How to Raise an Athlete

The next generation of professional athletes will be born and bread for this, just like the Backstrom Clan.

The all-American dream; what newborn doesn’t have a starry eyed parent dreaming about their kid winning the Super Bowl or an Olympic Gold Medal? Mountain Weekly News takes a look at how to raise an athlete.

It’s a long journey from getting your toddler to stop slamming their head against the TV every time Kung-Fu Panda is on, to practicing their golf swing 3 hours a day (like Tiger Woods was doing as a 4-year-old). Why is it that some parents seem to raise more than one professional athlete without aiming for it, while others, who set their sights on raising an athlete fit for the NFL draft, have a kid that’s burnt out on sports before they can even legally purchase alcohol?

There are many variables involved in raising a pro athlete. Here are some pointers to keep in mind when raising the next Shaun White.

Pass Down Positivity

Maria, Jeannie and Lucas DeBari are all bad ass mountaineers

Maria, Jeannie and Lucas DeBari are all bad ass mountaineers.

Sports that get passed from one generation to the next have a good share of inspiring parental stories. Surfing and skiing, just like hunting and fishing, tend to be hobbies that get passed from parent to kids on weekend adventures.

It’s no coincidence that we commonly find inspiring stories from big mountain snowboarders and skiers—athletes who have a mountain lifestyle—that started when they were still in the womb. Time after time, you hear stories of early car camping, road trips, and powder days.

Some of the best big mountain snowboarders and skiers had parents that were ski patrollers. Travis Rice learned skiing early on thanks to his father, a member of the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol, before finding his own path in snowboarding. A family with not one, but three pro-athletes, Ingrid, Arne, and Ralph Backstrom, commuted every weekend from Seattle to Crystal Mountain where Mom and Dad were ski patrollers, too.

You don’t have to be a ski patroller to be the parent of an Olympic skier (although it helps), what you do have to do is encourage an athletic lifestyle. Even if it’s just a small daily hike, a skate park session, or batting practice, no one can teach discipline, reliance, good habits, and a love for the outdoors  like a parent.

If you spend time with your kids doing whatever it is you’re passionate about, chances are you’re going to have a better relationship with them. Relationships built on positive shared experiences last a lifetime.

Just look at snowboarders Maria and Lucas DeBari, who also come from a multi-athlete family. They spent Mother’s Day climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America, with their 58-year-old mom! If you are passionate about something, pass it on to your kids.

Tip #1 on how to raise a pro athlete: Pass on your good habits and athletic activities.

No Madness

The world of professional tennis has given us more than just mini-skirts and headbands. Tennis has also given us extensive examples of how to be the horrible parent of a pro athlete. They’re like the crazy dads at your local little league game, but on steroids. Let’s look at some of the most infamous cases:

Jim Pierce is probably the most commonly mentioned. His daughter, Mary, is known for winning two singles Grand Slams and reaching No. 3 in the WTA rankings. Jim, on the other hand, is known for getting banned from all WTA events after being involved in several fights at his daughter’s games, and for his daughter setting a restraining order against him.

Damir Dokic, who had a daughter that reached No. 2 on the WTA rankings, also served a 12-month prison sentence for threatening the Australian ambassador to Serbia with a hand grenade.

John Tomic, father to Bernard, currently 71st on the ATP rankings, was sentenced to an 8-month suspended term, and ordered to pay 300,000 euros after head-butting and breaking the nose of one of his sons former training partners.

The list of crazy, helicoptering, controlling and self-obsessed parents goes on and on. So if you want to raise a pro athlete, please for the love of God, don’t be another monster parent. Better to have a child that is happy playing summer league softball as an adult, than another doping megalomaniac millionaire slugger that is emotionally crippled and hates his parents.

Want to raise a pro athlete? Be a good parent first. And remember, if you must take a cue from the world of tennis, limit it to discipline, tenacity, and of course, fashion.

Tip #2 on how to raise a pro athlete: Keep it cool; don’t be an overbearing, crazy parent.

Size Matters

You would think that big cities produce a lot of big talent, but it seems that this is not always the case. A 2006 study from Queen’s University in Ontario introduced a new element into the parenting scheme of pro athletes. This now-famous study of Canadian and American players in the NHL, NBA, MLB and PGA found that pro athletes from cities with more than 500,000 people were underrepresented, whereas pro athletes from cities with less than 500,000 people were overrepresented in their sample.

The argument was clear: cities and towns with populations less than 500k are statistically producing more pro athletes than big cities. There is some consensus as to why: First, a less competitive arena in smaller cities gives kids more time to mature as athletes, providing the right amount of success to create room for bigger dreams. Second, the ability to excel in several sports throughout the year, due to (slightly) less competitive leagues, opens more career choices.

Jackson Hole is a great place to learn how to raise a pro athlete.

Jackson Hole is a great place to learn how to raise a pro athlete.

You can certainly raise a pro athletes in any town, but if you want to stack the odds of your kid making a living in sports, it seems that growing up in a town with less than 500,000 inhabitants makes it just a little bit easier.

Tip #3 on how to raise a pro athlete: Live in (or move to) a town under 500k.

Injury Prevention

While many specialized young athletes do become professionals, they also do it by risking injuries at an early age that can be career-killers. Specialization at too early an age has been shown to cause overuse injuries.

Research by the American Sports Institute investigating the rising incidence of elbow injuries among little leaguers, came to the conclusion that children who spent more than eight months per year engaged in competitive pitching were five times more likely to need elbow or shoulder surgery.

Remember, pro athletes have short career spans. Your goal as a parent is to make sure your kid keeps injuries at bay. The key to that is moderation; practice other sports in the off-season, or take vacations from sports all together.

It’s one thing to push your kid; it’s another one completely to kill their joints and spirit with too much work too soon.

Tip #4 on how to raise a pro athlete: Don’t risk it; practice in moderation.

How to Raise a Pro Athlete? Have Fun!

There’s the much-touted 10,000-hour theory, or the idea that to master something you have to practice it for 10,000 hours over a minimum of 10 years. This has been known for some time now in one way or another. But as any musician might tell you, just because you master something doesn’t necessarily mean that you can make a living at it.

Besides mastering sports, a pro athlete needs to stay focused, motivated and competitive through those crucial coming-of-age years. It is therefore important to remember the words of Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing: “The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun”. What good is it to be a pro athlete if you don’t love what you do?

Tip #5 on how to raise a pro athlete: Let your kiddo have fun.

Travis Rice's parents knew how to raise a pro athlete.

Travis Rice’s parents knew how to raise a pro athlete.

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