I can’t imagine that any parent would discourage their young child from following their dreams, no matter how lofty. However, as any parent of an elite athlete or Olympian will likely tell you, there’s a high price to pay - and not just financial - for this pursuit. A price many say is worth every penny and time spent, but one which both parent and child need to go into with their eyes wide open.
And how is a parent to know that their child’s goal is realistic? My advice is to take some direction from a coach or teacher who has likely worked with hundreds of other children your child’s age. The coach/teacher is likely able to spot exceptionality and to identify innate talent. Keep in mind, however, that the right amount of passion and desire, along with the right training, even when a child does not show great ability at a young age, can over time lead to a very exciting future for them.
Along the road to realizing their dream, you, your child, and any siblings will need to prepare for what lies ahead. If your child is to perform amongst other elite athletes, they will have to sacrifice a ‘normal’ childhood of hanging out with friends after school and attending weekend birthday parties, for example, in exchange for grueling training sessions. Your family may have to forfeit an annual vacation for time required traveling to competitions instead, and you may even have to turn down a job offer in another city so that your child may remain with their coach.
In addition, siblings may resent the time you’re putting into their brother or sister, and do not always feel the pride that you do.
So along the way, I suggest that you and your kids re-evaluate - at the end of each year, for example - the commitment to the lifestyle required of an elite athlete as well as the family. When you decide to stand behind your child’s passion and when you invest your time and money into it, remember that the investment is somewhat risky and does not guarantee only one outcome.
In addition, it’s important that parents enter into this commitment with the conviction to never guilt, shame, or pressure their child into continuing despite signs of extreme physical or mental fatigue. Hard physical work does pay off, but there is a great degree of mental stamina required, too, and there’s nothing shameful about realizing that the commitment required as your little athlete climbs the ranks is more than they (or you) can manage or that the activity is no longer pleasurable but only hard work and drudgery. After persisting through each new hurdle, both parent and child need to watch for the warning signs of burnout and to know when to bow out gracefully.
Also, keep in mind that although the long-term destination may be receiving a gold medal, the journey is equally important, no matter how far the distance. Along the way, you will have shown the kind of encouragement that helps your child feel very special and supported, and will likely have created a strong bond between you. Your child will have developed character by working as part of a team - both on and off the playing field. They will have developed a strong work ethic and gained a heightened level of responsibility. They will have learned about the importance of self-motivation and resilience.
And through it all, no matter the extent that your child takes their love and determination for a specific activity, try not to have their athletic skills define who they are. Remember to compliment them when they’re loyal to their peers, when they support siblings, or when they give you a hand around the house. Then, when or if your child decides that they want to live a different lifestyle, they will not feel worthless outside of being an athlete.
After seeing the loving connection, the pride, and joy that parents of Olympic athletes show their children in front of the world, one has to believe that the sacrifices and the commitment are worth helping your child pursue or fulfill their dream.
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