International competitions like the Tour de France, or the World Aquatic Championships now in progress in Montreal, motivate kids to take up sport. That’s good. But over-ambitious parents of talented kids don’t see their kids simply involved in these sports; they see them as future Lance Armstrongs or Alexandre Despaties. That’s bad. I’ve been there, done that.
My daughter, now a 30-something adult, was once my “Lance.” Before taking up her career as a sports sociologist, she spent her teens and 20s in the single-minded pursuit of athletic excellence, first in equestrian sport, then in long-distance triathlon. She’s experienced the thrill of victory, and the agony of hairline defeat in international competitions. Unlike countless other amateurs who only wonder how far they might have gone if they’d had the talent, determination and discipline, she actually did it.
Thus for quite a big chunk of my life I was a Sport Mum. A mediocre athlete myself, I took my daughter’s natural athletic talent and its implications as a personal gift. For 15 years, my life was dominated by her dreams, her grueling training schedule and competitions in towns nobody ever heard of. I was by turns her cheerleader, manager, travel companion, political trouble-shooter, motivational coach, and financial backer.
One thing you learn quickly: Talent alone is never enough in elite athletics. In fact, too much early success can breed overconfidence, unreasonable expectations and disrespect for coaches. The fulfillment of an athlete’s promise demands ongoing physical and psychological self-assessment, humility, patience and stoicism. It takes maturity—that is, the ability to defer short-term gratification to meet long-term goals. That’s a tall order for a youngster. To scale her personal Everest, a young athlete needs the fidelity of an emotional and managerial sherpa—parents or a committed mentor—willing to put in the time, whose reward lies in the athlete’s success.
Like other sport mums and dads, I have seen the elite sports world from backstage, and all the scenarios therein: the good, where talent, ambition and sensible parenting coalesce productively; the bad, where the athlete’s heart is willing, but the talent is inadequate to meet a pushy parent’s ambition; and the ugly—the athlete is talented but psychologically dependent on an ignorant and victory-obsessed parent acting on bad advice.
Once in their teens, competitors make it clear from the level of their determination and passion whether they are dilettantes or in it for the long haul. But triage is hastened by talent-seeking coaches, who are galvanized when they spot outstanding athleticism. That’s when the parent-wooing begins. If you remember the old Aesop’s fable, you’ll understand when I say that sport coaches are foxes, parents are crows, and talented kids are the grapes. “I’ve never seen a kid with a sense of balance like that,” murmured my daughter’s first riding coach. “She’s a natural.” Dazzled by a vision of my daughter joining the Canadian Olympic Team, the grapes tumbled out of my mouth, and into the hands of that canny coach.
There followed seven years of intense involvement in the cultish world of horse sport, during which I wised up about the so-called “glamour” of elite athletics. At first I was a bad Sport Mum—too emotionally invested in my own fantasies, too ribbons-hungry—and only gradually evolved into a good one. From a credulous groupie to the stars, I became a nimble advocate on my daughter’s behalf. We quit when the joy of competition yielded to intractable disillusionment with horse sport’s crooked back office.
My daughter then took up triathlon and I finally morphed into Super Sport Mum, fully sidelining my ego. I cared, but not too much. I offered earnest but disinterested advice. I assessed her mood and motivation levels, not her training. I attended races with a smile on my face, not a heart in my mouth. I was respectful and friendly to her coaches, and never second-guessed their programs. I set her free, and she soared high.
During the first half of my daughter’s athletic career, I trailed the peloton in Sport Parenting. But for the last half I wore an invisible yellow jersey. Lance wrote a book, It’s All About the Bike. Maybe one day I’ll write a book for Sport Parents: It’s All About the Tyke.