I was fortunate to attend some Olympic events when the summer games were held in Los Angeles, California in 1984. I was a swimmer, so I was totally into the swimming events, but being way up in the stands, I actually felt more removed from the action than I did when watching on TV. That wasn’t so terrible, though, since I’d be hit with pangs of envy watching those uber-athletes tear through the water at incredible speeds. That’s one of the reasons why I won’t encourage my kids to watch the Olympics. In the end, it can be an emotional roller coaster.
I won’t downplay the genuinely heartwarming moments that watching the Olympics can bring. I tear up watching an underdog overcome her competitor. I swell with pride when I'm watching Olympians meet their goals in front of the entire world. And yes, I too had a Dorothy Hamill hairstyle in the '70s, paying tribute to America’s skating champion with her signature bowl cut. But in light of the abuse our country’s gymnasts have suffered, for so long, at the hands of the doctor and an organizations that were supposed to ensure their well-being, I am no longer a fan of the Olympic games.
So if my kids want to watch some of the Olympic events that interest them (and why would anything other than figure skating be of interest?), I’ll allow it. But I will be managing their expectations, and providing my own commentary about sports, including but certainly not limited to: it’s nice work if you can get it, and you only get it when you’re the best, and being the best is not for everyone.
My son plays soccer and takes it very seriously, but not so much that he can’t enjoy it. He loves playing the game and I use the words “play” and “game” very deliberately. As soon as it starts feeling like work, and that he has to score or that it’s all over if he can’t defend his own goal, I’m afraid he’ll lose his interest. He adores the sport because he feels like he’s a part of something, and he is a kid who could run all days. He has been growing his skills, and is definitely a strong player, but he never is burdened by the idea that he won’t be good enough. The best part about soccer for him is hanging out with other kids who love it, too. Competition doesn’t even factor in, and I love that about his involvement in sports.
I realize he is only 7 and things may change as he gets older and as he sets bigger goals (pun intended) for himself, but for now, I just enjoy watching him enjoy the game.
While it’s quite something to watch amazing athletes compete at the top of their game in the Olympics, it’s kind of like watching celebrities walk the red carpet. I mean, we have to recognize that these are people who have come this far not only on their own phenomenal merit, but with the help of teams of people. When my kids watch professional athletes or A-list actors, and casually say they plan to grow up to be like them, I laugh and cry at the same time. Of course, my kids could study and train to be the best they could be, but even if they had all the talent in the world (and I’m pretty sure they don’t), any shortcomings they would have would immediately come in to play.
My partner and I don’t have the money to send them to training camps, or the time to travel for out-of-state matches. And until they prove to me that they would give up any and everything, including a typical social life, to go after the goals they’ve set for themselves, I have no plans to cultivate them into Olympians.
In these weeks leading up to Winter Games in PyeongChang, I’m noticing the media turning its attention to the fitness routines of the American athletes. Obviously, average people could never spend that amount of time or energy focused on one thing: priming their body for athletic performances. It makes sense for an Olympian like Lindsey Vonn to make her body her priority, but for someone who has battled negative body image issues, like me, this kind of coverage does more to shame than inspire. I could never do what she does, be as toned as she is, and be celebrated for being so in shape. True, there are things I can do that she probably can’t, but I have to be mindful of what kind of media coverage my kids are consuming about the Olympics, and make sure they don’t start thinking that obsessing over your body is ever going to be OK.
I was on a swim team for all my teen years, and even coached a kids’ swim team for a few summers. I never considered myself athletic, though. I just liked swimming and hanging out with other people who shared my interest. I wasn’t happy to come in fourth all the time, but I did take pride in shaving a second off my time as I improved my strokes.
Doing a team sport, I feel, helps to take the focus off the individual. Yes, I had to be a good enough swimmer to at least finish the race, but it was the collective outcomes of all the team members that amounted to a win or a loss.
My son loves soccer, a team sport where the players have to work on their communication skills. You get as much love making an assist as you do actually kicking the ball into the goal. It truly is a team effort.
So as long as my kids embrace the fundamentals of teamwork, which I think translate into real life (I mean, at work there are other people I have to coordinate with to get the job done), I’m good with them participating in sports. It’s when there's a risk of them concentrating too much on themselves in the context of the game that signals trouble, at least for me.
The Olympics have always come with great fanfare, and I actually kind of love that. The opening ceremonies have gotten more elaborate, with big name directors and artists attached to creating a spectacular theatrical showcase to get the games started. It’s a fun show.
But what does it have to do with athletic competition?
I absolutely think our athletes should be celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance we can muster, but the events kind of feel like a letdown after the spectacle of the opening ceremonies.
When watching the Olympics with my kids, I’ve had to reiterate how much time and money these athletes have put into perfecting their sport. They don’t practice three times a week, with games on Saturdays, like my son’s soccer team. Instead, they treat training like a full-time job… one they pay for, as opposed to getting paid for it. My husband and I completely support our children’s efforts when they are passionate about something. Our son is excited to go to practice, and on non-practice days, he goes to the park to kick the ball around on his own. My daughter wanted a feature part in her dance recital this year, so she worked hard on her audition and earned the role. Their dad and I are glad to shuttle them to these rehearsals and games and right now we can manage it while working full-time.
If our kids do show some special aptitude, and the drive that will propel them to the next level of their abilities in their respective areas of interest, my husband and I would have to figure out how to support them, financially, and with time we’d usually spend working. But until that happens, our budget for extra-curricular activities reflects what we can afford, and we are not missing work to get our kids to try-outs or out-of-state games.
With countries competing against one another, of course we’re going to root for our native nation. But in light of our president touting “America First” as a guiding principle for his administration, I can’t wholeheartedly root for Team U.S.A like I used to. “America First” sounds like something a kindergartner would say, pushing his way to the front of the line simply because he truly believes he's entitled to it. It leaves no room for graciousness. It doesn’t sound like something a person who respects others would declare. This “me first” mentality totally contradicts how my partner and I are raising our kids. We want our children to look to lift others up, not to push them down.
I can’t help but think that, under Donald Trump, we are cultivating a nation of sore losers.
When it comes to sports, in this country at least, it seems as though it's all about winning. We always want to identify the winners, and, by default, the losers. What about the kids who lost, but who improved their skills over the course of a season? What about the kids whose families couldn’t afford to add an extra practice session? What about the kids who just have a good time doing this particular activity, and feel no need to put the pressure on themselves to score? I think it’s enough to participate, if that’s what makes you feel good. Winning is not everything. The fond memories I have about my time on the swim team have nothing to do with our overall record. Instead, it has everything to do with traveling to practice with my friends, cheering one another on from the sidelines, and having this shared experience that bonded us, no matter where we all scattered to after high school.
That’s what I want for my kids, especially when it comes to their relationship with sports. I want them to find an undeniable value in the type of memories they’ll make; the type that will last long after we’ve all forgotten what the scores are.
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