“You need to be patient and wise”: what parents of young athletes should know


Does your child need sports? If so, which one? Should I move to the professional level? How to combine sports and study? These and other questions concern many parents. We look into them together with specialists - a psychologist and a professional athlete.

The popularity of the sport is growing all over the world. Every year more and more people include various types of physical activity in their lives. According to a study conducted by the Center for Social Design “Platform” with the support of the Ministry of Sports of the Russian Federation, in 2022, 53% of Russians were involved in sports at varying frequencies. The number of children practicing physical education, according to Deputy Chairman of the Russian Government Dmitry Chernyshenko, is even higher: 88.5%, or more than 24.3 million people. Of these, over 3.2 million are involved in sports professionally.

The more popular sports become, the more questions people have, especially parents. Which section should I enroll my child in? How to support him? Is constant training really necessary? Is it worth going into professional sports? What will happen to your studies in this case?

To understand these questions, Forbes Education spoke with Evgenia Belikova, a sports psychologist who accompanied the Olympic team in Tokyo in 2021, and Elena Rufova, a candidate master of sports in volleyball and CEO of the We Stand As One Foundation. Let's retell our conversation.

Charitable Foundation “We Stand As One”
The Foundation supports athletes who are members of national teams and are excluded from international competitions for non-sports reasons. Among other things, the organization provides athletes with psychological and legal support, helps them obtain additional education, promotes employment, in particular, advises on career guidance and resume writing. The Foundation regularly holds educational events, including online ones, as well as sports events, the purpose of which is to involve a wide audience in sports and thus contribute to the development of elite sports.
The beginning of the journey: what to consider at the start

How do you get into sports?
A child may end up in a sports section for several reasons. The first is the parents’ desire to instill in him an attitude towards a healthy lifestyle, to keep him busy with something besides school and entertainment, and to develop in him such qualities as self-confidence, responsibility, and determination. The second possible reason is the child’s own interest in a particular sport. Children often imitate family members: for example, if one of the parents plays football, the son or daughter is likely to follow his example. The third is the influence of the environment: if friends have signed up for volleyball, then, of course, you want to join them.

“Often, children are brought to the sports section by parents who make a choice based on external or internal motives: close to home, in the company of other children, someone advised, went “to a coach” - but these external motives, as a rule, are not completely stable, since circumstances can change at any moment,” explains Evgenia Belikova. “But if a child likes the process itself, he strives to succeed in this matter, dreams of a professional career or wants to become a coach himself, then such motives are more stable and speak of an internal need.”

At what age should you start training?
To the disappointment of parents, there is no universal answer to this question. “Each sport has its own criteria,” says Evgenia Belikova. — For example, in the sections of rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating and synchronized swimming, people begin to study at the age of three or four. The main task of the trainer in this case is to gradually and consistently increase the load through love and interest. People come to sports for various reasons, but stay in it for the results. And for psychological health, it is important not to be traumatized by these results and not be afraid to continue.”

Where should I start?
A good start, according to Evgenia Belikova and Elena Rufova, is given by “pilot training”, or trial courses - classes in general physical training. They are often held at sections or sports schools to give the child the opportunity to get to know the coach, team and chosen sport better. One of the main goals of such training is to interest the participant and see how much effort he is willing to put into the training. Once they have a general idea of how a child is performing, the coach and parents can make decisions regarding their future in sports.

What should parents do?
“The life of young athletes goes through three stages: the development of discipline, the development of confidence and the emergence of achievements,” explains Evgenia Belikova. — At the initial stage, a regime, schedule, and a certain model of activities and behavior are formed. Then the child learns to trust himself, the team, his parents and the coach. Finally, achievements appear. If a young athlete succeeds, he becomes more enthusiastic about everything, immerses himself in the training environment, and develops more actively and diligently.”

     “Parents need to listen to the child, ra

talk to him. You should not make high demands on him. On the contrary, we need to help the child take his first conscious steps in sports - and they are the most difficult.”

Elena Rufova
Elena Rufova

Parents have a special role in this process. They support the child not only financially (need I say that some sports like fencing require large financial investments?), but also psychologically, which is especially important. “Parents need to be patient and wise,” explains Evgenia Belikova. — As a rule, children are guided by emotions in everything, and many things can upset a child. At such moments, parents can support him, find the right word and give him a point of support. For a child, everything begins with faith on the part of the parents, then reinforced by the faith of the coach, and ends with faith in himself. Faith doesn’t appear out of nowhere—you need to remember this.”
Professional sports: fears and hopes

After the first stage - exercising for the sake of health and interest - an important question often arises: should I switch to professional sports? This step can open up new prospects for the child - but also complicate his life.

     “Every athlete has his own path. It can be short or long, straight or winding, with frequent changes or constant. It is important to accept it and follow it - at your own pace, with your own data, without focusing on other people’s templates.”

