Five-Ring Fever: When Olympic Parents Push Their Kids Too Hard

Silver Medalist and mother Judi Brown Clarke warns about overzealous parenting.

ByABC News
July 31, 2012, 2:47 PM

July 31, 2012— -- Judi Brown Clarke, a silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics who went on to coach at Michigan State University, witnessed young athletes who fell apart as their controlling parents pushed them to the limit.

"I have seen athletes who wanted to please their parents so much -- this extra pressure to perform made them anorexic or bulimic," said Clarke, now 51.

Behind every Olympic athlete is a parent (or two) who have encouraged and pushed their child through tens of thousands of hours of grueling training to keep them on track.

Jim and Cecille Adrian watched their 23-year-old son Nathan qualify for the 100 meters freestyle with the fastest time in the preliminary rounds.

"Driving about 100,000 miles in four years, taking vacations in about 15 different cities in the US, probably 100,000 air miles -- and that's just the start," Jim Adrian told ABC News. "It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it. It's a good investment. You always invest in your kids."

For Les and Cathy Volmer, parents to 100 meter butterfly gold medalist Dana, their daughter's success as a junior swimmer convinced them to keep supporting her – despite the missed vacations and long hours.

"The cost of it all -- you had to look ahead and say, I don't want to say is she worth spending the money on – [but] are we pointing in the right direction, are we putting our money in the right direction?" Les Volmer told ABC News. "As long as she kept giving us information with her smiles, her talent, her coaches talking to us about yeah, she can make the next level – then it was always worth it. And it got expensive but there was always a success in sight. So we kept going on."

Sports psychologists and even the athletes themselves recognize that parents need to balance their control so their children can be winners, but not losers in life.

Clarke feels so strongly about the issue that she contacted Rita Wieber to guide her before 17-year-old Jordyn Wieber's disappointing gymnastic performance in London.

"I wanted to give her insight into what it looks like from the athlete's perspective to be a parent -- where is the line of control," said Clarke, who is now director of diversity at the National Science Foundation Center for Science and Technology at Michigan State University.

"I sometimes find that it's not the parents who have had success, but the parent who had a frustrating career and vicariously see their child as their second chance," said Clarke. "They see it as a personal accomplishment instead of the child's accomplishment."

Most athletes' parents never step over healthy boundaries, according to Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.

But according to a study on coach perceptions, three out of 10 parents may cross that fine line "unknowingly," and one in 10 will actually be "high maintenance."

"They are critical with the child or lose emotional control," said Gould. "Sometimes they try to coach when they are not trained as a coach or walk off the court with a lot of drama."

He and his colleagues studied the long-term outcomes of Olympic champions in a paper published by the Association of Applied Sports Psychology.

"We know parents in general influence kids in a lot of ways," he said. "If the parent places more importance on winning that tends to create more stress."

Their research has shown that parental pressure can also backfire, hurting an athlete's development. Some "burn out" or leave the sport altogether.