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Desire To Excel in Sports Needs To Be Child's, Not Parent's

Fuzzy line between supportive and pushy

When sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland attempted to sail around the world solo a couple of years back, physiologists, bloggers and just about everybody else seemed to have an opinion. People were debating her age, ability, her parent's judgment and whether it was her personal ambition or something her parents "pushed" her into. 

In other words, when is the desire to excel a child's and when is it the parents'?  When does a parent cross the line from supportive to pushy?

When information came out about hwo Abby's parents were shopping for a reality show - and the potential fame and money that would go along with it - people on both sides of the issue at least had to stop and consider the motives of everyone involved.

As a parent you always needs to think about your motives for encouraging your child to play a certain sport or to attain a specific goal. Your child doesn't have to dream of sailing around the world for her to feel pressure from you, whether it be real or perceived pressure.

Childhood dream

Your child has dreams and goals, and she may be tempted to compare herself and compete with other kids she sees doing some pretty amazing things.

Being motivated by other children to strive and accomplish things can be a positive thing for your child as long as the desire is your child's and she is focused on doing the best she can instead of constantly comparing herself to other children.

It's natural and healthy for you child to be setting goals, even lofty ones, and you should encourage and foster it. Whether you feel your child's safety, maturity and skills are adequate enough to accomplish the goal at any given time is an entirely different issue.

Line is fuzzy

As a parent we all want what is best for our child, but sometime the line between what's best and what you want for her gets fuzzy. It is often parents who do the comparing between their child and others.

No matter what your child's dreams, goals and activities are, the question you need to ask yourself is whether it is something your child wants, or something you want her to do.

Think back to when you were young. What sports did you play? How were you introduced to them? Was it your idea to play the sport or were you guided into that sport? What sport do you wish you had played?

Your sport or hers?

Many of us chose to play the same sport our parents played. Kids naturally want to be like their parents (until they're teenagers, of course!), and parents want to share their interests with their children. Your child may feel pressured to play the same sport you did or do, even though she really isn't interested in it. Never force a sport on her; let your child find a sport she is passionate about. By forcing her into a sport, she may end up hating the very thing you want her to love. My husband Chris and I joke that we hope our kids won't end up wrestlers or cyclists like us. If we are going to push them into anything it's going to be golf, tennis, or any other sport in which they can, if they are lucky, get a good scholarship in and, if they are really lucky, play professionally.

My parents toured on bikes. That is how my sister, Becca, and I started riding and then racing while we were fairly young. I really liked it, my little sister liked it too, but she didn't love it and she got sick of being in my shadow. Since I was three years older everyone was always comparing her to me (not my parents, but people in general.) She has told me that she thought for a long time that she just didn't have discipline and dedication, because she wasn't all that interested in practicing. Ultimately, she just didn't like cycling enough to want to work that hard. She won a track national championship title at the age of twelve and yet ended up quitting the sport. I know she felt guilty about quitting because it was what our family "did."

Of course, there was nothing wrong with her wanting to do something else, but she still felt badly. She eventually found two sports she really loved: soccer and running. She realized she did have a good work ethic once she was doing something she truly wanted to do. She went on to get a full scholarship for running.

Mom teaching child to roller bladeSo, if you feel like you're always dragging your child to her practice or games, ask yourself if it is something she wants or something you want. Maybe your child is ready to try something new. There is a whole world of sports out there that your child probably knows nothing about. Encourage her to try new things and help her find her passion.

Remember, just because your child wants to play a different sport than you, doesn't mean you can't share the sport you love with her. She will probably be much more willing to play with you if she is allowed to choose a sport or activity that she wants to do.

Living through your child?

There are lots of benefits to keeping your child involved in sports, even if she isn't the best at it. Sports encourage healthy lifestyle choices and teach many of other skills that will help her in all aspects of her life. Not every kid has aspirations of making an Olympic team, some are more ambitious than others and there is nothing wrong with your child wanting to play simply for the love of the game.

As parents we all have unfulfilled dreams and ambitions; be very careful not to live out your unfulfilled dreams through your child. Let her have her own dreams.

So, as we all debate the Sunderland family's decision, take a good long look in the mirror at yourself. Talk to your child. Ask her what her interests and goals are. You might be surprised. Try to be supportive, not pushy!

Erin Mirabella is a two-time Olympic track cyclist, mother, MomsTeam's track cycling expert, and children's book author.  Her books, Shawn Sheep The Soccer Star and Gracie Goat's Big Bike Race are available online at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, borders.com, velogear.com, and at The Olympic Training Centers and select stores.  For more information visit Erin's website.

Created June 18, 2010; revised January 9, 2012


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