The Winter Olympics are a slippery slope for a parent. They are limitless in their teachable moments. No one has ever said it any better than ABC’s Jim McKay in his intro to ABCs Wide World of Sports. Winning with joy and humility, losing with valor and grace, the costs of commitment and hard work, the gross absurdity of tantrums and shameless gloating, the celebration of our shared common human existence- all that is good and bad is on display throughout the Games.
The Games might also inspire us, as parents, to recognize a spark in our kid which may one day see our child walking into a stadium, proudly waving to the cameras and folks back home.
But, it’s not quite that simple, is it?
In this three part series, my goal is to give you a glimpse into what it takes to be an Olympian, help you have a conversation with your kids, and finally, how to fan the spark of Olympic success in your children.
Part One- So you think you might want your kid to be an Olympian?
Be careful what you wish for. As an athlete, I tried, and came up short. But through my efforts, I came in contact with some extraordinary people. As a coach, I’ve been blessed to work with some exceptional athletes. If you want to see your kid walk into the stadium behind your country’s flag, here is something to consider.
Every athlete that fairly reaches the Olympic level is born with gifts that are not available to even the most exceptional athlete you know.
Fairly reaches? Indeed, there are always individuals at the Olympics who have no business being on the world’s greatest athletic stage. These bozos find an ancestor or they adopt a country, and with their mediocre skills and outlandish egos, via cash and sheer chutzpah, they declare themselves an Olympian. This year’s chief offender is Mexico’s Hubertus von Hohenlohe. Citius, Altius, Fortius, my ass. This guy belongs in the Olympic Slalom in the same way that I belong as a dancer in Magic Mike’s All-Male Stripper revue. But I digress.
1) World-class athletes are mutants.
Yes, mutants, in the very best way possible. Their proprioceptive skills are off the charts. Un-measurable. These men and women have the ability to know what their bodies are doing in space in ways that we cannot fathom. They have neuromuscular skills that are beyond belief. For most of us, muscular nerve impulses travel at 60-90 meters per second. For those of us with some athletic gifts, we measure around 90-100 m/sec. An Olympic class ski jumper has neurons firing at 120 m/sec as s/he hits the lip of the 90 meter jump at upwards of 75 miles per hour. They are also able to fire far more muscle fibers than a ‘normal’ human. In other words, Olympians truly do have ‘another gear.” Most of them, they also have another one beyond that. But the world-class athlete is not just physically different. World class athletes are mentally different.
2) Olympic athletes are tough.
The injury rate for many Olympic sports is 100%. Every athlete knows it’s not If I get injured. It’s When I get injured. But still, they head out there, every damn day. When they get hurt, it is accepted as a necessary part of the process. Yet, athletes begin rehab sooner, and work through pain normal humans cannot withstand, for the chance to get back out on the playing field.
3) Olympic athletes are stubborn.
They have the ability to practice, and practice, and practice some more. The skills required for Jonny Moseley to toss this triple twisting triple backflip were acquired through many months of work on the trampoline, off a ramp into the water, and finally onto snow. We see the success of the finished product. We don’t get to see the hundreds of failures that he knew he would need to endure at step of the process. They persevere, with an amount of self-belief that is intoxicating to be around.
4) The greatest gift of the Olympic athlete is the ability to suffer.
Crashes hurt. Sometimes, crashes hurt really really bad. Get up. Do it again. Head into the gym. Hit the squat rack. Go puke. Head over to the pull-up station. Do chin-ups until your arms, back, and shoulders are so wasted that you can’t raise your arms over your head to grab the toothpaste off the top shelf in the grocery store. Go home and you suffer in the kitchen. You can’t always eat what you want. Go to bed. You are so exhausted that your head, quite literally, spins with fatigue. Unfortunately, your metabolism is so amped up that you can feel your body thrumming at 440 volts. Sleep won’t be coming anytime soon. And upon awakening- the daily weigh-in becomes your daily moment of truth.
5) Travel sucks.
US Olympian Julia Mancuso was quoted in a NBC profile- “I’m home 2 or 3 months in a year. I love to ski race, but geez, I love being home.” If you have a kid involved in any elite level travel sport, you’re getting a tiny taste of life on the road as an athlete.
The road to Olympic glory is a road of obsession.
There are no amateurs in the Olympics. Our Olympic athletes are professional- 24/7/365. As a man in my twenties, my Olympic dreams had me on a bicycle 3-5 hours every day, 350 miles per week. I lifted weights four days a week, 2 hours every time. I traveled to races every weekend from March until October. Training and racing were the first things I thought about upon waking, and the last things I thought about at night. The costs were high. I failed to make the team. But I did not fail.
What I gained? Immeasurable.
The Olympic path is an all-consuming passion. You cannot make your child choose this road. That sort of will to succeed comes only from within.
Do you see those sparks within your child? Give it a solid think, and a think again, about how you want to nurture those sparks.
Part II- Life’s teachable moments, via the Winter Olympics.
Part III – How to nurture those sparks.
My personal blog, Rants & Mutters, is littered with pieces about my cycling career. For one of the best books ever written by an athlete about the obsession required to reach Olympic success, I give my strongest recommendation to Brad Lewis’s Assault on Lake Casitas. This is Brad’s story of his success in winning a gold medal in the 1984 double sculls in the Los Angeles Games. Astonishing.