The High-Pressure Lives of Child Athletes

Canadian Family 2003

Four days a week at noon when her schoolmates in Langley, B.C. are heading home for bologna sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies, 9-year-old Charlotte Mackie jumps into her mother’s car and digs into a container of pasta as her mom, Sue, drives off to the Omega Gymnastic Academy, 25 minutes away in Coquitlam.

The Grade 4 student may have spent recess having fun on the monkey bars but from 1 to 5 the play gets serious as the petite pony-tailed blonde dons a leotard, hits the tumbling mats, balance beams and vaults.

Since the age of 3, Charlotte has been involved in gymnastics – first tagging along as her
older sister, Gael, now 14, and a Canadian junior champion, performed her routines, later as a competitive gymnast in her own right. “I like flying, doing giants around the bar – that’s when you swing around. I want to go to the Olympics and win a university scholarship,” she chirps in her tiny voice.

Charlotte is just one of thousands of Canadian kids trying to strike a balance between the balance beam and birthday parties, the ice rink and school work. On top of all the hours spent training each day, she has to miss her schoolmates’ parties and sleepovers, but the girl is philosophical about it. “I don’t really mind that much because I have closer friends at
gymnastics than at school,” she says.

Competitive sports are a greater presence in the lives of Canadian youngsters than ever before. From the time some kids learn to walk, their parents suit them up in hockey pads or figure skates and set them to training hours every day to be the next Wayne Gretzky or Josee Chouinard.

Sport Canada, a branch of the federal Canadian Heritage Department dedicated to promoting athletics in this country, estimates that more than two million children
are involved in some type of organized athletics, with thousands taking part in regular competitive events.

The big challenge is ensuring that the athletic child-especially the one ambitious
for world-class gold – achieves equilibrium between training, education, family
time and social life.

Charlotte’s mother, Sue, knows better than most how difficult that balancing act can be. Both she and her husband, Bill, (now practising physicians) competed as gymnasts when they were younger. Bill qualified for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. “We’re not normal,” laughs Sue. “We spend a lot of our time in the car. Charlotte spends 90 minutes a day there. That’s when she reads, does homework, sleeps. We have to be very efficient.”

The competitive life for Charlotte began at age 6, when she started training nine hours a week. Those hours have since more than doubled to 20, drastically cutting into education time. So Sue has had to work out a system with Charlotte’s school. “Every day, my daughter meets with her teacher at lunchtime and goes through what she will be missing and has missed, and writes it down in her agenda,” she says. Not only does it take a lot of
discipline on the child’s part, “it takes quite a bit of parental commitment,” says Sue. “I have to help out by getting missing school work.” For the time being, this system is working, although her other daughter, Gael, switched to correspondence courses when she
reached the eighth grade.

Most children in elite sports come to realize that they must find an alternative to playing catch-up at a regular public school. For Alison Hunter now 17, a competitive skier from Aurora, Ont., the crunch came when she hit high school and had to miss a large
number of classes. The answer was to send Alison at age 15, to live with a family in Calgary and attend the National Sport School, established for secondary-level students in 1994 by the Calgary Olympic Development Association in partnership with the Calgary Board of Education.

Since then Alison has studied alongside more than 100 other students involved in 15 different sports, including snowboarding, figure skating, gymnastics, tennis and luge. At the beginning of each term, teachers take a look at all students’ training and competition
schedules for that period and plan their educational timetables accordingly.

Each teacher acts as an adviser-advocate for a small number of students, grouped by sport. All students have access to a laptop computer with dial-in access to an internet account, allowing them to maintain contact with the school while they are away training or competing. Athletes missing big chunks of classroom time can always make up the deficits because the school offers year-round academic programs.

Alison’s program makes allowance for her four hours of daily training and several months absence each year at competitions. The great thing about the program, says her mother, Jan, is the flexibility. “At her new school, she was able to write three tests on
the plane under the supervision of her coaches on her way home from a meet.”

Another option for serious young athletes is a virtual school, where they can complete requirements online for a high school diploma. John Baker, president of Desire2Learn, in Kitchener, Ont., says its website at is popular with figure skaters because its flexibility translates into economy. “Ice time during school hours is a lot cheaper than ice time after school. So if they can do the academic work outside of school
hours, they can really save the parents money.”

