Lessons We Learned from the Moms Behind the Olympic Athletes

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Bring Home the (Parenting) Gold: Reflections on the Lessons We Learned from the Moms-in-Chief Behind the Olympic Athletes

Your child may never be a world famous athlete-but still, you’d like to experience the pride Debbie Phelps obviously felt for her son. Leadership expert and author Jamie Woolf explains what all of us can learn from the parents of the Olympic winners.

Now that the Olympic Games have ended, many of us find ourselves reflecting on our favorite moments. We were dazzled by the sheer spectacle of the opening and closing ceremonies…the amazing feats of athleticism…the displays of raw emotion evoked by victory and defeat. Yet for many Americans (particularly those of us with kids) the most moving moments of all involved Debbie Phelps and her eight-time-gold-medal-winner son. You can’t help but wonder: How does a parent nurture a child’s ability and motivation to achieve such greatness?

“Since becoming a mom, I watch the Olympics through different eyes,” says Jamie Woolf, author of Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos (Wiley, February 2009, ISBN: 978-0-4703813-1-1, $22.95). “Besides pondering the emotional athleticism it takes to watch a child’s Olympic dream and countless hours of hard work culminate in victory or defeat, I found myself trying to imagine the parenting that led up to that moment. While the commentators diagramed the fluid dynamic advantages of Michael Phelps’ body, I found myself wondering what factors besides exceedingly long feet had influenced his success.”

Clearly, says Woolf, most Olympic parents must have emphasized to their children the value of hard work, the importance of follow-through, and the attitude that hard work pays off. All the parents of the Olympians studied stressed that success comes not primarily from inborn talent but from lots of effort and practice.

So what has this got to do with you if your child is no Nastia Liukin? The answer, of course, is plenty! Perhaps he or she will never be draped in medals to the swelling chords of the National Anthem, but she very well may graduate medical school at the top of her class, say, or start her own thriving architecture firm or write a screenplay that makes it to production.

In short, we all want to raise confident, hardworking, optimistic children who will succeed in life. And who better to learn from than the parents who encouraged and inspired Olympic dreams? Keep reading for some tips on growing ambitious, hardworking, successful kids.

Sounds self-evident, but set a good example. Kids live what they learn, and they learn what they see every day. So if you want to raise a winner, be a winner. Set goals and work toward them. Don’t be lazy. Practice good time management. Do your work cheerfully and tirelessly. Let your kids see how passionate you are about what you do every day-and if you aren’t passionate about what you do, find something you can feel that way about. (It’s never too late to pursue your dreams!)

“In an interview with Michael Phelps and his mother, Michael said he and his sisters saw the hard work and dedication she puts into her work as a school principal and how much effort she pours into her passion for changing kids’ lives,” notes Woolf. “He went on to explain how he modeled himself after his mom. What a testimony!”

Seek out your child’s aptitudes…subtly. Keep an eye out for the early emergence of talent and skills when your children are still young but don’t force it out of them. It is more important to let them play and develop on their own when they are little than to enroll them in an overwhelming array of classes and regimented activities. Expose them to lots of different activities, but don’t push any particular one. Much like Phelps’ talent emerged naturally from his days of hanging around the pool as a child, your child’s unique gifts will show up.

“You don’t need to force kids to ‘become’ talented or smart,” says Woolf. “They already are. Once it becomes clear that your child has a gift for and an interest in, for example, music, then you can start building more intensive classes into her schedule.”

Don’t let kids give up. (They’ll thank you later.) Encouraging your children to keep reaching for their goals-even when they’re sick of practicing or studying or working-heck, even after a big defeat-is one of the most valuable gifts you can give them. In today’s culture of immediate gratification, plenty of kids are raised to believe that if something’s not immediately attainable, it must not be worth the effort.

“Program into your children the sacred truth that perseverance eventually pays off,” advises Woolf. “They need to learn that despite setbacks, their success depends on the ability to climb back up on that proverbial horse and ride on. Do you think the Olympic champions wanted to practice for hours and hours a day, every day? Doubtful. But they did it anyway-and now they’re reaping the benefits.”

Perseverance is important, but so is the other “P” word: perspective. It is important to instill drive into your children so that they can learn to motivate themselves toward victory. But it is every bit as important to teach children the valuable tool of putting their goals into perspective. One Olympic gold medalist said her mom told her she didn’t care if she won X gold medals, she still had to do her chores and clean her room.

“Remind your kids that while you will be so proud of them when and if they win the spelling bee or make the soccer team, they still need to be conscientious citizens and good siblings, and still manage to do their chores and homework,” advises Woolf. “In this way, you can help your children balance their lives and stay well-rounded while they work toward their own goals.”

Keep their egos in check. Remind your kids that no matter how successful they become in life, they have no more (or less) inherent value than anyone else. Olympic gold medalists are still regular human beings, and hopefully their parents did not allow their talent, luck, and hard work to go to their heads. Keep your kids humble and they will grow up with a good attitude about their abilities.

“A big part of success is likeability,” Woolf says. “Teach your children that arrogance and boastfulness are unattractive qualities and not conducive to making friends.”

Believe in your child. (If you don’t, who will?) When the Olympic champions messed up or made mistakes, their parents weren’t overly critical or condemning. Debbie Phelps didn’t give up on Michael (who struggled with ADHD) when his teacher told her, “Your son will never be able to focus on anything.” In fact, her first response was rightly to question the teacher-“maybe he’s bored,” she said. Touche! She accepts her son’s strengths and weaknesses. When he was younger, she supported the passion she saw him exhibit for things he loved. She believed in him. The rest is Olympic history.

Stress sportsmanship. Yes, it really does matter. A few nasty displays of bad sportsmanship plagued the Olympic Games this year, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Childhood is the best time to teach the utmost importance of showing respect and support for someone’s peers-even when they are also competitors. Make sure you show respect for other people’s achievements and avoid catty comments and gossip-and insist that your kids do the same.

“Make sure that they congratulate the victors if they lose a Little League game or don’t win the Science Fair Blue Ribbon,” says Woolf. “Life is filled with disappointments as well as victories. Teaching kids how to handle their inevitable losses not only helps them maintain a healthy sense of perspective, it also makes them gracious winners.”

“Raising an Olympic champion, or a gawky but nevertheless self-confident, disciplined child, isn’t easy but it also doesn’t require that the stars line up perfectly,” concludes Woolf. “It just means doing the right things over and over and over again. In much the same way that Olympic athletes put in hour after hour of practice every day, good parents parent relentlessly. You don’t have to raise gold medal winners to be a successful parent. As long as you encourage kids to seek their highest potential and support them wholeheartedly along the way, you have done your job.”

About the Author:

Jamie Woolf has over twenty years of experience consulting to business leaders. Based on her work inside dozens of organizations, Jamie lays out her “best practices” to enjoy more success at home and at work. She founded The Parent Leader to help mothers and fathers gain the self-awareness and leadership skills to transform their daily parenting challenges into desired results and co-founded Pinehurst Consulting, an organization development and training consulting firm. She blogs on mominchief.com. She serves on the Advisory Board of Working Mother Media.

Jamie Woolf holds an M.S. in industrial/organizational psychology from San Francisco State University and a B.A. in psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and two daughters.

About the Book:

Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos (Wiley, February 2009, ISBN: 978-0-4703813-1-1, $22.95) will be available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, or direct from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797.

For more information, please visit mominchief.com