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The Summer Games: Raising Olympian Michael Phelps

The opening ceremonies are upon us and Mark Hyman shares with us today a story of the parent of one of the many Olympians representing the U.S. in this summer's games. Hyman is contributing editor for sports business at BusinessWeek, and writes frequently about the business of sports, sports and law, and about the role of adults in youth sports. His book on the impact of parents, coaches and other adults on youth sports, Until It Hurts, will be published by Beacon Press in April 2009. Hyman's writing may be seen most often in BusinessWeek and Sports Business Journal, and has also appeared in Sports Illustrated, TV Guide, Inc., Best Life, Child Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

2118Not that long ago, I spent some time in the principal's office – about 45 minutes in a hardback chair, if I recall correctly.

I've been thinking about that visit and about the principal of Windsor Mill Middle School outside Baltimore, Debbie Phelps. Debbie will be in Beijing for the next two weeks for the Summer Olympics, which begin Friday. Her 23-year-old son, Michael, will be there too. Michael is the iconic American swimmer of whom much is expected by U.S. sports fans. He will be the favorite in every race he enters during the Summer Games. A record eight gold medals is a possibility. Fewer than six for Phelps would be a stinging disappointment. It's a good thing Michael Phelps has the broadest shoulders on the planet. He'll need them to carry those outsized expectations.

That trip to the principal's office was connected to a book I've just written for Beacon Press. It'll be out next April and the title is Until It Hurts. The book explores youth sports in America and the role (often misguided) of the adults in charge. The sports world we've created for kids isn't really about kids at all – that's the point of view expressed and documented in the book. More and more, it reflects the aspirations of adults, well-meaning and wrong. In short, adults like me. The regrettable result is that many kids are being pushed beyond physical and emotional limits. More in April.

The only way I knew to get started on the project was to strike out in every possible direction, interviewing parents, coaches, doctors and, in one case, the mother of a champion Olympic swimmer.

When I went to see Debbie, it was evident that I wasn't speaking to just another sports mom. We spoke about a trip she was planning to see Michael swim. Rome or Vienna or someplace similarly distant. She mentioned her own literary project, a book she would be writing about her experiences poolside, a guide to raising a humble, well-adjusted world record holder.

In other ways, I was struck that her story was so utterly unexceptional.

She had three kids, Michael being the youngest. She and her then husband lived in rural Maryland in a home surrounded by five acres. "I got the kids involved in as much as I could: baseball softball, gymnastics, tap, ballet, scouts. Michael was never a scout. But the girls were scouts," she told me.

The family belonged to swim club. Debbie says the main attraction was for her children to learn water safety. She wanted them to conquer any fears early in life.  In short order, the two girls were on the club swim team. Then champions. Then dreaming of the Olympics.

The Phelps sisters were such hotshots, a swim club in Baltimore more or less recruited them to join the swim team. Debbie shuttled them to practices with a new baby. Boy Michael spent hours, days, at the pool. "Michael grew up with the smell of chlorine. It was such a natural environment for him," Debbie explained.

There's more, obviously. I devote several pages to the Phelps family in my book.

As I sat with Debbie Phelps, I asked how she saw the role and responsibilities of a parent whose child is a superstar athlete. She told me that parents frequently approach her, asking the same thing. With a laugh, she also explained that they tell her she is a role model for them. Hard to say exactly what about Debbie they were modeling. Or maybe not so hard. My guess: raising the best swimmer in the world.

"People often wait around to speak with me, to ask questions. Like, 'My son was 9 he was doing this, and when he was 11 his time was that.' They're looking for answers. I just say, parent your child. Love them for who they are, whether they swim the fastest (butter)fly or finish eighth in their heat.

"To me, there's a very fine line between the athlete, coach and parent. Everyone has their roles. If you sat here right now and told me you'd give me $200 million to recite Michael's world fly record, I could not tell you that. Yet there are parents whose child is trying to beat my son who can spit out those things out. I don't get involved in that. I talk to Michael as a parent."

I asked Debbie what concerns her about the parents she runs into at swim meets.

The answer was somewhat impolitic. Yet it sounded like one that would come easily to a middle school principal. "They nag too much," she says.

"They go to an athletic event and their kid isn't doing their best time. They get upset with the child. They think that it always has to be better, better, better, better, not realizing that even for the most talented swimmers it's a progression."

"Parents just need to chill. Realize that it doesn't help to set expectations, especially unrealistic ones. Put yourself in their shoes. Do you map things out so carefully in your own life? Such as, 'I am going to be CEO of a company'? Does it fall out in nice little pockets? Same with kids. Their progression is not going to fall into nice little pockets. There may not be another Michael Phelps for decades, even though I have parents tell me their son is on the same track." As I left her office, I asked Debbie to let me know when her book was coming out, and told her I would very much like to read it. I suggested a publication date well after mine.

You might also be interested in Mark Hyman's Youth Sports Parents blog and his BusinessWeek article about overuse injuries and youth sports. The Baltimore Sun recently ran this article about Debbie Phelps and Jeanne Hoff, mother of Olympic swimmer Katie Hoff.