Pushy parents create obsession in child athletes, study finds

After studying 600 child athletes
and musicians, Montreal psychology professor Geneviève Mageau finds parents who
focus on effort and choice foster joy as well as success

From wire reports – An Olympic riddle: Two athletes
arrive in Vancouver. The first vows: I will win gold. The second says: I will
achieve my very best. Who finishes first?

As
it turns out, for all our talk about the fire of competition needed to win,
research suggests the odds of either one of them standing on the podium are
pretty much equal. The difference: The second athlete is more likely to feel
real joy, both in the heat of the race and the thrill of victory – and for
that, a Montreal psychologist says, she can thank her parents.

How
people feel about their passion – whether it becomes an obsession that consumes
them or a harmonious part of their lives – is largely determined by how parents
fostered their talent, according to an ongoing study by Université de Montreal psychology
professor Geneviève Mageau.

Over
the past few years, Dr. Mageau has been analysing a group of nearly 600
musicians and competitive athletes between the ages of six and 38, and
exploring their family environments, and published the latest results in the
Journal of Personality.

She
has found that parents who push their children, focusing on success and
winning, create adults who are obsessive in their passion – often at the expense
of other aspects of their lives, and sometimes at risk to their own health.
“They’ll say it’s more important than everything else,” Dr. Mageau says.

What’s
more, she says, they are just as likely to be unhappy as people who can’t name
a passion – but with more mood swings. They dwell on their hobbyor sport even when they’re taking a break.
“They are often so concerned about their performance that they fail to have fun
while doing it.”

On
the other hand, her research has found that parents – and coaches – who focus
on effort and choice develop their children’s passions in a more “harmonious”
way. Those athletes are more likely to “find the zone,” to feel happiness in
the act of their sport, she says. “They love it, but their whole existence
doesn’t depend on their activity.”

And
while they may seem less committed, Dr. Mageau says, the research suggests both
groups are equally successful.

For
one thing, a person with a harmonious relationship with her passion is less
likely to be injured – she’s less likely to be racing her bike on icy roads, or
practising piano to the point of exhaustion.

It’s
an important lesson for parents, especially at a time when families feel more
pressure than ever to see their children succeed in hobbies and sports. Go to
the skating rink, says Dr. Mageau, “and you will often hear [a parent say] ‘Oh,
you love hockey.’ We are constantly telling children what they are feeling and
thinking. Instead of accepting that maybe it is hard to practice on Saturday
morning, or maybe they don’t feel like going that day.”

Parents,
she says, would do better to acknowledge their child’s feelings, even while
explaining why practising is still important. “Children can see they are being
respected for who they are – they are not just a robot being controlled to be a
famous hockey player,” says Dr. Mageau, who is studying the impact of a
parenting workshop designed to teach these skills.

That
means praising effort rather than winning. And, sometimes, it also means
accepting when it’s time to let them quit and find a new passion.

Silken
Laumann, who won a bronze medal in rowing for Canada at the 1992 Olympics after
a serious injury just weeks before the games, says she learned that lesson with
her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. After devoting long hours to
taking her son, William, to competitive swimming, he suddenly decided he didn’t
want to do it anymore. Long, lean and with big feet, she thought he’d be a
natural. “But he wasn’t buying it,” she says.

She
decided not to push him. For now, he prefers playing basketball and is talking
about taking up rowing. “I am treading very carefully on that one.”

But
Ms. Laumann, who has written a book promoting play for children, suggests that
parents have become too focused on end results in hobbies and sports,
neglecting the fun of it – and ignoring their children when they say they’ve
had enough.

“Parents
need to back off,” she says, “We often get in this mindset that if they like it
two times a week, they’ll love it five times a week.”

But
in the end, as Dr. Mageau points out, parents should only offer the opportunity
for a passion to develop, not force it. “You can’t impose a passion on someone.
You have to find it, and then facilitate it.”

Inspire
a health passion

Give kids lots of choice to try new sports and activities, so they can
find one that really inspires them.

Focus on mastery of the skill – learning a new piano tune – rather than
performance goals, such as winning the talent show.

Praise effort, not victory, so they can take pride in their own
accomplishments. Don’t say, “You were the best hockey player out there. Say:
“Wow, I see you skated really fast today.”

Give other reasons besides trophies for why an activity is important.
For instance, explain how playing sports is healthy.

Acknowledge their feelings when they’re tired or don’t want to practise.

But explain why they still have to go – for instance, because they’re
responsible to their team.

Teach responsibility, but watch for signs it’s time to move on to
something else. “After a while, if it’s you that wants them to persist and not
them, then you should let them quit,” says professor Geneviève Mageau.

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