Olympian Summer Sanders On The Key Ingredient to Raising Elite Athletes

In Learn
By Alex Flanagan | September 15, 2015

Olympian Summer Sanders On The Key Ingredient to Raising Elite Athletes

(By: Guest contributor Summer Sanders)

I am the super proud mama of a 9-year-old girl, Skye, and a 7-year-old boy, Spider. The ages sort of give you an idea of where I am in the world of youth sports … or maybe not. I do see so many kids around us who are already locked into year-round teams and are super dedicated to it. You know, the ones who sleep with their lacrosse stick or go to school with their batting glove on. That is amazing. We, on the other hand, are trying several sports during their respective seasons. For a stretch, my daughter loved gymnastics. Until they asked her to come 4 days a week for 3 1/2 hours each time. I was shocked…. and although she tried to do it for a couple weeks … she just couldn’t stomach the time commitment. And truthfully, neither could I. I wasn’t shy about it either. I kept saying, “What’s the rush?” She was so young and just trying to manage school and playing with her friends. It was too much for me.

Frankly, I worry that I am the opposite now of what I was as a kid. See, I was extremely driven at a very young age. I wanted to join a year-round swim team before my mom would allow me to. She held me back just a bit until she felt I was ready, age-wise. I was 7. I had an older brother who inspired and annoyed me just enough, which drove me to want to do anything he was doing. Until swimming found me. He retired at 10 and I kept it up.

The things I know I am doing right as a sports parent have nothing to do with sports and more to do with life skills that are learned through the game and the team. If my kids sign up for a sport, they show up … unless they are sick or injured. If they decide they just don’t feel like doing it today, that becomes a teaching moment and I stick to my guns. If you sign up, you show up. If not for yourself, for your team. My kids have to follow through. That falls into the category of accountability and team commitment. That is something a kid can understand and truly grasp at a young age. We also stand very firm on humility and sportsmanship. Celebrating a goal is one thing …. over-celebrating, in-your-face style doesn’t work in our house. One time our son had a “talking-to” with one of his teammates because the teammate didn’t pass him the ball so Spider could score. We saw him grab his teammate’s shoulders and talk to him like he was the coach. Erik took one look at me and said, “That’s not cool. We need to get him.” And so I did. I grabbed him and we went WAY OFF FIELD to have our conversation about how a goal by a teammate is a goal for the team. And he needs to celebrate that.

And this leads to the conversation of the competitive kid. I LOVE the competitive kid. I fully believe that kids are born with that gene. You know the ones. So, the job of that parent is almost more difficult. How do you harness and corral that competitive attitude? I was that kid. Once I knew my sport. Once I knew how much fun it was to win and get the blue ribbon, I always wanted that blue ribbon. One time I touched the wall and tried to blame my red ribbon on the timers. I actually said, “The timers messed up!” My mom started laughing at me so hard. And then, I caught myself. It was quite ridiculous. My mom said, “Summer, you just didn’t see that other girl and you are angry.” It’s fine to want to win … but not learning from your losses is a huge mistake. And, I lost many.

I realize a hot topic lately is about participation awards. I don’t think that all participants should be winners … they can’t. They can be applauded for coming out, for taking the leap into the sport, for trying, for training, but there’s only one winner. That’s the rules of the game. But participation medals don’t make everyone the winner. I giggle when I say this because if you, as an adult, have ever trained for any running race or triathlon, then you will understand my giggle. I can’t imagine crossing the NYC or Boston marathons and not getting my “finisher’s medal” around my neck. I wore my medal all the way home on the plane! I love it! I have never worn my Olympic Gold Medal out and about … but I found myself wearing my Boston Marathon finisher medal around the house in 2014 a week after the race … by myself, just because! And, believe me, I knew I wasn’t the winner. In that race, I placed 1498th (in women) and 1 hour and 7 minutes behind the female winner. But I still LOVE my medal and I know exactly what it stands for.

For all parents and kids out there who are excited about the possibility of sports and a successful career in a sport, remember one thing … you need to ALWAYS feel the love for it. The moment the love is gone, there will be trouble/problems with the relationship. My kids haven’t found their love yet so we haven’t signed up for that big commitment team. Right now, my son is trying flag football (and my husband is a co-coach), plays the violin and swims. My daughter is playing rec soccer and swims. There is so much opportunity out there for kids that it can sometimes be overwhelming. I get that. I have written many a blog about overscheduling and fighting for my kids’ free time. It’s a fantastic problem to have. Just keep it light until you see that spark. Then come back and talk to me about how to keep the spark lit … that’s the truly delicate balance.



Summer Sanders is an Olympic Gold medalist, a mom of two children and a television personality.  She is also the author of the book “Champions Are Raised, Not Born: How My Parents Made Me A Success”. Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/SummerSanders_or on her website  http://Summersanders.net


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