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Parents as enablers not motivators

By Katrina Gallic, 07/20/16, 4:30PM CDT


Career decisions of Olympians Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas offer insight on the role of parents in youth sports

With the ever mounting expectations on parents to provide the best opportunities for their kids, decisions about how kids should be coached become more and more difficult to make.

How can I help my kids be successful? 

Should I send them to an elite sports program or keep them in their local club? 

Am I pushing them to be better or pushing them too much?

These are some of the hardest questions for the parents of young athletes. And there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. Too much training can lead to burnout. Not enough could mean lost opportunities like college scholarships.

The parents of swimming superstar Missy Franklin felt the same pressure. When Missy began to really shine in the pool (at just 13) D.A. and Dick Franklin were continually told to move from Colorado to a state with more renowned elite programs, such as California or Texas.

When The Wall Street Journal asked the Franklins about their decision to stay in Colorado, Dick replied "Why would we (leave)? We have a kid who is happy and who keeps swimming faster."   

Why would they?

Well, for starters, the mile-high Colorado air attracts a lot more skiers and snowboarders than swimmers. Plus, few knew Missy’s coach, Todd Schmitz (not to mention Schmitz’s swimming club didn’t even have it’s own pool).

Schmitz’s coaching style is unusually relaxed and fun for elite athletes. He responded to critiques of his coaching style in an article on USA Swimming’s website. “We love to have fun in the water and in our dry land workouts, but that’s not to say we don’t work hard. We just work smart.”

The approach may not be for everyone, but it was exactly what Missy needed. Her world records and gold medals certainly prove that much.

Missy Franklin (right) and Madison Wilson (left) Photo by Chan-Fan

But is Missy just an outlier? Why move to a “better” program? What’s all the fuss about?

Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas might be able help answer that. Gabby grew up in Virginia and started gymnastics at age 6. Two years later she won the Virginia State Gymnastics Championships. Impressive, right?

Despite early success, when Gabby turned 14, she knew she needed a change. In an interview with ABC News, Gabby's mom, Natalie Hawkins, remembered when Gabby first asked about moving to a new program.

“She said, 'I really need to have a change in my coaching. I want Liang Chow (elite gymnastics coach)”

Even before Gabby, Chow was well known for the uncanny ability to produce superstars, including Olympian Shawn Johnson. Marta Karolyi, national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, shared  in a USA Today article why she thinks Chow is so successful.

"I think he has a very strong technical knowledge. That's No. 1,” Karolyi told USA Today. “You're not just doing things, you have to do the things at your best every day. He expects that, and that pays off."

Inspired and determined, Gabby uprooted her life and moved to Iowa to live with a new family for a chance to train with the famous Chow.


Chow’s rigorous coaching proved to be exactly what Gabby needed, as she went on to win two gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first African American individual all-around gymnastics gold medalist in the process (in addition to her team gold).

But let’s be honest.

Moving across the country at 14. Living with a new family. All for a lottery’s chance of making it to the Olympics? Seems pretty crazy.

How many athletes actually reach that level? Not many.

NCAA Research has shown that most young athletes don’t play sports in college. About 98% of college athletes never make it to the pros. That’s a lot of athletes who might never achieve their dreams of becoming the best of the best.

So, in light of these odds, should parents send their kids to distant elite programs?

Before you tackle that question with your family, maybe answer this question first: What do your children want? Are they the driving force behind moving to a new program, or are you?

It’s got to be self-initiated. It’s got to be something they want to do. And you, as a parent, need to back off and be an enabler, not a motivator.”
                                                                                                                        - Dick Franklin

For the parents of Missy and Gabby, their children were the driving force. And most importantly, both athletes ended up in the environment that encouraged and supported them best. “It’s got to be self-initiated,” Dick Franklin told the Denver Post “It’s got to be something they want to do. And you, as a parent, need to back off and be an enabler, not a motivator.”

According to psychological research, parents play a crucial role in their kid’s sports experience. In a study performed by Rick H. Hoyle and Stephen S. Leff on youth tennis players, it was found that “Parental support was significantly associated with enjoyment, with an objective measure of performance . . . and with the importance players ascribe to their tennis game...The data provided no evidence that parental pressure is an important influence on participation and performance.”

Perhaps the best thing to do is not to force the “best path” but instead, empower and strengthen the path they chose.

After all, the greatest reward for a parent is to hear something like this . . .

"I thought about my parents," Missy told ESPN during the 2012 Olympics, "I thought about how much they love me, how much I love them, and how, no matter what happens in the next minute, none of that will change. Then I took a deep breath. And the pressure was gone."  


What’s your experience been with parenting kids in sports and elite programs? Do you agree in the role of “enabler” for parents? Or are there times when a little “push” is necessary?

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