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Raising A Child Athlete: How To Do It Right

09/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Q: I have a friend whose child is an athletic superstar. This ten year old has been focused on ice skating since she was four years old. She has been touted as potential Olympic material and the family has sacrificed all to ensure that this goal is reached. Their house is mortgaged, the mother has moved with her daughter to another state for training, and the father and the two younger siblings are at home following their lives without a full-time mother, wife and sister.

As I watch Michael Phelps and the Olympics, I wonder what all of this means. Is the sacrifice worth it? There is no doubt that Phelps's moments on the platform as a gold winner are touching and admirable. But what has he really trained for? What can he do the rest of his life? Will he ever be able to reach those heights again? Is he prepared for the reality of responsibility and family? Does this brief moment in a young man's life set the stage for the rest of his life? Can he be happy?

A: I have had a running discussion with a dear friend who doesn't believe that this sacrifice for a child's athletic goal is worthwhile. In fact, he believes this is almost tantamount to child abuse. And I actually even commented here in the Huffington Post last year on the fact that many child athletes suffer from performance anxiety and may be in need of psychological counseling. With some children, the issue is not their anxiety per se, but whether their anxiety is based on their own ambivalence or resistance to the athletic goal. Sometimes, the parent needs the sport much more than the child does. A family has to ask itself certain basic questions: "Is this really for my child? Who really wants it? Is this more about me than it is about him or her?"

However, having said all that -and emphasizing the need for honest, rigorous introspection -- sometimes the goal of athletic excellence is well worth it. Let's take the case of Michael Phelps. As I have watched this gangly young man win race after race and capture the attention of the world, I have become fascinated by his mother, his sisters, and his story.

As a child, Phelps was a problem kid who was unable to focus in school. He was soon diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as are many other young people today. Soon he and his sisters were in the water becoming swimming champions. I even read that a third grade teacher of Michael Phelps wrote to the swimmer's mother before the Olympics to say that clearly in third grade it wasn't that Michael couldn't focus, it was that he had not yet found what he wanted to focus on. What does this say about all the young children who are diagnosed with ADHD? Maybe we don't take enough time to find out where they could excel?

My friend insists that intellectual pursuits are what it takes to be happy and successful - never mind the occasional and extremely rare champion. Granted. But some kids just can't find their stride in the academic world. Maybe the best thing for them is to find that one area - often athletics - where they can focus, where their interest is intense and excellence is within reach. Maybe for them athletic pursuits teach about goals and the possibility of achieving a dream. And even if they don't reach the highest levels as Michael Phelps has, they can still learn about teamwork, about motivation, about hard work and discipline, and about success in various forms. If all kids with a learning disability in mathematics are forced to only learn mathematics, my dear friend would not have become the great writer that he is today.

We definitely need to stop labeling what we as adults think are the only routes to success and we need to take the time to observe our kids and to listen to who they are, to how they learn best, and to what are the areas that will give them the best jumpstart in life. And if that is athletics, then that is the route to pursue.

There is also the psychological angle. I have spent many hours talking with parents who have learned to use the intensity of sports to help their child deal with insecurities, shyness, and anger. It is through sports that some children find their identity during the tough passage of adolescence. In fact, a very good friend mentioned that her painfully shy daughter took up horseback riding just to be with her father more. Now, the father and daughter not only spend more time together than they ever did, but they now have a shared interest -a deepening bond. A secondary benefit was the lesson the young girl learned about her own power. The very large horse followed her bidding. The horse did as she wanted. What a great lesson for other areas of her life! And her intense shyness also seemed to be resolved at the same time!

Here is the caveat: Make sure you're honoring the child's desire and not your own. In addition, use this path as a jumpstart for life -- and not the only route in life. It is not the success of the swimming meet that matters, it is the success of how to handle situations, how to work around one's weaknesses, and how to stay focused, disciplined and motivated. Aren't these worthwhile traits no matter what one's career is?

A parent has the enduring responsibility always to teach universal truths - to make the successful child a successful adult. The parent must strive to turn the goal of a gold, silver or bronze medal into the goal of a meaningful, productive, and happy life. As parents we need to give our children the tools to handle the responsibilities of adulthood. We want our children to have the tools to find the life that they want and that they will enjoy.

So, the answer about your friend's child? If the family is in total agreement which means taking into account the needs of every member of the family including the siblings, if the child's desires are her goals and not her parent's, if the parents are including the lessons of the sports training as parallels for life, and if the goals are extended beyond sports' medals, then your friend's child is fine.

And for Michael Phelps? His intense focus on swimming obviously got him out of the possible downward cycle of ADHD. He used his energy for success in the pool and it seems like his single mother set an example of hard work and devotion to the family. He got the medals, but she gets a prize.