In the afterglow of the Olympics – and against the backdrop of the Paralympic Games – it's natural for parents to picture our kids hitting the slopes or scoring goals for Canada someday. It's lovely to imagine, and it is right and good that the Olympics should inspire us to dream. But we should keep our dreams in perspective.
The athletes at the Olympics are the product of years, sometimes decades, of training and development. I'm not sure I can even begin to imagine the individual commitment required on the part of an athlete to do that amount of work for a moment in the sun that may be measured in seconds.
And there are dozens of factors that contribute to making an Olympic athlete. The majority of them – attitude, aptitude, interest, discipline – aren't even visible until kids hit their mid-teens. This means we can't possibly know if our eight-year-old has the stuff to become an Olympian. All we can know for certain is that they won't be carrying the flag into the stadium if we don't help them to get physically active in childhood.
The best start we can give them is physical literacy.
Physical literacy is what kids have when they acquire the essential motor competencies and movement skills to do lots of different sports and physical activities. Kids aren't just born with it. They develop it over time just like reading and writing. And with competency comes the confidence to move more.
The Canadian athletes that we watched at Sochi, such as Charles Hamelin and Kaillie Humphries, began their Olympic journey by developing basic physical literacy. But too many Canadian kids today aren't. Our Sochi athletes skipped, jumped, danced and played multiple sports as children. What are most kids in Canada doing now? If we believe the dark statistics on declining activity and starkly increased screen time and obesity, they aren't doing much.
To develop physical literacy, our kids need lots of opportunities to play active games and learn movement skills. They need regular unstructured play when they are small, and they need increasingly structured activities as they get older to improve their skills in dance, baseball, martial arts, hockey or whatever else interests them.
For instance, children can start learning to throw and catch with mom and dad around age 4, and these skills will help them if they want to play baseball or basketball later. They can be introduced to games with skipping, hopping and galloping by ages 5 to 7, and these rhythmical movement patterns will help them later in activities as diverse as dance, martial arts and even volleyball and soccer.
This is how you build Olympic athletes, but it's also how you raise kids to have the confidence and desire to stay active for life. Confidence and desire are the important things.
And it's not about being a jock. I have three musical children who count themselves as artists first and "athletes" second. They play piano, saxophone and flute and sing on stage. Yet each of them has also developed a love for at least one personal sport or activity (and even had some competitive success.)
The confidence in movement that they acquired early in their lives helped immensely. They grew up with structured activities as diverse as gymnastics, soccer, tennis, dance, basketball, badminton and volleyball. On the side, they were skateboarding, cycling, swimming, rollerblading, hiking and climbing trees. They were good at some things and not so good at other things. It didn't matter. They grew confident and connected to their bodies, and they learned to be active. That's physical literacy.
It doesn't matter whether or not our kids choose to chase an Olympic dream. That's a decision for them to make. But we should be delighted if they grow comfortable enough in their bodies to stay active, happy, and healthy throughout their lives. As parents, that's a victory worth celebrating.
Jim Grove is a senior contributing editor at Active for Life, a not-for-profit initiative committed to helping parents raise healthy, happy kids who are physically literate. He is a consulting editor to national sport organizations on physical literacy and long-term athlete development. He holds a degree in education and certification as a youth soccer coach. Married with three children, he has 15 years experience coaching children and youth ages five to 18. Find Active for Life on Facebook and Twitter.