By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Monday, November 14, 2016Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers, parents, coaches, and other Swim People around the country. If you have a question, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I enjoy reading your stories every week.
My son is 14 and has swam for the same team for about five years and is now swimming in the top group and in one of the faster lanes. This will be his first year of high school swimming as well. He does a great job with listening, sometimes, to the coaches. I find myself asking him to watch videos of swimming and listen to motivational talks all in an effort to make sure he is doing his best. The biggest reasoning for pushing harder is so he does not regret his time as a younger swimmer and not getting pushed to be better. I do not want him to have regrets as he gets older and go on to say, "If I only knew this or that when I was younger." Were you pushed when you were younger? How far should a parent go to make sure their kids aren't resentful of them as they get older?
Well Meaning Dad
Hey Well Meaning Dad,
Your heart is in the right place, but “pushing” kids is a tricky thing. Ask yourself: Does your son want to be pushed?
How does he react when you “push” him? Does he roll his eyes when you show a technique video? Does he say, “Dad, I don’t want to hear this right now”? When you push him, is he agitated or grumpy?
Kids may not necessarily tell you how they feel — not explicitly — but there are ways to hear them without “hearing” them. When you use motivational tactics, notice his body language, notice how he responds.
And my advice is: Be careful.
If your son’s actions suggest that he’s resentful, back off, at least temporarily. Who knows what your son is going through at school, with friends, with figuring out who he is. Age 14 is a tough time. Your role, as a father, is to be supportive and let your son grow.
Instead, it’s the swim coach’s job to motivate. It’s the swim coach’s job to push. So, let the coach motivate and push. Pushing a kid harder may have short-term gain, but long-term, you could be creating a divide between you and him. Your son may feel pressure not because he’s afraid of letting himself down, but letting you down. As a Well Meaning Dad, you don’t want that.
Since you asked, when I was a kid, I wanted to be motivated. I craved motivation. I was from a town that didn’t have a pool. The closest pool was a half-hour away. So, to me, the cards were stacked in other people’s favor. My town didn’t (and still doesn’t) have any school system swim team, no pool in the community, and swimming just wasn’t part of the culture. I had to self-motivate, because I was on my own. I was a very self-motivated swimmer. I asked my parents for more, more, more. I was and am thankful to have their support. I would not have achieved what I did without it.
I also know many swimmers who tell me their parents pushed them too hard. I’ve seen it. Swimmers with overbearing parents? Often, they burn out. Especially when in college. They burn out because they weren’t swimming for themselves. They were swimming for others. Swimming for others is a shaky, rickety foundation. At some point, it will crumble.
Build your child up with a strong foundation by letting him know you love him, you support him, and you’re happy if he’s happy. Give him the tools to build his own house upon your foundation, rather than building his house for him. Show him how to hammer, but don’t actually hammer for him. And certainly don’t yell at him while he does so.
If you’re confused “What’s pushing too much?” remember this: When people are self-motivated, they will perform better if motivation comes from inside. Motivation has to come from within. Most elite swimmers I know had hands-off parents. They would never yell or get upset at their swimmer after a bad performance.
This is only a sport. Sports are supposed to be fun. I know it seems important now, but in the long run, competitive swimming is merely a tool to help someone grow and learn about themselves and understand lessons of hard-work, fear, joy, and overcoming obstacles.
If your son enjoys it when you are part, then take part. But if your son gets agitated, ask yourself: Is it worth risking your relationship? Is swimming through water between two concrete walls faster than other humans that important to come between your relationship with a family member?
In the end, your son may not end up an Olympic gold medalist. Or, maybe he will.
Win or lose, Olympic champion or 57th place at a conference meet, this is what he will remember:
He will remember giving you a hug after a big race. He will remember hearing your voice cheering him on in the stands. He will remember you being there as a foundation to fall back on when times were hard.
My advice? First, be there. Show up to meets. Drive him to practices. Take him to USA Swimming National Championships to see the fast swimmers. Pay for swimming videos. Pay for swim camps. But don’t force these things. Ask him if he wants these things. If he does, great. If not, great.
Then cheer as loud as you can. Hug as hard as you can. And win or loss, victory or defeat, fast or slow, triumph or agony, before a race and after a race, say, again and again and again, “I love you, no matter what…”
Emphasize the no matter what.