Sport is generally accepted as being a vehicle that teaches children valuable life skills, inspires, motivates, maximizes their potential, and keeps them healthy. Yes, it does do all those things most of the time.
Haywood Hale Brown once said: “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” I’m sure this is true in all sports, but as I’m mainly a “swimming mummy” I’ll use swimming as an example of just how revealing it can be and why parents must take a larger role in shaping their own children’s attitudes. And some of it possibly starts with them.
For ease of writing, I’ll use a fictional character – let’s call her Lexie. Lexie is a junior swimmer who is in the top in her age group and in her state. She is her club champ. She is known as the one to beat. She never returns from a meet without a load of mostly gold and silver medals.
She isn’t big headed about it. In fact, due to the “ugly side” she experiences, she actually plays her success down and neither she nor her mother talk about her swimming or wins. (And they don’t have to – everyone else does!) She is very level headed and doesn’t get excited about gold medals, unless they come with a new Personal Best time because then she feels she deserved the medal and didn’t just get it because she won the race.
She is well known in swimming circles and in her home town for her swimming achievements. She deserves her accolades because she trains hard and has big dreams. She isn’t very good at land sports though, but people forget this when she wins at swimming and begrudge her for it.
She is, however, also good at her school work and always receives high grades. She is also very popular at school. In addition to being modest (because her parents taught her to be gracious in all things), she has a caring “motherly” nature, always looking out for fellow students and friends. She even spends her pocket money donating to organizations like Greenpeace to save the whales and also to other charities.
But she doesn’t talk about her achievements to her friends or even her teacher at school – they have to find out from the grapevine. And no matter how modest and low key she plays it, there are still those she has to mix with who see her successes and achievements as cause for punishing her.
The types of “punishment” are the extreme effects of jealousy such as spitefulness, lying, bullying, cheating, poor sportsmanship, selfishness, teasing, aggressiveness, and gossip, etc.
All Lexie wants to do is swim, and swim well. She’d like to be so good that she might make it to the Nationals one day and who knows where that might lead her… She has a dream, and it’s not about beating her peers just to make them feel bad about themselves… she’s winning for herself. For her dream. Of course, they don’t see that. They see her winning as a personal affront to them.
I’m sure you’ve known youngsters who appear to be “good at everything”, which usually isn’t quite true, it’s just that the things they do and they are good at, stand out for their level of excellence. Most of them are modest kids who try to deal with the “baggage” that comes with their success.
I’ve rarely met a swimmer who is at the top of their ranking ladder who has a bighead about their achievements but I won’t say they don’t exist. I can think of about 15 great young swimmers who excel and who are down to earth, modest, self-effacing youngsters who do the sport proud.
On the other hand, I can only think of three swimmers in the same age group who are equally as successful but who brag about it and use unprofessional tactics to psyche their rivals out and are really unpleasant for other swimmers to be around.
Fortunately, most top swimmers also have that innate sportsmanlike quality that sparks admiration… Lexie is one of these swimmers.
Lexie, like others on the top of the ladder, deserve their success because they work twice as hard as their team-mates at training. When the other kids are dawdling and not putting in 100% effort, or cheating by not doing all the laps, Lexie is pushing herself and doing exactly as her Coach asks. Lexie never misses a training session either unless she has a good excuse.
The other swimmers and some of their parents wear blinkers. They don’t see the real reasons why Lexie is good at swimming and beats their child. They are looking through jealous-colored glasses and everything they see is influenced by their jealousies.
Some parents and their children will have a hard time accepting your child’s talent and success, and you’ll find it isn’t necessarily the ones whose children are poor swimmers. It’s the ones who feel threatened by your child’s success, and their child might be one who constantly wins bronze medals (but they want your child’s gold!) They don’t see their child’s lack of natural talent or failure to train as the reason for their child’s lack of success. They see YOUR child as the problem. Your child is the problem because your child is constantly beating theirs and getting on the relay team because they’re faster.
Because your child is so good, their jealous child is unhappy, which makes mummy and daddy unhappy, and in their eyes, this is all your fault and your successful child’s fault. They blame you and your “Lexie” because they feel you have taken away the opportunity to win from their own child. If you weren’t there and if Lexie wasn’t there, then maybe their child would have a chance at winning. Then their child would be happy and so would they. And they could feel proud of themselves. But they can’t and it’s all your fault.
Some parents really do take it as an insult if other children are more successful than their own children.
A personal, but true story: I was verbally and physically attacked at the end of a school swimming carnival (in which my daughter had again won everything and came home with the School Champion medal), by a crazy mother whose jealous behaviors and those of her child had been growing over the years and starting to cause serious problems at the school.
This day she accosted me, screaming in my face, pushing me in my chest towards the pool, using four letter words to tell me how sick she was of my daughter always winning and what we could both do with ourselves. Use your imagination – it’s definitely nothing I could repeat here! As she’d done this in front of the entire junior school and teachers, I had plenty of witnesses and I was advised it was time to report this family to the police – which I reluctantly did.
Well, I had no choice. The “history” of this family’s jealous obsession included a great deal of trouble making on the daughter’s part and one day her father even came to the school and in front of the classroom, witnessed by other children, this jealous girl’s father shook his fist in front of my then 9 year old daughter’s face because he was “sick of her”. (I think my daughter had just beaten their daughter in a local talent quest.)
So I am speaking from experience when I say that a successful “Lexie” can bring out the worst in some people, who seem to think that your child’s success means their child is somehow “less than”.
