Over and over again I have been watching the Proctor and Gamble commercial advertising Olympic moms and their dedication to their children's sport. Honestly, the first time I watched the commercial I thought that the child might be sick because of the dramatic music and then it wasn't until the end of the commercial that I realized she was a gymnast! After that, the next ten times I saw the commercial, I got all emotional and wanted to go over and give my own mother a great big hug. Now, after about a hundred times, this commercial is just fatiguing. However, so far in this Olympics- engulfed in controversy unsurprisingly, is the importance and dominance of Olympic parents.
When we watch Michael Phelps win his medal(s) the camera will appropriately cut to Phelps' mother and all of America will give a collective "awwwww" moment. And, no doubt, if you have been watching the Olympics so far you have seen the viral video of American gymnast Aly Reisman's parents. The parents of gymnasts Aly Raisman have gotten particular attention for their antics in the stands. When Raisman, mounted the uneven bars in London, her parents, Lynn and Rick, were caught on camera squirming and yelling "Stick it! Stick it!" over and over again. Rebecca Dana points out on The Daily Beast, "their stardom is part of a larger trend in these Olympic games. The middle-aged American parent who has given her life savings and every waking moment over to her child's athletic ambition is this year's undisputed Olympic champion...," Dana writes. "Olympic parents are natural stars," according to the Beast.
In the Rasiman's defense, I think that it would be impossible for any parent to sit calmly and quietly and watch their son or daughter compete at the Olympic games- especially when a gold medal is on the line and ESPECIALLY in USA women's gymnastics which is one of the sweetheart events for Americans.
However, with the emphasis on parents, this has brought into light some of the hyper-competitiveness that some parents bring to the table in sports. In the USA, almost 30 million boys and girls under 18 play some kind of organized sport, according to the National Council on Youth Sports. But over the last decade, parents have been pushing their children to outshine all the other kids at almost any cost with children as young as 3 signing up for swimming and gymnastics programs. "Youth sports have clearly become more professionalized in recent years," says Gregg Heinzmann, associate director of New Jersey's Rutgers Youth Sports Research Council. "Many more parents want to see their kids achieve some level of success, be it athletic scholarship or in certain cases a pro sports contract." Youth sports activist Bob Bigelow calls it "the Tiger Woods syndrome" where parents think they have to push their children at an extremely young age. "It's parents like that who are ruining youth sports by treating their kids like miniature adults," says Bigelow, a former first-round NBA draft pick and author of "Just Let The Kids Play."
This environment can transform into excessively involved parents ready to blast at any coach, referee or other parent who inhibits with their own children's performances. Some parents will go to extreme lengths for the win. Among the shocking stories I found online was a news article from the Daily Mail that reported how parents even cheated for their children. A survey was conducted and can you believe that out of the 2,000 parents was one mother who admitted using chewing gum to gain an advantage in the egg-and-spoon race. I mean- COME ON!
In addition, 'Sideline rage' is turning into an epidemic across the world. Shamefully, a hockey practice for 9 and 10-year-olds in Massachusetts turned deadly when a father became infuriated over his son taking an elbow to the face. The father started to argue with another father and the irate dad killed the other man by banging his head repeatedly on the concrete floor. In Manitoba a few years ago, a father was watching his son play hockey when he got into an argument with a parent from the losing team. The first dad seized the man by his sweater and slammed him into a wall. Other parents had to separate the men and escorted the dad out of the building. When the other dad later left the arena, the first dad threatened to kill him. We have no idea who won the game by the way. I guess the dads just wanted to win very desperately.
But, if parents took a step back and looked at the numbers they would notice that a 2001 study by the National Alliance for Youth Sports found that 70 percent of American kids who sign up for sports quit by the time they were 13 because "it wasn't fun anymore." Picking up a contract in the National Basketball Association is a 1 in 10,000 chance. The odds of winning an Olympic gold medal are 1 in a million.
In Canada, we have all heard the stories about hockey moms. As Sarah Palin so eloquently once said, the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick. So many hockey parents take their children's hockey uber-seriously. But the chances of making it pro are slim at best. One study shows that out of 232 players drafted to the OHL, only 105 ever played one game in the OHL and out 30,000 players, only 42 played NCAA Division I hockey and only 56 players either drafted or signed with a National Hockey League team. Of the 48 drafted players only 39 signed contracts with NHL teams and only 32 have seen action to date in an NHL game. Worse, of the 32 players with NHL experience, only 15 have played more than one full NHL season!
This is not to say that kids should not get involved in hockey and that parents should not invest time and effort into helping their children succeed. It's just that sometimes parents get carried away and can cause harm.
In my sport, it's easy for parents to try to coach their children. Sometimes the mantra of more miles, more results, is adopted and young runners end up burnt out or they quit and talent gets wasted. It's easy to get swept up in the young success. However, obviously it's helpful to have a parent who is willing to help. My mom would drive me to my practises before I got my licence and dad would come on his lunch break to watch me race during high school. They know what my PBs are and they know my rivals and goals- mostly because I tell them and we talk often about it. However, there is a distance between my running and my parents.
I think that parents' involvement in their children's sport is essential. But it is a very particular kind of involvement. It requires the parent to have boundaries between parents and coaches and they need to know that when it does come down to it, the child needs to be having fun. Whether they are a child prodigy destined for Olympic glory, or they haven't got a snowball's chance in Hawaii to make it, there should be no excuse for parents to cheat, lie, or violent push their way into sports. Supporting your child's dream is a virtuous quality. After all, who is it that sets the alarm and drives their children through snowstorms and traffic in order for them to get to practise on time? Sometimes, you get to be the mom whose child quits and it appears as if the investment was all for not. Sometimes you get to Ms. Phelps' or the Proctor and Gamble parents. I know that in our Olympic fever, it is easy to get caught up in the medal count and the win, but one day those kids turn out to be parents themselves and what kind of generation of fear would we be raising is every parents went ballistic.
Now that Aly Raisman has advanced to the all-around final on Thursday, Lynn and Rick Raisman will no doubt be front and centre as well, with any luck; Aly will "stick it."