Most parents are proud of their children and their achievements. And, high on the list is the pleasure of a child who excels in sports. After all, that “A” average in math is great…it really is. But, good grades are a private source of pride.
While, a football or basketball championship is a community event.
It’s public, and it makes a parent proud.
Of course, many parents appreciate academic performance, or even when a child has good manners or shows true generosity. It all counts. But, in our culture, school sports, high school and college athletics are reinforced as the top of the pyramid. It’s not right.
Yet, what if a boy or girl peaks too early? What happens next?
Years ago I worked with a fellow—let’s call him Leon—who presented the issue with acuity.
“My problems began when my mother won an Olympic Gold medal at the age of 18.”
Never mind that Leon’s mother was not yet to give birth to the patient for another ten years.
There was something haunted in the way Leon reported his history of narcissistic neglect at the hands of an immature and alcoholic mother. She was a woman who had a huge public persona, and little for Leon, his dad and his siblings when in the house. It was as if she peaked too early, and had trouble settling down to a normal life afterwards.
Many stars of sport go on to live productive lives. I wonder, however, if there is something about the Olympics, with its high drama and television coverage that young people are simply unprepared for. In professional sports like football or baseball, players are often in the game for years, and get a chance to balance fame with personal life. In contrast, the Olympics often features sports that don’t have a following in America (Shot Put, for instance) or have a short life span for the players involved. You often get one special chance, and then it’s over.
The Trials of an Olympic Star:
Let’s take Olympian superstar, Michael Phelps, who at the age of 28 is the most decorated Olympian in history, competing in the Olympics at age 15. Yet, at 23 there he was at the center of a marijuana scandal—with a photo of the very public Phelps smoking weed.
Of course times have changed. Would Phelps be so condemned today in 2014? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, this scandal resulted in the loss of a major sponsorship deal and a huge blow to his reputation. After admitting the photo with the bong was indeed accurate, Phelps apologized for his behavior and referred to it as “inappropriate.”
Perhaps Phelps acted without thinking, feeling above it all. Maybe it was the impulsiveness of his documented Attention Deficit Disorder? Or, maybe, weed helped calm down an epinephrine wired Olympic athlete?
What’s important is that Phelps recovered strongly from this uncomfortable moment in his life. I’m sure not every athlete is so fortunate—consider Leon’s mother.
The Psychology of Early Peaking:
One trait reinforced
Young athletes who break world records or simply showcase their extraordinary athletic skills result in generating a buzz and hype around themselves. If you read, “nineteen year old collects six Olympic gold medals” as opposed to “Twenty-eight year old collects six Olympic gold medals” I’m certain you’ll find the former much more fascinating.
The hype that follows this young athlete is only the beginning of the peak. The hype is followed by an inevitable demand for the athlete to continue displaying incredible feats. The pressure can either make or break this athlete in the long-run. It is important for an athlete to remain grounded and his support system plays a large role in achieving this.
This happens to smart, beautiful, talented people. You play to your strength, and when it is gone, there is grief involved. Healthy people leave it behind, and integrate their success into their story moving forward. They keep developing.
And, unhealthy people long for the old days, which are past. They are disappointed and angry that the world is not interested anymore. Fame is fleeting. You can’t turn it into a reason for being.
The Biology of Early Peaking:
An interesting study looked at the addictive conditioning of athletes who may not be set up for an easy transition to a less than full-out training schedule. No one stays on an elite level forever and if one’s body becomes habituated to catecholamine and endorphin rushes, there may be a problem living a less stimulating lifestyle. Adjusting to normal life can be a challenge to an elite athlete. It’s not just psychological, but biological as well.
There are indications that elite athletes are at a higher risk for dependencies and other psychiatric disorders. Like, Leon’s mother, the transition to “real life” means finding pleasures and excitement in a normal life’s journey. This may not be easy for many.
Best Wishes and Lessons Learned:
It often comes down to good parenting.
If you overvalue your child’s accomplishments, they may begin to believe they are defined by their success. This set up a narcissistic system, in which the athlete feels adoration from the crowd, but also from their parents. It can lead to a sense of specialness that ultimately undermines normal development. These young people can fall hard when the music stops. For others who are solid, the greatness of the Olympics becomes part of their journey. Something to take pride in, but not something that defines who they are to become.
Fortunately for Phelps, he was able to redeem himself and regain the trust from the public he once had. He also competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics and went on to collect a couple of gold and silver medals. He learned his lesson and hasn’t disappointed us since.
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