One of the numerous wondrous talents displayed by Olympic athletes is their ability to make it look easy, as though flying over hurdles or twisting through the air is just a fun little trick.
Of course, it’s an optical illusion that many of us older folks have learned is the mark of a supremely gifted, and persistent, athlete. Many younger spectators, though, are still full of physical confidence and might walk away from the Games (which officially open in London on Friday and run through Aug. 12) with new goals: to be a world-class gymnast, runner, soccer player or whatever it might be.
Such inspiration is beautiful, but it can sometimes raise questions for parents. Chief among them: How to be encouraging, but realistic? How to be supportive without pressuring?
“I think it depends entirely on the child. If it’s his or her passion and love to play a sport, and they crave the competition that comes at a high level, then parents should support that in whatever way they can,” Jennie Finch told me.
The former champion softball player and two-time Olympian (2004 and 2008), Finch began playing softball at age 5 and pitching at age 8.
Last year, she published, with Ann Killion, a book aimed at teen girls, “Throw Like A Girl: How To Dream Big and Believe In Yourself,” (Triumph Books) and in it she described how her parents noticed her talent when she was young.
Her father became her first pitching coach and, eventually, her strongest advocate on the youth sports circuit. He also pushed her on the mound to face her fears — and her injuries, too.
There’s one scene in the book when Finch is about 12 and she’s facing a rival team headed by a coach who had previously belittled her. She didn’t want to pitch. She was scared and had a painful blister on her hand.
“ ‘I can’t go dad,’ I said. ‘I can’t do it.’
“ ‘Yes you can Jennie,’ [her dad] said, ‘You can do this.’ ”
All turned out well in the end and the young Jennie pitched triumphantly.
But not all yes-you-can’s are equal. How to know when such encouragement is being heard as pressure?
In our recent interview, Jennie said her philosophy for young athletes is this: “The child has to lead the way and want to be at that level. If it’s the parents pushing and the child isn’t that into it, then it will be a tough situation for everyone involved,” she said.
“I believe in encouraging our kids to give their best effort while they play and making a commitment and honoring that, but at the end of a season, it’s time to ask ‘Did you like that?’ or ‘Would you like that sport better if you played with another team?’ or ‘Would you like to play something else?’ ”
Finch now has two young boys with her husband, professional baseball player Casey Daigle.
“It’s tough as a parent to be objective and not get too emotionally into it,” she said. “You love your child and spend money and time and want your child’s success, and suddenly it becomes an emotional thing for us as moms and dads.
“It’s always good to remember that our kids have to want it for themselves. We can’t do that for them. It’s their love and passion that count.”
Do you have a gifted child athlete? How do you encourage them?