Physical activity is great for humans young and old, we know this. So watching our kids happily ride their bikes, go surfing or kick a ball around is one of the pleasures of parenting. The aim of any sporting endeavour is, after all, fitness, enjoyment, relaxation and wellbeing.
It's when the stakes get raised and trophies and medals are up for grabs that things can get a bit tense. While some kids thrive in a competitive environment, there is a very real risk that the benefits of sport – all the feel-good, wellbeing stuff – can get lost the moment we enter a competition. Which is a tension some adults are still navigating, so how do we help our kids here?
Do what you love
Encouraging our kids to participate in their chosen sporting endeavours primarily for the love of the game/activity is a great place to start. It's also a good idea to encourage them to try a few different activities, as it's only natural they will enjoy some sports more than others. Plus, many skills and disciplines are transferable so what a child learns in one sport can help them in others.
Follow their lead
We have a child who loves gymnastics. We do our bit carpooling her to training and ordering the sparkly leotards from America, but the drive to hone her talent is all her. We cheer her on and try to keep up with her "skills" (gymnasts actually speak a whole other language) but we're cautious not to pepper our support with any pressure.
John O'Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, says it's important to keep the pressure off our kids and ourselves. This is because kids need three essential ingredients to excel at, and stick with, any given sport or activity: enjoyment, ownership and intrinsic motivation. All of these come from within, not from parental pushing or prodding.
Set some boundaries
Family life is full on, and the best people to organise the calendar and budget are the grown-ups. So, while I just suggested parents allow their kids to take the lead in pursuit of a passion, the level of involvement and the extent of commitment ideally needs a parent's oversight. Realistically, there are not enough hours in the day or dollars in the bank account for limitless team memberships and endless hours of training, especially for the super sporty kiddos who want to have a go at it all. And that's okay. We can help our kids make thoughtful choices so the whole family's commitments are manageable. Overscheduling is chronic in modern family life, with wide-reaching implications. Many wise families allow each child just one or two activities per term, so there is spare time in the week for bush walks, beach runs, backyard cricket or simply sitting on the couch watching the Olympics on telly.
Speaking of boundaries, sometimes lessons in follow-through and grit require us to hold the line in another way – for example, when your child wants to quit after the first two games, it's okay to push him to finish the season and then maybe try something new next time.
Back to the Olympics – here's a powerful moment to witness the full range of emotions experienced by top athletes. The beauty of hard work is on display, but so is the pain and potential for heartbreak. This is a good time to talk to our kids about things like perseverance, resilience and how to cope with disappointment. Winning is super exciting, yes, but there's actually more opportunity for learning and growth when you don't get the gold medal. This may seem like an impossibly idealistic conversation to have with a young person, but it is important we encourage our kids towards a healthy realisation that winning isn't everything and losing isn't failing.
As some of the world's brightest sports stars know too well, the pressure to perform can take unhealthy twists, turns and flips. The main reason kids enter sport in the first place is to have a good time and be with their friends. And since most kids will not be Olympians, the emphasis should be on fun. Too much pressure and focus on results takes away the joy. Many kids then drop out.
A measure of pressure
But do kids need some pressure from their parents? In his parenting book, Positive Pushing, Jim Taylor, Ph.D., an expert in performance psychology, says parents often struggle here, knowing that if they push kids too hard, they may rebel and achieve neither success nor happiness. If they don't push hard enough, their kids may be unmotivated.
"Popular sports-development culture tells us that if our kids aren't specialising early, they will be left behind," he says. "[But] if they are under 12, they are still figuring out whether they really like a sport and want to commit to it. They need to own the sport and find their own reasons to want to work hard."
While fun is the ultimate goal, it's also okay to develop skills and aim to be the best you can be. It's all about balance – we don't want to push too far, and give kids a sense of failure or resentment. We also don't want them to give up too easily, because there are benefits in doing something hard and coming through the other side.
Back to Tokyo; a thought-provoking question to ask our kids is "How do you think your sporting heroes got to where they are today?" Goal-setting, training, teamwork – these are all good things when balanced with a love of the game.
Likewise, it's healthy to acknowledge the mental challenges of high-performance sport – especially for those kids who happen to have the natural talent and ability to compete at top levels. Sports psychologists tell us that the mental aspect (nerves, stress, negative self-talk, anxiety) is an integral part of any competition. It makes sense that we have some honest conversations with our kids about this and help them navigate their own emotional struggles around competition.
When it comes to kids and sport, parental involvement goes beyond supplying some oranges and cheering from the sideline. Our kids need us to coach them in ways that are responsive to their unique personalities. Hopefully we're watching when our child scores the goal or achieves a new skill for the first time. That's exciting stuff. And hopefully we're attuned enough to recognise when they need encouragement to push through a tough moment, and when that tough moment is actually unhealthy and unbalanced and just spoiling all the fun.
So kudos to the kids who just get out there and have a go. And to their parents who cheer them on and emphasise the joy of participation. Players of the Day, right there. And to the parents of kids chasing down an Olympic dream, we salute you too. May the reality remain enjoyable and exciting – and hopefully fully funded by a lucrative sponsorship deal.
• About the author: Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.