What’s behind this? A whole lot of emotional problems that have nothing to do with the Lexie’s of the world but they have to wear the consequences of it. People with low self-esteem are most likely to react with jealous behaviors. Some of them even have a “if we can’t beat you, we’ll find ways to destroy you” type attitude. They are emotionally immature, and some, as we have seen, are unstable. And these parents are passing on these attributes to their own children.
Of course, they’ll never admit that they are jealous and that it is their immaturity and jealousy that is causing the problems, and they will come up with other excuses for their hateful behavior. They’ll tell you how your Lexie is mean or spoiled or given preferential treatment, etc. None of it is true, but in their mind it is better people think that, than know the truth – that they are immature, insecure adults with a problem.
The thing is there is nothing you or your Lexie can do to stop this, because you aren’t responsible for other people. People who don’t feel good about themselves to begin with are going to feel even worse when your Lexie keeps beating them. They won’t care that your Lexie trains twice as hard and wants to go to Nationals. They’ll only care that your Lexie’s winning makes their daughter look bad and as a result, makes them look bad. Maybe they think it’s a genetic thing. (Maybe it is!)
They will always see your Lexie as the problem because if Lexie wasn’t doing so well and getting all the attention that goes with it, then maybe their kid would have stood a chance. And the only way these people know how to make themselves feel better is to make you look worse, or feel worse!
These people won’t just stop at poor behaviors themselves, they’ll start their hate campaign and drag their friends into it, and even attempt to get your own friends on side. They’ll get people to stop talking to you, there’ll be gossip and untruths spread, exclusions… (And you thought it only happened in schools?)
Where does this leave us? Well, if YOU are the parent of a jealous child and you recognize or suspect these behaviors, then clearly you need to do something quick. Not only because it is unsportsmanlike but because obviously your child needs help – and you do want to raise a happy, well balanced, confident child full of high self-esteem, yes?
Nip the problem in the bud now – enlist the help of their coach. Most coaches are not going to be disgusted if you approach them with this problem – they will be impressed that you’ve come forward about it and eager to help.
But what about the Lexies of this world? Where does this leave them? Unfortunately, not only can it be lonely at the top, but being there attracts attention, good and bad and just as the spoiled brat needs to learn some self control and raise their self esteem in healthy ways, your champion needs to develop a tough shell and learn to deal with the ugly side of sport.
Advice for Lexie:
1. Don’t stoop to their level – ever. Be the “better person”. Other people will be watching and notice, which will go in your favor and attract their support. Apart from which, what goes around, comes around and you should keep your slate clean so you attract only the good stuff!
2. As hard as it is, continue to treat those particular jealous individuals the same as you treat others. Do offer your goggles if theirs breaks before a race. Do congratulate them on a race they’ve just swum. When they pull a face at you, smile at them!
3. Retain your dignity. Ignore their barbs. Remember, YOU are a champion – you have to behave like one. They’re not champions and that’s why they don’t and can’t act like one. You don’t see the Olympic elite behaving like spoiled pre-schoolers – if you want to be like them one day, start practicing now.
4. Even though you’re not big-headed now, make sure you remain that way. Stay modest. Your own parents and community might treat you like a celebrity and it can be easy to get caught up in all that hype. Ignore it – it will take your focus away from what is real and important to you… making the Nationals. And if you do become a big-head, you will lose friends and even have your Coach on your back. NOBODY likes a big-head!
5. NEVER play dumb, or start to lose races, just to be “accepted”. You don’t have to do that. A handful of sincere and supportive friends is worth 100 times more than a large group of insincere people who stab you in the back. Real friends would never expect you to do that anyway. Would you want your friend to start acting like a loser just so you could feel good about yourself? You owe it to yourself, your coach, AND your club to keep swimming at a top level. They’ve invested time in you and they expect you to do your best. This also helps others in your squad who may use you as a benchmark and if they’re constantly trying to beat you, they’ll be constantly training hard to catch up.
Having said all this, that doesn’t mean Lexie has no alternative but to put up with bad treatment now or ever. As with any bullies, swimming team mates who are jealous and behave badly need to be exposed and stopped. First, Lexie should confront them herself, in a polite and calm manner to talk about it and find out what their problem is. If they come out with insults, Lexie should ask for real examples to justify their insults.
Lexie: Why are you being so mean to me? What have I done to you?
Other kid: You’re a stuck up bighead!
Lexie: In what way? How am I being a stuck up bighead?
Other kid: You think you’re all that just because you got 8 gold medals!
Lexie: So, what you’re saying is because I won 8 gold medals that automatically means I’m a stuck up bighead?
Other kid: Yeah, you are.
Lexie: Well, give me an example? What do I do? Because I don’t wear my medals and I don’t talk about them. I finish the race and just sit down again. How is that being a stuck-up bighead? Seems to me you’re doing more talking about me and my medals than I ever have…
Other kid will not have a reply to this and their friends will start looking sheepish. Even if “other kid” continues his vendetta, his friends will have had their eyes opened and will not be quite so inclined to assist him. 10 points to Lexie!
If the behavior continues, Lexie or you, as parent, should tell the coach because it is the Coach’s job to not only know what is happening in their squad but to deal with it. This is not telling tales. Lexie is as entitled as the next person to swim safely without harassment and enjoy her swimming experience.
At the end of the day, Lexie must realize that throughout her swimming career, she is going to face other swimmers and their parents with their jealousy fuelled, unsportsmanlike behaviors. Lexie can turn this negative attention to her advantage by realizing she must be pretty damn good for them to be so obsessed with her!
Besides, when she does make it to the Nationals… or the Olympics… she’ll have the last laugh!