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(Glenn Lowson)
(Glenn Lowson)

Parents who push create unhealthy obsession in child athletes, research finds Add to ...

An Olympic riddle: Two athletes arrive in Vancouver. The first vows: I will win gold. The second says: I will achieve my very best. Who finishes first?

As it turns out, for all our talk about the fire of competition needed to win, research suggests the odds of either one of them standing on the podium are pretty much equal. The difference: The second athlete is more likely to feel real joy, both in the heat of the race and the thrill of victory - and for that, a Montreal psychologist says, she can thank her parents.

How people feel about their passion - whether it becomes an obsession that consumes them or a harmonious part of their lives - is largely determined by how parents fostered their talent, according to an ongoing study by Université de Montreal psychology professor Geneviève Mageau.

Over the past few years, Dr. Mageau has been analyzing a group of nearly 600 musicians and competitive athletes between the ages of 6 and 38, and exploring their family environments, and published the latest results in the Journal of Personality.

She has found that parents who push their children, focusing on success and winning, create adults who are obsessive in their passion - often at the expense of other aspects of their lives, and sometimes at risk to their own health. "They'll say it's more important than everything else," Dr. Mageau says.

What's more, she says, they are just as likely to be unhappy as people who can't name a passion - but with more mood swings. They dwell on their hobby or sport even when they're taking a break. "They are often so concerned about their performance that they fail to have fun while doing it."

On the other hand, her research has found that parents - and coaches - who focus on effort and choice develop their children's passions in a more "harmonious" way. Those athletes are more likely to "find the zone," to feel happiness in the act of their sport, she says. "They love it, but their whole existence doesn't depend on their activity."

And while they may seem less committed, Dr. Mageau says, the research suggests both groups are equally successful.

For one thing, a person with a harmonious relationship with her passion is less likely to be injured - she's less likely to be racing her bike on icy roads, or practising piano to the point of exhaustion.

It's an important lesson for parents, especially at a time when families feel more pressure than ever to see their children succeed in hobbies and sports. Go to the skating rink, says Dr. Mageau, "and you will often hear [a parent say]'Oh, you love hockey.' We are constantly telling children what they are feeling and thinking. Instead of accepting that maybe it is hard to practice on Saturday morning, or maybe they don't feel like going that day."

Parents, she says, would do better to acknowledge their child's feelings, even while explaining why practising is still important. "Children can see they are being respected for who they are - they are not just a robot being controlled to be a famous hockey player," says Dr. Mageau, who is studying the impact of a parenting workshop designed to teach these skills.

That means praising effort rather than winning. And, sometimes, it also means accepting when it's time to let them quit and find a new passion.

Silken Laumann, who won a bronze medal in rowing for Canada at the 1992 Olympics after a serious injury just weeks before the games, says she learned that lesson with her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. After devoting long hours to taking her son, William, to competitive swimming, he suddenly decided he didn't want to do it any more. Long, lean and with big feet, she though he'd be a natural. "But he wasn't buying it," she says.

She decided not to push him. For now, he prefers playing basketball and is talking about taking up rowing. "I am treading very carefully on that one."

But Ms. Laumann, who has written a book promoting play for children, suggests that parents have become too focused on end results in hobbies and sports, neglecting the fun of it - and ignoring their children when they say they've had enough.

"Parents need to back off," she says, "We often get in this mindset that if they like it two times a week, they'll love it five times a week."

But in the end, as Dr. Mageau points out, parents should only offer the opportunity for a passion to develop, not force it. "You can't impose a passion on someone. You have to find it, and then facilitate it."

Inspire a health passion

Give kids lots of choice to try new sports and activities, so they can find one that really inspires them.

Focus on mastery of the skill - learning a new piano tune - rather than performance goals, such as winning the talent show.

Praise effort, not victory, so they can take pride in their own accomplishments. Don't say, "You were the best hockey player out there. Say: "Wow, I see you skated really fast today."

Give other reasons besides trophies for why an activity is important. For instance, explain how playing sports is healthy.

Acknowledge their feelings when they're tired or don't want to practise.

But explain why they still have to go - for instance, because they're responsible to their team.

Teach responsibility, but watch for signs it's time to move on to something else. "After a while, if it's you that wants them to persist and not them, then you should let them quit," says professor Geneviève Mageau.

Erin Anderssen

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