How to be a sports parent and “not quite ruin your child”

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A swim meet where college coaches were present for recruiting.

I read an interesting book a few weeks ago about how to parent without really trying. Called Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child,  it was written by James Breakwell. He is a popular author and humorist who can be found on Twitter. His theory is the opposite of helicopter parenting. He believes that all children will turn about the same — mediocre — regardless of parenting techniques. So why knock yourself out with trying to be a perfect parent, raising perfectionist children? He believes in a hands off, bare minimum approach.

As a relentless, overachieving swim mom, I especially enjoyed Chapter 11 “The Path to Athletic Glory” which he crossed out and renamed “Benched.” Breakwell’s advice on sports parenting is to sign your kids up for sports and let it go at that. At some point, they’ll tire of it and you can all move onto something else.

Here are a few excerpts from his sports parenting chapter that gave me a chuckle or belly laugh:

“The real danger sports pose is to you, the parent on the sideline. Kids will damage their bodies and minds. You could lose your immortal soul.”

“The competitive pull of youth sports is hard to resist. Deep down, we all have a primal urge to see our child do better than other people’s kids. It’s the ultimate secondhand validation. If your kid wins, that means you’re better than those other parents, or at least that you passed on better genes. Whatever it was, your kid triumphed because of you. Brag about it to everyone you know. That never gets old.” 

“But while sports parents know everything there is to know about succeeding as an athlete, none of them agree on how to pull it off. There’s more than one way to ruin a childhood. To sports parents, steamrolling their child’s youth will be worth it when their kid hoists whatever arbitrary medal or trophy now defines that kid’s entire existence. Ultimately, sports parents just want their kid to have fun — as long as they win or die trying.”

On Breakwell’s section about parents’ dreams of Olympic glory, he writes that the dream is out of reach. 

“Parents of top gymnasts and swimmers enroll their kids in Soviet-style sports gulags the second they leave the womb….The bottom line is kids don’t just roll out of bed and pull off world-record swimming times or gymnastics scores. Instead they give up their entire childhoods to achieve greatness at those arbitrary scoring metrics.”

If you’re a bare minimum parent, you shouldn’t touch Olympic training with a ten-foot pole. Unless you use that pole to pull your kid out of the training pool. If they swim like me, they could use the help.

So what should you do if your child says they want to be an Olympic athlete? Here’s a sample conversation:

Kid: I want to be an Olympic swimmer.

Parent: No.

Then buy them ice cream. Ice cream fixes everything. Note: This also works on adults.

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Having fun in the pool.

Our own family pursued swimming for years — literally from the time my kids were six months old in “Mommy and Me” swim lessons to my daughter’s senior year of college. It took up an enormous amount of our family life, but I believe it was worth it. All children want to be Olympians when they’re young. It’s a great dream and worth encouraging. At some point, they understand that only a few, and I mean two people in the United States, per event, every four years, actually make the Olympic team. With 400,000 swimmers registered in USA Swimming, two per event really is out of reach. But the kids do figure it out on their own.

Not being an Olympian doesn’t mean that swimming isn’t a valuable experience and worth every minute. I guess the point is we didn’t go into the deal — as parents — with any illusion of our kids being Olympians. Funny thing though, one of of their teammates from their age group club team made it to the Beijing and London Olympics, and a college teammate of our daughter has two Olympic medalists for sisters. It can happen, but it’s not the point of enrolling and being in a sport.

Later in the chapter, Breakwell talks about how college scholarships is making your kids work for their college educations. He doesn’t think it’s such a good deal after all. “The problem with college scholarships is that otherwise intelligent people forget that nothing is really free.” I’ll save my thoughts on college scholarships for another day.

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Cheering for a teammate at PAC 12’s.

What are your thoughts about bare minimum parenting as an approach to sports parenting? Can the two co-exist?

2 thoughts on “How to be a sports parent and “not quite ruin your child”

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