With the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team seizing a gold medal for the first time since 1996, thousands of little girls will undoubtedly be begging their parents to sign up for gymnastics.
And while some parents jump at the chance to raise the next Olympic gold medalist, others are concerned about the effect highly demanding sports such as wrestling, figure skating, and gymnastics might have on their children.
These sports have higher than average rates of eating disorders and injuries, and books like Joan Ryan’s “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” indicate that the practices of some coaches and gyms border on child abuse.
But not all Olympic athletes experience health problems, and there are wonderful coaches available. It is possible to enroll a child in a demanding sport without placing her health and self-esteem in danger.
Here’s what parents can do to ensure that children benefit, rather than suffer from, sports:
Be Involved—But Not Too Involved
Parents who know what’s going on in their child’s gym and practice sessions are better equipped to intervene if something is amiss. Keep in touch with your child’s coach, and ask your child about any problems at practice.
If something feels off, it’s time to switch training regimens. But don’t go too far with the involvement.
Parents who begin to live vicariously through their children — who attend every practice session and have more corrections and thoughts on each performance than the coach — place an inordinate amount of pressure on their children that can cause lasting psychological harm.
Prioritize Health Over Appearance
Athletes involved in some sports have long felt pressure to conform to beauty ideals, particularly thinness. Parents should not tolerate pressure from coaches to lose weight and should never allow coaches to berate children for their weight or physical appearance.
Athletes need strength to compete well, and strength means eating healthy. Parents should help their children make healthy food choices and should never factor weight into these decisions, even if this means children gain a few pounds.
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