Evgenia Belikova
Evgenia Belikova

Many parents are convinced that if a child goes into professional sports, he will study worse and gain less knowledge. Indeed, frequent training creates high physical and psycho-emotional stress. In addition, the training schedule becomes inflexible and because of this you have to miss classes. But it is difficult for a professional athlete to find the strength and time to study independently, prepare for exams and enter the university.

“Having voted for sports,” says Evgenia Belikova, “you will have to choose one of two: adjust your studies to training, or training to study.” Before making a decision, it is worth consulting with a sports psychologist who will help determine and evaluate the child’s attitudes and tell you how to combine different parts of life.

Ideally, you need to develop a personal schedule that will allow you to combine sports with study. In individual sports like tennis or boxing, this is easier: the child does not depend on other team members. In team events it is more difficult, so you will probably have to enter into dialogue with the school. “As a child, I played volleyball professionally,” recalls Elena Rufova. — At my school there was a sports class that studied according to a special schedule. For example, sometimes we went on the first shift, sometimes on the second. In general, we had time to prepare for lessons. The Russian education system has faced such situations more than once, so our schools are ready for the appearance of athletes.”

If you cannot reach an agreement with your school, you can switch to distance learning. This option, although not the best, allows the student to remain within the educational system: the child watches online lessons, does homework and studies independently. Control over the process and responsibility for the result largely falls on the shoulders of the parents. However, in addition to control, students need support. “Parents must remember that their children are athletes. Therefore, we must not chase short-term successes like an A in mathematics, but think strategically,” explains Evgenia Belikova.

Sports can be a major stressor, especially for sensitive children. “If everyone, including parents, expects high results from a young athlete, even the strongest psyche will be traumatized,” says Belikova. “The result is a loss of self-confidence, learned helplessness, and closedness.”

     “Sport should not destroy the relationship between parents and children, but only strengthen it. Sport is for creation"

Evgenia Belikova
Evgenia Belikova

Many people are also frightened by another dark side of professional sports - psychological abuse from the coach. Shouting, insults, severe emotional pressure - this flaw in the system of training future champions is familiar to many. Sometimes even the slightest increase in voice can upset the internal balance of a sensitive child. Meanwhile, Evgenia Belikova and Elena Rufova are convinced that a coach’s scream is not always a form of aggression: in some cases it is a tool for working with athletes. On a large football field, for example, you often need to shout to a player. If this frightens a child who likes football, you should gently explain to him that the raised voice does not concern him personally.

If the coach really behaves aggressively, you need to leave him. “Aggression begets aggression,” says Belikova, “and an evil coach begets an evil athlete.” Fortunately, recently parents have become more aware and children have become educated, and the whip method in the training process is losing its relevance. Parents are becoming less and less likely to allow anyone to mistreat their children.

and, and the children themselves learned to defend themselves, for example, by filming unsightly episodes on their phones and posting them on the Internet.

“Today, hitting an athlete or simply yelling at him means admitting your own helplessness,” Belikova is convinced. - Does anyone need a helpless coach? When using violence, you should keep in mind: you will have to gradually increase the degree, that is, scream and hit harder than before. And this is criminally punishable. So coaches are wondering whether it’s worth taking on this responsibility or whether it’s better to change their approach.”

End of career
Sports life is significantly different from ordinary life - and this is where danger really lies. For years, a professional athlete lives in isolation, without contact with other areas of life.

     “Professional sport is work. Like office workers, athletes need to devote time to family, themselves, study, meeting with friends, and relaxing. This should never be forgotten."

Elena Rufova
Elena Rufova

But a brilliant career, advertising contracts - all this continues for the time being. Due to age or injury, a sports career has to end. And then the hard part begins. A person finds himself disconnected from reality, because many friendships were severed in his youth. You have to look for support within yourself - and many people succeed in this with difficulty.

“Sport in life,” Belikova draws an analogy, “is like an anthill in a clearing. An athlete, getting into this anthill, lives according to certain laws and begins to navigate it well. And if he forgets the path to a great life, it is, of course, difficult for him. No one will be able to stay in the anthill. You should always remember this and after finishing your career, focus not on what you have achieved in sports, but on what you have learned, what skills you have developed. Professionals who understand this, as a rule, achieve great success and do not suffer because the anthill has closed for them. But some continue to live in the past, and it is especially difficult for them. “We act as one” foundation, which deals with issues of socialization of athletes, helps such people.”

Although professional sports poses a number of challenges, overall it has a positive impact on a child's development. Under the influence of stress and testing, psychological resilience and willpower are formed. The stability of a sports lifestyle gives sensitive children self-confidence: regular training helps overcome fears and doubts. Professional sports develops independence, discipline, the ability to plan, take responsibility and keep everything under control. In addition, it instills perseverance and determination - skills necessary for success in school and work. And of course, sport improves health—hardly anyone can argue with that.

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