THE BLOG

How to Raise an Olympic Athlete

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Christine Carter, PhD sociologist, productivity and happiness expert, author of The Sweet Spot and Raising Happiness

Even though the Olympics are over, my kids are still whipped into a frenzy. Lindsey Vonn is, I think, their first real childhood idol—it's all skiing all the time around here these days. I know we aren't alone; households all over the world are currently filled with children dreaming of gold medals.

So what does it take to become an Olympic athlete?

Researchers across disciplines have studied extensively what it takes to be an elite performer; I've blogged about their findings in detail here. Drawing on this research into what it takes to go from being good at something to being great at it, here are some things we can do to encourage our blooming Olympic hopefuls.

  1. Focus on their happiness. If we want our kids to be successful in their endeavors, we'll do well to foster positive emotions. Happier people earn more money, perform better, and are more helpful to their coworkers. Most people assume that this link exists because people feel happy when they are successful. But research suggests that happiness usually precedes success.
  2. Foster self-discipline. Kids can't gain mastery over anything if they don't have the discipline to practice, and that discipline needs to come from within our kids (rather than from bribes, threats, or cajoling).
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Most of us assume that Olympic athletes have incredible innate talent. It bears repeating however, that researchers across a wide array of fields have shown that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being good to being truly great. Instead, greatness is all about practice. Elite performers practice hard, in a really specific way, and they practice consistently. This posting goes into more detail about the type of practice that breeds success.
  4. Also practice dealing with failure. I was so glad my kids saw Lindsay Vonn's interview after her fall. Here's what she wrote on her Facebook page:

  5. "First off I want to congratulate Maria, Julia, and Anya on their great performances today they did a great job and it was cool to see Maria get the gold medal that she deserves! Unfortunately I ran into some problems in the second run hooking a tip and crashing in the SL portion, that is just how it goes sometimes in alpine skiing. I have mixed emotions on my day, I am really disappointed that I didn't finish and I lost a chance for gold in one of my strongest events, but on the positive side I was happy to have another solid run in DH and I was also happy with how my SL was going before skiing out. I went out attacking and giving it my best and I feel like that's what the Olympics are all about, so I can't be to disappointed. So now I am shifting my focus to the SG on Saturday."

    Winners know how to handle loss. Instead of fearing failure, we need to teach our kids to cope with it so that they can learn, grow, and focus on the future.

  6. Eat dinner together . Your family is the foundation for all of your children's success and happiness, and a daily family mealtime can be a powerful foundation for your family. What do you value most? Is it their winning, or their trying hard? Your family or their performance? Show your kids at dinner tonight.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, whose mission it is to teach skills for a thriving, resilient and compassionate society. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature in neuroscience, sociology, and psychology to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of the new book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and of a blog called Half Full. Dr. Carter also has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness; she lives near San Francisco with her family.

References:

Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G.V., Pastorelli, C. (2001) "Self-Efficacy Beliefs as Shapers of Children's Aspirations and Career Trajectories," Child Development, 72(1), 187-206

Dweck, C.S. & Kamins, M.L. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835-847.

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., Tesch-Romer, C., (1993) "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance," Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.