Two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women’s World Cup Champion Abby Wambach famously scored 184 goals during her career, more than any other male or female player in the history of international competition. In 2012, she was named FIFA World Player of the Year, and in 2015, her retirement year, she landed on the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people. Today, Wambach remains an ambassador for the sport, but she’s recently cultivated a new area of expertise: that of mom/soccer mom to her three stepchildren, after her marriage last year to author Glennon Doyle.
“I always wanted to be a mom,” Wambach told me in a recent phone interview. “I’m learning all these amazing things, all about the stress of shaping human beings and trying to raise responsible people.”
As a soccer mom myself, I wanted Wambach’s perspective on the role that sports should play in a healthy, happy childhood. What can parents do to ensure that their child’s athletic participation is a positive experience?
“Most parents have dreams of their kid being the next star,” Wambach said. “Percentages show most kids won’t go pro, but sports provide all kinds of opportunities to grow as a human being.” Despite her history as a relentless competitor, she believes that families should focus on the child’s effort and embrace the lessons in leadership, teamwork and grace that participation provides. “Parents go wrong by focusing too much on winning. The process is what will translate beyond soccer.”
The youngest of seven children, Wambach shined on the soccer field early, but in her memoir, “Forward,” published last year, she reveals that she pursued soccer success in a bid for parental attention and approval. Discovering that the superstar never felt pure love for the game, and nearly quit at age 14 to escape the pressure, makes for poignant reading. She talked about how playing sports, though, taught her resilience, and she’s grateful for that lesson.
“We think it’s our job to help our children avoid fires, but we need to walk them into the fires to show them they’re fireproof,” she said. “That to me is everything — teaching kids that they can handle anything life throws at them, the good and the bad. Kids need to learn that they are capable of handling life on life’s terms.”
In her book, Wambach shares that her dad paid her $25 for every goal she scored in high school. Although many experts argue against paying kids for grades or chores, Wambach defends her father’s strategy.
“All parents have reward systems,” she said. “I was overwhelmingly talented and underwhelmingly motivated, and my dad knew that. The thing that moved my needle was money.” Parents need to figure out what motivates their child, and use that to reward the child’s effort. Criticism or punishment for a performance the parent perceives as poor should be avoided.
Even when a child shows unusual athletic talent, Wambach urges parents to remember the big picture. “We need to give our kids opportunities to develop all kinds of skills.” She emphasized the importance of building resilience, so children learn to deal with stress. Young athletes also need to grasp that there will always be forces relevant to their success that they can’t control, such as coaches and injuries. “Helping kids to understand and take care of what they can control is what’s needed to raise a well-rounded, badass adult,” she said.
“I didn’t develop some of the skills I needed in my life beyond soccer,” Wambach told me. She pointed to a 2016 arrest for DUI as the humiliating moment that forced her to address a long-term dependence on alcohol and prescription drugs, and told me that she’s still figuring out how to fill her days off the field, but she is devoting a lot of time sharing her story, in all its highs and lows, with others. She and Doyle have spent the fall traveling the country with the Together Live tour, a storytelling event designed to inspire audience members to identify and pursue their life’s purpose.
When she’s not on the road, the six-time U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year occasionally steps in as assistant coach for stepdaughter Tish’s youth soccer team, though it’s clear she prefers just being a supportive mom on the sidelines. I asked her about that odious cliche, the screaming sports parent.
“It’s hilarious seeing parents trying to coach their kids,” she replied, pointing out that directives shouted from the sidelines tend to confuse young athletes. “You’re trying to do three things at once: Listen to the coach, listen to your parent, and also you’re asking yourself, What do I want to do?” The mental overload “makes you a worse player,” she said. Besides, Wambach added, “it’s good for kids to learn from people other than their parents.” Micromanaging your child in any setting doesn’t promote the self-reliance they’ll need in the long run.
According to Wambach, being a great sports parent is pretty easy. As a child, she recalled, “I just wanted my mom to watch me.” As a mom, she wants to be involved and supportive in her kids’ lives. Sports should be fun, and “parents should enjoy their children.”
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