Mark Hyman is a sports journalist and the author of Until It Hurts: America's Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids and The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families.
Today's post is Mark's response to the question "Are Olympic Parents Supportive or Overbearing?" for the New York Times Room for Debate blog.
The United States Olympic team comprises 529 athletes, and it’s difficult to generalize about who they are. They represent 25 sports. They come from 44 states. The tallest is 7-foot-1. The shortest is 4-foot-11. There’s a 15-year-old swimmer and an equestrian athlete who could be her grandmother.
The parents of these athletes are equally diverse. No doubt, many are perfectly wonderful. For years, they’ve shouldered the responsibilities of sports parenthood without complaint or expectation. Some go to Olympic venues where their children are competing and hold their emotions completely in check. Others like Lynn and Rick Raisman, parents of the gymnast Aly Raisman, don’t even try. The last time I checked, video of the Raismans’ synchronized squirming had passed 100,000 views on YouTube.
Exuberant parents aren’t the problem in youth sports. Overzealous, overly ambitious parents are. Undoubtedly, they are part of the U.S. delegation too. As parents, we make a horrible mistake when we confuse our ambitions with what kids truly want and need from sports. I’ve been writing about the issue for years yet I’m still taken aback by some of the stories. A noted orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles who operates on the damaged elbows and shoulders of youth pitchers once told me of a recurring conversation he has with patients. A young person confides that he does not want an operation and would prefer to quit his sport. But he’s stuck. “I don’t know what to do because I don’t want to disappoint my parents. It’s so important to my dad.”
Extreme Olympic parenting has been well documented. In her classic book "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," Joan Ryan exposed the culture of excessive, often abusive, training including the story of a 14-year-old gymnast who suffered a broken wrist in the gym. Rather than take a break, she dulled the pain each day with prescription drugs and a dozen Advil. Subtract the parallel bars and it sounds like child abuse.
All the more reason to celebrate parents who keep things in perspective -- even if they don’t always stay in their seats.