With sports making such extraordinary demands on their time, child athletes and their parents face the challenge of making sure the interests of the children don’t become too narrow. Patrick Chan is a talented figure skater at the pre-novice level who trains at
Toronto’s Granite Club and dreams ambitiously of landing the first quadruple axel.” Patrick has participated in just about every physical activity you could fit into 12 years – not least of which is the several hours a day he puts in on the ice.

“Because he is quite young, we wanted him to have a diversity of sporting interests,
as well as time to just play”, his father, Lewis, says. “So over the years he has done ballet, Ukrainian dancing, tennis, soccer, golf, skiing and basketball.”

Rather a full plate, yet Patrick is more than up for it. “I don’t find it too much,” he says gamely. “It helps me with my skating – ballet especially. I feel like l’m a much more
well-rounded person.”

Well and good, but what about the party and sleepover circuits? How do young athletic stars fit these in? “We try to work things in around Patrick’s skating schedule,” Lewis explains. “lf
he has to go to a birthday party, we might have him skate the morning or the night before to make up for it, rather than eliminate either the practice or the party. We think it’s important for him to have friends in situations other than skating.”

Sooner or later, though, something in the whirlwind life of a young elite athlete has to give. Pascal Wollach, now 15, a competitive swimmer from Melfort, Sask., who now trains in Calgary, used to immerse himself in a variety of activities. “When I was 10, I trained five to six times a week,” he recalls. “That wasn’t too stressful, so I joined hockey and soccer but by the time I was 11 and training 14 hours a week, I had to drop out of those.”

Two years later, he gave up piano lessons. “Last year, I even wanted to quit swimming because there was too much pressure on me,” he says. “I had my school work, studying for my bar mitzvah and school sports.” He then switched to a school that allows students to work at their own pace with a teacher adviser and counts many athletes among its registrants. Currently he trains 18 hours a week but feels more in control of his life.
One of the things that contributed to the stress Pascal felt was parental expectation. “We’ve never been openly pushy, but without realizing it we were exerting subtle pressures on him,” admits his mother, Mychelle. “He was very close to achieving junior national standards but our talking about those standards only added stress to his life.” She says parents have to know when to back off and let their child take ownership of his sport.

Pierre Beauchamp, a Montreal sports psychology consultant for Olympic and other world-class athletes, urges parents to pay attention to the signs of stress in their athlete children. “There comes a time,” he says, “when they will start not wanting to go to practice and be getting constant upset stomachs and headaches. They will think obsessively about their sport all the time and about the rewards rather than the pleasure.” That’s when the parents need to step in.

Mindful of this downside, Sue Mackie monitors her children’s feelings. “We sit down with our kids every so often and ask them, “Do you really want to do this? If you don’t love it, if it’s not your passion we will support you in whatever you decide,” she says.
“It has to be their decision because gymnastics is a very intense and very competitive experience.”

Looking back on her skiing experience, Alison Hunter never felt driven by her parents, but recognizes that “a lot of parents do push their kids to do stuff they don t want to do. I know some kids who are skiing only because they think it’s what their parents want them to do.”
Jan Hunter agrees. “At races you see parents who want their kids on the podium, who constantly coach their kids on the side.”

These are the mothers and fathers who videotape their kids’ performances, then analyze them at night like NFL team managers. They relentlessly compare their moves to those of other kids. At the same time, parental involvement is crucial, especially when it comes to financial support- which can range from the $6,000 the Mackies spend annually on Charlotte’s gymnastics to the $30,000 the Hunters pay each year for Alison’s skiing. As well, there are the long hours they put in at the rink, beside the pool and behind the wheel. Small wonder some parents want to turn into their children’s coaches, but they must learn to walk the fine line between supportiveness and pushiness.

As Charlotte gets ready to attack the uneven bars, she confesses that she hears a small voice speaking inside her blond head.”Keep on working hard,” it says. And a similar small voice is probably what keeps the Pascals, the Patricks and the Alisons of this country climbing out of their warm beds at dawn to dive into cold water, hit the hard ice on chilly rinks and race down steep snowy slopes. That and dreams of some day climbing the podium to accept the gold.

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