I'm a pushy parent

July 8, 2000 (www.slowtwitch.com)

People often tell my wife and me that our kids are going to be super athletes. They assume we’ve got some sort of super genetic code we’ve passed on to our children. So far I’m inclined to believe they’re wrong. Although it’s a bit early to know for sure, I can tell you one thing for certain: If I didn’t kick my kid off the computer and the couch he wouldn’t get much exercise at all.

Most kids are as lazy as we let them be. That goes for doing homework, too. And housework and taking a shower or brushing teeth. They’d love to just sloth around. Look at the number of fat kids slothing around these days. There are a million statistics to show that kids are doing less and weighing more, and I for one ain’t gonna let it be my kids. No way. So go ahead and call me pushy.

Being considered a "pushy" parent or a little league father is the least of my concerns. When people/friends see me telling my son to come down to the beach and hit some golf balls or go play catch, jump on the trampoline or go boogie-boarding, they tell me how they would love it if their kids would do more and sit less. In these days of ‘round-the-clock kids TV, Playstations, Gameboys and computer games, it’s very easy to let some electronic gadget look after the kids while we get some more work done. But all of a sudden a few years have gone by and it gets harder and harder to get them out. Pretty soon they’re teen-agers and it’s impossible to get them to apply some energy to trying to achieve some excellence in sport.

Every time I hear someone (usually a bit soft) who doesn’t do very much exercise ramble on about the possible effects of all the excessive exercise people are doing these days, I just tell them to look at this photo of Dave Scott. (Holds up current photo of 46-year-old ripped-to-shreds Dave.) The guy has been hammering himself for 35 years now and is holding up pretty well. These are the same folks who go on and on about how they don’t want to risk burning their kids out by letting them do too much too early. What they don’t know is that the whole idea of "burn-out" is a myth. Very few kids get chronic fatigue syndrome or any of the other related illnesses that adults who do too much get. Kids are tremendously adaptable due to their high natural hormone levels. Burn-out is only a psychological condition, and the kids who get it probably weren’t in a very stimulating and flexible environment or weren’t having enough success to warrant all of the hard work. It’s not about the physical demands at all. The rewards didn’t justify the means, and perhaps it’s because they were looking for some external rewards that were very hard to obtain.

As my son was reaching age 7, my wife and I debated whether to let him find a sport he liked or to pick a sport for him. He didn’t seem inclined toward any sport, so we decided to get some opinions about when we should start to get him doing something.

I called Chris Lewis, New Zealand’s top tennis coach and a Wimbledon finalist, about when I should start my kids in some structured training. I asked him how many of the top 100 tennis players in the world (men or women) would have started organized lessons after the age of 10. He said, "None." He said most of the top 100 women start about age 7-8. Obviously, some of them are in the pro ranks by age 15, and if you think your daughter is going to be competitive when starting at age 15, you’re kidding yourself.

So I asked him if I waited to start my son’s tennis lessons until after age 10 was I effectively deciding that he would have no chance to reach the top of the tennis world. He said, "Yes," and furthermore even if he did start at age 6 or 7 he would still be just one of tens of thousands of kids out there hitting balls. What he suggested was to just get him started in a fun program that teaches the basic skills early. No pressure, just get out there and learn how to hit the ball well. Same for golf or swimming or whatever.

So we’ve got our son in golf lessons and on a swim squad, and our four-year-old daughter is out there in the group golf lesson, too, and is in swim lessons. I also teach them in the backyard pool in summer a bit. This summer we’ll also be out in the ocean quite a bit learning to surf and boogie-board. I do my best to make it all as fun as possible and let them goof off a bit. It’s not all concentration and discipline.

It’s time-consuming and obviously eats away at my own "training" time a bit, but we’ve decided that we want to give our kids some hope of excelling and teach them that they have to practice at something to get good at it. We know that they are going to have more confidence in themselves in their teens because they are good at a lot of things. Hopefully they’ll be busy! And if that means they are less drawn to hanging out with their friends and getting into mischief, then so much the better. If they can keep those fat cells from piling on during their youth then we know it’s likely they’ll never have a weight problem.

They need to know that they have to get out there a lot, week in and week out, and that we’re not gonna let them sit in front of the TV for hours a day. Even if they never get to compete at any elite level, hopefully they will learn how to go about getting good at something and enjoy setting and achieving goals for themselves and meeting challenges head-on. Watch this space. Whatever the result, I’ll let you know how it’s going.