fallacy). We don’t hear from the numerous athletes who were pushed by their parents but who never made it. What costs and damage might they report if we offered them the platform of celebrity?

To exclusively seek global success grossly underestimates the value of what sport can teach us:

  • winning and losing gracefully
  • self-organisation
  • goal-setting skills
  • dealing with criticism
  • communication
  • moral awareness.

In addition, children who participate in regular physical activity are the same ones who tend to be active later in life, with all the health benefit that brings.

Six main messages

Kingston and Districts National Association, CC BY

Reflecting on my research over the past few years, here are a few hints and tips offered by interviewees: some of whom were children and adolescents, and some of whom were the elite athletes who had, indeed, made it.

1. Don’t force it: many athletes report a key moment where they realised they didn’t want to compete any more, and in many cases their parents pushed, guilt-tripped and cajoled them into continuing.

External inducement like this can be termed extrinsic motivation.

Consider this quote from an elite athlete, talking about a world champion friend of hers:

Like when [he] was younger he went through a phase of not really liking [his main sport] and I think [his mum] was obviously aware of the knock on consequences, but she didn’t want to like force him to do it. He was actually quite into [another sport] and he got offered a contract in that […] and I didn’t see him for a while, like a couple of years […] but then he just got back into this which is obviously in his favour.

Remember, this boy went on to become world champion.

Contrast that, however, against the story of Jonny Wilkinson, who at the age of nine wrote an essay explaining his plans to play rugby for England.

At 12, he announced to his teacher: “I want to play for England, that’s all I want.”

… and a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal won the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England.

If this is the attitude you’re faced with, your child is probably intrinsically motivated, and all you have to do is facilitate and stay out of the way!

2. Just help, no strings attached: a key idea that comes from athletes, young and old, is the “conditionality” of parental support. The less parents attach strings to their support (and affection), the more kids just feel free to play, learn and improve.

This quote from an international female footballer sums it up:

Even like, less than a year ago when I wanted to go out and do something on the field, that involved like crossing a ball. My dad is like, as unfit as anything, but he came down and fetched the ball for me […] They don’t have to do it with you but they’re there just helping […] If I asked him tomorrow, to go down and like throw the ball for, like, 50 headers, he’d be there without a shadow of a doubt.

Andrew Malone/Flickr, CC BY

3. Don’t be a coach, be a parent: athletes across the spectrum reported frustrations when parents tried to coach them, and offered the advice that at best: “just reinforce what the coach has told me to work on.”

But actually parents don’t need to do the coaching – they need to provide emotional and material support along a journey that is, by definition, challenging. As noted by a European archery champion:

My mum hasn’t got the first clue about archery. I could turn round to her and […] with a big beaming smile, and tell her I shot an impossible score and she might turn round and say: “never mind you’ll do better next time!” And you know […] she is my number one fan, she gives me the emotional support.

Likewise, this nine-year-old who plays football and cricket expressed himself well:

They do want you to win. But if you like try too hard, and then make a terrible mistake, and like cost the game, your friends will be like: “What did you do that for?” Whereas your dad knows why you did that, and he’s done it loads and loads of times before, and he’s not really bothered. He knows what it feels like when everyone’s putting pressure on you.

clogsilk/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

4. Leave it all at the oval (or court or pool or track): in the same way that we often want to leave work at the office, our kids often want to leave their sport behind once it’s done. But in interviews, I heard stories of parents offering feedback on the car ride home, over dinner and even at bed time.

A nine-year-old boy told me:

When you’re playing a match, like if you missed it, if you did like a terrible shot and it went miles wide, they’d remember it, and then at the dinner table they’d say “remember that shot that you kicked miles wide?” And you’re like “I thought you’d forgotten about that”.

5. They will remember it: one pleasant message in our research was that while children may not appreciate it at the time, once they grew into adults they invariably valued the support their parents provided.

An elite football player told me:

You wanna repay them, ‘cause of all those nights they probably wanted be at home sat down and chilling out […] they came out in the car, in the cold in the winter, and in the dark and waited for you to finish […] you just wanna repay them back for what they’ve done for you.

kathy/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

6. Go and watch: in a yet to be published study, we analysed which key themes linked together in people’s narratives. Parents being physically present at training and competition was a root cause of many of the motivational influences parents exerted (positive and negative!).

Time together (such as travelling), a shared experience, working towards shared goals – all things that build a strong relationship and allow you to be a bigger part of your child’s life as they grow up.

As noted above, “winning” at sport can be taken to mean a lot of things. If we want our child to get the most out of participation in sport (including the health benefits), then the most important message we need to send to our kids is: they’ll always be winners in our eyes.