What my parents taught me about raising healthy, happy and self-motivated athletes

At 40 years old I’m scaling back my racing focus for the first time and the lifestyle of my most recent sport, that of a Professional off-road triathlete – although I love training and racing too much to ever “retire”. Meanwhile my 3 x Olympian brother continues to race his mountain bike after 22 years and counting with in his words, a motivation of “increasing complexity”.

While there are many factors that have kept both of us active and competitive since our first competitive beginnings in track and field club at the ages of 10 and 12, I would give a lot of credit to our parents and how we were raised.

After several years in the motivation lab at the University of Ottawa to complete my doctorate, and having worked with athletes over the past 10 years, I’ve heard about the pressures from parents often enough. Of course, the majority of parents have well-meaning intentions. But I can’t help reflect on a few things my parents definitely got right, which I believe have made a lasting and positive impact on sustaining our self-motivation, and I hope I can do the same with my children.

1. Our parents participated alongside us. On weekends growing up in the earlier days we did family runs. As our two border collies zig zagged in and out of the woods in front of us we ran several miles as a family on the roads and trails in Courtenay, B.C.. We cross-country skied together, did breakfast runs with the local running club together. My parents chaperoned the local kids to many track meets. My dad shot hoops with us, played soccer in the back yard. Both parents got into mountain biking well before I did when my brother started racing his bike.They are still mountain biking, xc skiing, hiking, swimming etc as they head into their seventies.

2. Give lots of free time to play. We were lucky to grow up on 10 acres of land with lots of forest to build forts in and climb trees. While of course there were some structured activities like swim lessons and soccer, my happiest memories are just free time play shooting hoops or running around the yard. My brother spent hours juggling the soccer ball or hopping over the picnic table on his bike. With plenty of playtime, there was room for self-discovery, curiosity, and creativity – all foundations of self-motivation. For one winter in high school I attempted to play club volleyball, high school basketball and continue my winter base training for running. It was all my own doing and after getting totally burnt out, I chose to drop the volleyball. It was a glimpse of how many over scheduled kids must feel all the time today!

3. Be more interested in the story than the outcome. Whatever sport we were doing, our parents took an avid interest. On top of participating with us, they were students of the sport and huge fans. They have always been most interested in the story of the day versus the end result. (e.g. How did it go? What was your workout today? How did you feel today? Not “Did you win?” or “Why didn’t you do better?!”). They’ve always known enough about our developmental stage, the sport, and the competition to understand what a truly good or off-day meant. I still appreciate that I can call up my Dad, say I smashed a track workout, tell him my times and he’ll get it.

4. Leave any “critiquing” out of the parent-child relationship. In contrast to the last point, I don’t recall my parents handing out any criticism or “coaching” type tips unless I specifically asked. Their unconditional support has primarily been through the role of being the patiently guiding, active listeners to let me express my feelings, and do all the problem solving on my own. All my choices in sport have been self-driven. As a female athlete I also need to give a big kudos to my mom. While many athletes struggle with body image to some degree or another for various reasons, I admire my mother in that she has not once put herself or her body down or once made ANY comment about mine. I cringe when I hear other female athletes say, “I’m so fat” or “Look at that girl, she is SO skinny”. I’ve even caught myself thinking or saying similar comments. I try to mindful of never making such remarks in front of my own daughter.

Thank you to my parents for continuing to lead by example, and for your continued support and unconditional love!

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