Cartwheels in the Kitchen: Raising a Child Athlete

Advice from an Olympic Mom

She was a wiggly baby, a determined one, too. When she spotted a toy she wanted, she’d roll over and over until she got to it. That was when she was six months old.

It wasn’t until she was nine months old and we looked up to see her toddling into our room one morning that her father and I began to suspect we had an unusually energetic, physically coordinated little girl. She had climbed out of her crib and started walking on her own. We were stunned.

Our daughter, Shawn Johnson, went on to become an Olympic gold and three-time silver medalist in women’s gymnastics. She’s considered one of the best gymnasts in the world. And, what makes me proudest of all is that she’s a fine, well-balanced, kind and happy young woman.

Raising an athlete is an adventure. You can’t be too obsessive about neatness when your tot constructs a mountain of toys, scales it to the top of the entertainment center and leaps to the couch. Forget worrying about toppled flower vases and spilled soft drinks.

In fact, I embraced the mess. Early on, I recognized that to hold Shawn back would not only be harmful, it would be impossible. So, if you’re watching your pre-schooler doing pull-ups on the kitchen counter and back flips off the bed, Shawn and I have some tips on successfully raising a young athlete:

•Sign on to the dream. We knew that to be as supportive as we could, we’d need to be all-in, to plan realistically, and be ready to make adjustments along the way. This meant being ready to drive her to practices several times a week and to competitions, sometimes hours distant. The costs of coaching and lessons have to be part of the family budget and that means sacrifices may have to be made. It was tough, sometimes, but we were a team, and we made it a priority to do what we could to help Shawn to achieve her goals.

•Be vigilant about maintaining family life. We very purposefully made our home our oasis, and set aside Sunday for big family breakfasts, followed by a little cartoon-watching for Shawn, as a break from the rigors of school and gymnastics. Our family dogs provided normalcy and companionship to all of us. We didn’t let school be subordinate to athletics. Shawn often did homework before it was due, so her training schedule wouldn’t cause her to fall behind.

•Prepare to deal with stress. Athletes often thrive on adrenaline, but expect the occasional melt-down after a tough day of training or competition. For Shawn, simple routines and activities – French toast and TV with Dad after practice, scrapbooking and shopping with Mom - became coping mechanisms. Remember, it can be harder for you to watch your child struggling in practice or competition than it is for the child doing the work, so find your own stress relievers – a hobby, a hot bath, a funny TV show or a good book.

•Balance work and play. Life is more than trophies and medals, so make sure your child complements sports with the normal activities of childhood. Whether it’s experimental cooking night or crafts gone wild, don’t stress the mess. We partnered with Bounty's "Mess Behind the Glory" program to help deliver the message that moms should green-light the messes that allow their kids to thrive. You can find more stories from moms like me at www.Facebook.com/Bounty.

•Take a long view. Teach your child, through your words and example, the traditions and values that will help develop a strong character. That will last much longer than cheers in the stadium.

Parenting an exceptional athlete requires creativity, flexibility and a tolerance for chaos - but there’s nothing more rewarding. We were so honored when Shawn dedicated her book, Winning Balance, to her parents with these words: “You have given me the opportunity to see my dreams come true, and that is the greatest gift of all.’’

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