10 things I’ve learned about parenting a young athlete

Parenting a young athlete can be a demanding role but it’s one that you can put in a gold medal performance with, if you focus on what your child wants and see sport as just part of their life.
I'm the mother of a young athlete. I also have two other children who are convinced we don't love them as much. It's a fair call because we don't spend as much money on them, nor as much time. But they also know we didn't choose it this way.

The role of parents in an athlete’s world

Parenting is difficult at the best of times, and I share my thoughts on the myth of the perfect parent in another article, but when you have an athlete in the family, you also take on the role of being their manager. You only have to watch how that works out for some tennis players to know that people who don't have skills in this field can really mess up the opportunities and ultimately the career of the child, if they don't get their parenting role right. All of these aspects of parenting an athlete are things that you don't think about or even know about at the beginning of the journey.
Our young teen jumped into a sports five years ago and has shown some natural talent at it. But I've now discovered that this is only one part of becoming an athlete, a really small part. As this diagrams shows, a big aspect of sporting performance comes from their mindset and support network. Parents of athletes not only have to make those managerial decisions, pay the coaching and competition bills, provide nourishing meals and ferry their kids to and from training, they also have a big part to play in how their child's self-talk develops alongside their fitness and skills.

Impact of psychology on sports performance (image from article by Tom Ballard, on BikeRadar website)

I’ve found that my daughter now spends more time with other adults than she does with me and her dad. That means we have to make the most of those moments when she is receptive to a conversation and build on our relationship bit by bit. The struggle that all parents have with getting their teenage daughters to talk is made all the more difficult when they are working through thoughts relating to their sport and are barely around the house.

At the end of the day, I think as parents, we need to concentrate on ensuring the young athlete’s sport fits around or contributes to three things in their life: fun, friendship and family.

Living with a young athlete

If you’re like us, you may have found yourself parenting an athlete, rather than choosing that path yourself. I know there are people that decide when their child is born that they’ll play football for Manchester United, or swim for Australia, but I don’t think most of us actually do that.

You enrol your darling offspring in a once-a-week class and before you know it you’re adding in another afternoon and Saturday morning. It’s all very exciting for them to be one of the chosen ones! But then at some point down the road you find yourself rolling out of bed at 5am most mornings and doing a 7.30pm pick up as well. Not to mention contributing a large sum of money to your physiotherapist’s mortgage.

Here are 10 things I’ve learned along the way as the mother of an athlete:

  1. Having an athlete is expensive. Only the very best get any real assistance with the cost of training, travel and competition entries, so you have to have pretty deep pockets to finance an athlete’s career, or find creative ways to manage the costs. Sometimes it can be really hard to be the only parent saying “no”, but I’ve also found that there is a great appreciation for what the family does put in.
  2. Sport is a selfish beast. If you have a committed athlete in your family, you’re likely to find that everyone else has to bow to the demands of that sport. We haven’t had a family holiday for 2 years because of our daughter’s training commitments, and while we have all accepted that, it makes it hard for our extended family who would like to see us more.
  3. You can’t treat young athletes like your other kids. I am a bit of a “hard knocks” mother when it comes to injuries, so I’ve always pushed the kids for a day or two before I take them to the doctor, only to find out the poor thing has a broken arm. With an athlete, you can’t really do that. Training on an injury could make it worse and that could rule them out of their sport for longer or prolong their recovery time. That means for what is usually a small issue you can end up on a merry-go-round of specialist and physio appointments, not to mention stocking up on large quantities of sports tape.
  4. They may choose their sport over school. If young people are really motivated to go as far in their sport as they can, they may choose to focus more on that than school. You may even have to look at how you can make school fit around their training and competing, rather than the other way. If you don’t feel comfortable about this, you’re going to have to talk about it early in your child’s athletic career. Some teens do a great job of doing both, but some might not cope with all those expectations, so you just have to be ready.
  5. There are far more hard days that podium moments. They may spend all year working up to two or three competitions that really matter. And these competitions might give them one chance to qualify for the next one. Not getting everything right on that day could mean they need to head back to the training hall for another 9 months before they can have another shot at making that team. Other people often only see the joyful days when it all comes together, but there are lots of early mornings and late nights that contribute to those magical moments, along with plenty tears and the odd mental block.
  6. Despite their talent, they are still children or teenagers. You will still get all the issues of childhood and puberty when parenting an athlete, and often these come up when they are under the most stress. This is where parents can play a key role in creating a bit of space and helping them process their thoughts and emotions. They can often develop a bit of an “old head on young shoulders” but they still need plenty of guidance and teaching to get through all the challenges of adolescence.
  7. Young athletes can find it difficult when their identity is all about their sport. For kids who show a lot of promise, people can tend to see them just as an athlete. It’s really important to help them have places where they are able to be a different version of themselves. They also need times where they can be less serious, less focused and more of a kid.
  8. Time is a precious commodity. Kids who are seriously committed to one sport don’t have a lot of down time. In fact they might not have much time to do anything but sleep, train and go to school. While it makes them great time managers, it can also be overwhelming for them, and they often miss out on things their friends are doing because of their training schedule. Sometimes you have to advocate for them to miss out on something so they can just be a kid for an hour or two.
  9. It has to be their dream, not yours. When a young person shows some talent, lots of people will tell you what you should do to further their career and give them the best opportunities you can. It can be quite heady stuff, particularly if you don’t know much about the sport and aren’t particularly sporty yourself. What I have found though, is that the more you let your athlete decide what they are going to do and to weigh up the options, the clearer the path forward becomes. Something that was a dream a year ago, might not be such a burning desire in the future, so giving them control of the process means they never feel pressured to put their own desires behind everyone else’s.
  10. One day it will come to an end. Every athlete finishes competing at some point in their life. For some it might come sooner than expected through injury, or others may prolong their career by switching to a different sport. So many young athletes struggle when they “retire” that it’s important to have them thinking about what life will be like when they do quit, even if that feels like it’s some years away.

I love having a young athlete in our family! Their dedication and work ethic is truly inspiring. It never ceases to astound me how well kids can compete with each other but truly wish the best for one another as well. When the tough times roll around it can be so hard to watch them struggle through it, and you could almost wish they weren’t so dedicated. But then where would the world be without people who chased after dreams, pushed their bodies and science to the limits and gave us all a demonstration of just what the human body can do with hard work?

{Copyright acknowledgement} The diagram above of the impact of psychology in sports performance is not my own work. I found it using Google, but the article by Tom Ballard that it appeared on BikeRadar in 2014 has some great advice for cyclists that parents of all athletes should find helpful.

What do you think? Are you the parent of a young athlete? I’d love you to share the lessons you’ve learned.

This article was originally published on the Tweens2teen website and has been republished with permission.

Rachel Doherty

Rachel Doherty is the founder of Tweens2teen. She’s a social worker, teacher and the mother of 3 teenagers. In her spare time she trains youth workers and does a lot of washing and cooking. You can read more of her work on her website – tweens2teen.com

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