How to Raise an Olympic Athlete

As a sports medicine physician, I am fascinated by the process of what makes a great athlete. In an effort to unravel this mystery, I have asked 1988 Olympic water polo Silver Medalist Dr. Alan Mouchawar to share his thoughts on a parent’s role in the development of a high-level athlete. His comments follow:

Posted on | Scott K. Forman, MD | Comments ()

As a sports medicine physician, I am fascinated by the process of what makes a great athlete. In an effort to unravel this mystery, I have asked 1988 Olympic water polo Silver Medalist Dr. Alan Mouchawar to share his thoughts on a parent’s role in the development of a high-level athlete. His comments follow:

“Parents relax!  As a physician, parent and former Olympian, I am going to share with you what I think makes the difference between a great athlete and an average one. Guess what: it’s pretty much out of your control. An overbearing parent can hinder an athlete, but an athlete will become great despite you, not because of you.

The main characteristics of great athletes are what I call the 4 P’s: Potential, Passion, Practice and Perception. 

Potential: This is somewhat obvious. When you have the genetic makeup that gives you an advantage in a particular sport, you will have a better chance of success. There is a self-selection process at work here, so let the kids play it out.

Passion: Your child should want to spend their free time participating in this sport. That’s not to say they have to love every minute; but, if you are the one harassing them to practice and encouraging private lessons, then you are on the wrong track. In the end, most of the kids that were pushed will quit. 

Practice: Great athletes have the ability to practice with greater intensity and focus than average ones. The extra effort over many years gives these people an advantage. Great athletes push their bodies past the pain threshold that average athletes cannot reach. When I was ready to quit, I would focus on a happy experience. This helped me to separate my mind from my body and push harder.

Perception: This one is a little more difficult to define. I break it down to self-awareness. Great athletes are constantly trying to define what puts them in the ZONE. They know their teammates strengths and weaknesses and how that fits into the big picture. They analyze their opponents in the same way and quickly figure out how to win. They anticipate what is going to happen. They are proactive, not reactive.

You can see that you have very little control over whether or not your kids make it to the pros. Parents should encourage their children for balance in life. I would like to play out a scenario of what some parents of young kids are pushing for. Say your child is a great baseball player. You practice with him everyday and get him private lessons every week. He gets all his self-worth from being a great baseball player. He gets a scholarship at a college that is too difficult academically and spends most of his time playing baseball. He doesn’t get much of an education, but gets drafted to the pros. He ends up not being one of 4 percent that makes it and after 3-4 years in the Minors, he gets cut. Now what? He has no self-worth and no marketable skills to get a good job. This is what we pushed him to do?!

I am not saying that sports don’t have a lot to offer. Encouraging your kids to participate on a team and giving them opportunities to succeed is good thing. I am just saying it shouldn’t be their priority; it shouldn’t define them as a person. If great athletes don’t focus on themselves and their sport, who will? But, if they only focus on themselves and their sport, who are they?

There are life lessons with every win, and even more with every loss. When players, coaches and parents understand this concept, everybody wins.”

Blog written by Scott K. Forman, MD
Dr. Scott Forman is a board certified orthopedic surgeon whose specialty interests include sports medicine of the knee, shoulder,...