Raising A World-Class Athlete Like Joseph Schooling: What Parents Should Know

Intriguing details are emerging about local Olympic champ Joseph Schooling’s road to victory, which make it clear that his swimming dream was not mere fantasy but a carefully scripted journey, which was not without moments of doubt, setbacks, and sacrifice. These background stories are proof that Schooling’s historic winning moment was a culmination of efforts that helped him chart and stay the course, such as:

* Foresight, initiative, and dedication on the part of Schooling’s parents from the beginning: They documented every swim meet that he participated in from 2000, set yearly targets for him based on his personal bests as well as regional and international standards, monitored his performance in specific areas so they could provide constructive feedback, and sent him for a bone test in 2006 to calculate his growth potential—whether he would be likely to reach the optimum height for the sport (1.9m). Read more about these efforts here and here.

* Schooling’s parents, neither of whom were competitive swimmers, made concerted efforts to learn about the sport; they took numerous courses and played host to visiting Olympic swim teams from around the world, which is how a 13-year-old Schooling came to meet his hero Michael Phelps for the first time. His father Colin says they did this to seek “advice, guidance, and direction” from “the best and most knowledgeable professionals worldwide in swimming.”

* Schooling left Singapore to train in the US at 14; his mother May described the move as a “painful decision” that she grudgingly agreed to, and by Schooling’s own admission, it was a “hard journey” in the early days and he “hated everything.” There was also a staggering financial investment involved; in a 2014 interview, Colin Schooling estimated that they had spent nearly US$1 million on their son. 

* A willingness to push boundaries: Schooling’s landmark NS deferment (which has now been extended to 2020) had been in the works since 2011; it required a detailed documentation of his progress and potential, as well as scientific studies and expert opinions on extended breaks and how they could impede an athlete’s development. Schooling’s parents were responsible for putting together the appeal; according to his father, “It involved my son and I had to give it my best shot!”

As for newly inspired children hoping to embark on the highway to sports glory, what else is required of parents? Here are more realities and pointers to consider for parenting an elite athlete. 

1. Do the groundwork before pushing ahead.
This article suggests that before you embark on grooming your child into an elite athlete, you should first talk to your child to assess his or her passion for the sport, and willingness (as well as ability) to withstand intensive hours-long training, which is typically held daily or several times weekly. The next step would be to seek the opinion of a credible, experienced coach to assess the child’s ability and skill level. 

2. Expect a financial drain with the possibility of low or no returns.
The financial reality of raising a world-class athlete is stark; in fact this Time.com article says it could “easily gobble up your life and your bank account.” Training and competition costs can add up to thousands every year, with few avenues for grants or subsidies—this limits the talent pool to only those who can afford the sport, and athletes around the world face similar financial challenges. (Read this article about the lack of funding for Britain’s next generation of top athletes.) This Reuters article gives several estimates for raising athletes in different sports (in USD), and this article from The Online Citizen has details on the monetary incentive scheme for rewarding local athletes who win medals in regional and international competitions. Some suggestions to help families cut costs include resource sharing (e.g. carpooling and shared lodging) and crowdfunding on sites such as GoFundMe. 

3. Be ready to commit wholeheartedly to the cause.
In the words of Colin Schooling, “Nurturing a world-class athlete is never a cheap nor casual exercise.” Families will have to revolve their schedules around training sessions and competition dates, there will be plenty of ferrying kids to and from practice or competition sessions, and vacations and other pleasures may have to be sacrificed in favour of sporting commitments. This article provides an American mother’s perspective on raising an elite athlete with Olympic potential. 

4. There may be an emotional toll on your child.
The world loves winners, and grappling with defeat is part and parcel of sporting involvement at any level. But according to sports psychologist and columnist Frank Smoll, athletes differ vastly in their reactions to defeat. “Some may be barely affected or may forget the loss almost immediately,” he writes. “Others will be virtually devastated and may be low-spirited for days.” In his columns on Psychology Today, he offers suggestions for helping young athletes deal with defeat and develop mental strength.

5. Be prepared to encounter bad behaviour—from sports parents.
Overzealous parents are present at every level of sport, and their antics range from rumour mongering and harassing coaches to bullying other competitors. This article lists examples of bad behaviours displayed by overly competitive parents, even towards their own children. To discourage negative behaviours, one can gather likeminded parents to establish a parental code of conduct, which spells out acceptable and unacceptable behaviours on the sidelines. 

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