Normally, you won’t find me promoting the inclusion of television into one’s daily schedule. Nor will you normally find me recommending that children watch television. However, I see the Olympics as a special opportunity for leisure/sport education and I am a strong advocate for exposing children to Olympic events.
Learning What an Athlete is and What it Means to be an Athlete
For younger children (preschoolers), exposure to the Olympics is an opportunity for them to learn what an “athlete” is. I found a short Sesame Street Podcast that focuses on the word “athlete” – perhaps a good introduction for preschoolers prior to watching the Olympics.
For older children, some of the stories presented on the athletes show their journey to the Olympics – the different things they have done as part of their training, the hours they have put in, the struggles they have had along the way. These are excellent opportunities to help children understand the work, fun, success, and disappointment that comes with being an athlete. With the exposure to other athletes’ stories, there is a reference point that can be used when children experience failure in sport (or other areas of life) or when they do not achieve their goals easily, “Remember the skier who trained hard for 8 years to get to the Olympics? Remember that there were times she did not win competitions or qualify for the team?”
Exposure to Various Winter Sports
The Olympics provides a unique opportunity to educate your children about the various winter sports that exist. In a two week period, children can see men and women participate in 15 different sport disciplines. Within those disciplines, children can learn about different events. For example, figure skating includes women’s and men’s singles, pairs skating, ice dancing, and a team event. Children can see what these sports look like – how they are performed, the types of facilities they are held in, how competition is held, and how winners are determined (e.g., judging, times, goals).
Without exposure to and awareness of sports, it is impossible to develop an interest. Therefore, exposing children to various winter sports through the Olympics is one way to facilitate their awareness of sports and create an opportunity for an interest to be developed (even if their interest is only as a spectator).
Sharing Your Experiences with Sports
Watching the Olympics also provides opportunities for discussion about winter sports in which you, as a parent, have participated. Unfortunately, as many adults move through various stages of life, they stop participating in sports they were introduced to, participated in, or even competed in when they were younger. Children may have no idea that their parents know how to downhill ski, for example, or that they tried curling. Taking time to share the experiences you have had with various sports may peak your children’s interest or prompt them to ask questions that help increase their understanding of the sport and what it is like to take part. Tell them when you participated, where, with whom (a club, family, at school), and about any rituals that were associated with your participation (e.g., I always looked forward to having hot chocolate after going cross country with my family). If you competed and have pictures or medals/ribbons, dig these out and talk to your children about what it was like to be an athlete and how you achieved your accomplishments.
Athletes can be positive role models in a number of different ways. First, they are physically active. Given the decline in physical activity in North America and the rising rates of childhood obesity, those who model an active lifestyle and the benefits of that (e.g., strength, speed, flexibility, endurance) can serve as good role models. Second, Olympic athletes have a good work ethic and must persist. Their performances demonstrate what can be accomplished with hard work over a long period of time. As I mentioned above, networks often highlight athletes’ journey to the Olympics or review an athlete’s experience with competition at the Olympics. In some cases, athletes have had to overcome injuries or cope with a variety of circumstances (e.g., death in the family) on their journey to the Olympics or negative experiences during competition (e.g., falling, poor initial performance). These stories showcase determination and persistence. Third, in most cases, we see examples of good sportsmanship during the Olympics. Those who do not achieve a medal standing or do not win the gold, congratulate those who did. We see disappointment on the faces of athletes when they don’t have the success they hoped for and expressions of frustration, but we also see that it does not interfere with how they interact with their teammates or competitors. Fourth, in team sports, we see examples of how individual players work together as part of a team to achieve a goal.
Athletes’ stories offer inspiration and many athletes exhibit behaviors that we would encourage children to emulate – dedication, determination, fair play, working together, and being graceful winners and losers. Sure, there will always be athletes who fall from grace, but for the most part Olympic athletes exhibit behaviors that make them positive role models.
If your child appears drawn to a particular athlete, you may want to help him/her follow that athlete’s progress in the Olympics on social media or the Olympic website.
Dispelling Gender Myths
It is sometimes shocking to me how young children are when they begin developing an awareness of the gender stereotypes in our society. I hear stories of preschoolers explaining to parents that boys can’t wear pink or purple or that girls can’t play hockey or wrestle. I’m not sure if there will be any men at the Sochi Olympics wearing pink or purple, but there will be women playing hockey.
The Olympics is an opportunity to help children understand that men and women, boys and girls can play a wide range of sports. Although there may not be a professional women’s hockey league like the NHL, women do play hockey and they play it well. And not only do men play hockey, they also speed skate and figure skate. We want boys growing up with an understanding that girls can play a variety of sports so that boys do not feel threatened by girls’ presence on the ice, fields, or courts where they are also playing. We want girls to understand that boys and girls can participate in that same sports – whether it is figure skating or hockey or wrestling.
I’m excited that this year, women will be participating in ski jumping! They were denied that opportunity at the last winter Olympics even after efforts in court to argue that their rights were being violated. The President of the International Ski Federation, in 2005, made the comment that, “Don’t forget, it’s like jumping down from, let’s say, about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Although the official argument was that there weren’t enough good female ski jumpers to make the event a go, many feel that the belief ski jumping might damage a woman’s uterus was an influence. This attitude is changing. The International Ski federation allowed women to compete in 2011 and at Sochi (90 years after men’s ski jumping made its debut) 30 women from 15 different countries will be ski jumping for the first time in the Olympics.
This Olympics, parents won’t have to answer the question, “Why aren’t any women competing in ski jumping?”
Get Out the Schedule and Plan
So, my hope is that parents will consider the Olympics as a sport education opportunity. Whether you check your local listing or download an app that helps you follow your country, favorite sport, or specific athletes (I’m using the official Sochi 2014 Results app), plan to spend some time following the Olympics over the next two weeks and having discussions with your children about athletes, competition, winter sports, and your experiences.