Parents’ mettle put to test
As Olympic offspring compete, they root, agonize on sideline
When Needham gymnast Aly Raisman competes in the individual all-around Thursday, the pressure is really going to be on. On her parents, that is.
“I’m almost more tense for them than for her,” said Amy Nobile, a Hingham author and mother of two. “You’re watching [the Raismans] thinking ‘don’t have a hernia.’ I can’t even imagine that pressure,” Nobile said.
She paused. “Actually, I can.”
Never mind that most kids aren’t competing in the Olympics. And that most parents won’t have their sideline angst captured by one of NBC’s roving “parent cams,” as Rick and Lynn Raisman did on Sunday, as they tensely performed a synchronized version of their daughter’s uneven bars routine from their seats.
Even if a child is merely performing a camp skit or pitching in a recreational league game, there’s no harder place for a parent to be than on the sidelines, focused like a laser, yet unable to control the outcome.
“Most of the time I want someone to punch me in the face, knock me out, and show me the video afterward,” said radio personality Lauren Beckham Falcone, the mother of a 9-year-old girl who recently performed “Put it in the Piggy” at Wheelock Family Theatre’s summer camp program.
“You want your kid to succeed, even if it’s minor,” Falcone said, noting that the angst never stops. “Even if they don’t continue with sports, there’s not getting the job, not getting the boyfriend. It’s endless.”
The London Olympics have been called the “first Twitter Games.” But thanks to the Raismans, who unintentionally became an overnight Internet sensation — and some other Olympic mothers and fathers twitching on the sidelines — they may also be remembered as much for the parents as the social media.
Viewers have stressed out along with Rita Wieber, the mother of gymnast Jordyn Wieber, as she covered her eyes and tried to watch her daughter’s uneven bars routine on Sunday and clasped Rosary beads on Tuesday, and with Damaris Orozco, the mother of gymnast John Orozco. She alternately covered her eyes and fanned herself, the better to keep cool in the face of such an intense mental workout. And what parent couldn’t relate to the father of swimmer Chad Le Clos? An emotional Bert Le Clos watched his son win gold in the 200-meter butterfly Tuesday from beneath a South African flag he’d pulled over his head.
Smaller stages are often no easier for parents. When Robin Hauck’s fifth-grader, Lucy, competed in a Destination Imagination tournament at Westwood High in March, Hauck was so nervous she couldn’t even watch the very team she had coached for the education-based competition.
“I stopped breathing for a lot of it,” said Hauck, of Dover. “I think I kind of blacked out because people mentioned things I only saw later in the video.”
So what’s new about parents who really, really care? Nothing — and everything. As Mark Hyman, the author of two books on the growth of youth sports, noted, parents have always been emotionally invested in their children. “That’s in our DNA,” he said.
But the ramped-up emphasis on organized youth sports, where children start playing and specializing ever earlier, can push some parents over the line. (So far, no Olympic parent has pulled a hockey dad and attacked another Olympian’s parents, as of press time.)
A few mothers and fathers become too invested in the action on the field or the arena, said Hyman, the author of “The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families” and “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids.”
“The real threshold question parents need to ask is: Is it about me or them?” he said. “They’ve raised this special athlete. And [they] are surrounded by a group of parents who have the same interests. This is a whole new social opportunity. Not to be too cynical, there’s nothing wrong with supporting kids. But there’s a lot in it for the parents that we don’t always recognize.”
Actually, some parents do recognize that trait in themselves. Earlier this week, Jennifer Nadelson, a hospital administrator from Brookline, saw an “embarrassing side” of herself at her 7-year-old son’s baseball game. “My husband said I was out of control.”
Her problem: she was worried that her second-grader wasn’t pitching well enough, which she feared — only partly in jest — would weaken her social status. “I was yelling from the sidelines, sighing, moving closer into the field so I could attempt to hear the team coach speaking to my son.
“I’m a grown-up adult,” she said. “I have a relatively good job. People respect me at work. But 40 years out, I still want to be in with the cool kids. And when your kid’s kind of jock-y, you get all this extra bravado.”
For any parent, sometimes it can be hard to keep things in perspective. Barbara Pena, a former Boston Children’s Hospital doctor who now works in Miami, said sitting in the audience when her daughters compete in gymnastics can induce more stress than working in the emergency room.
“ER medicine doesn’t get my adrenaline pumping like watching in the crowd does,” she said.
Of course, parents of Olympic athletes have gone to Olympic efforts to help their children get where they are. So major sideline stress is to be expected.
Robin Vanderkaay, of Rochester, Mich., said that her mouth went dry and her heart began to race as she watched her son Peter, 28, compete Saturday in his third — and perhaps last — Olympics.
“Right before he swam, my husband and I looked at each other like, ‘This is the last one. Let’s give him all our energy,’ ” Robin said Wednesday during a phone call from London. “We were very nervous and just wanted to see him get on the medal stand.”
Peter did, taking the bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.
“To see him get on the stand was just euphoric,” his mother said.
While competing is stressful for the athletes, Robin said it’s just as stressful for the parents who have no control over what happens. As she spoke to the Globe from the Procter & Gamble Family Home, where many Olympic parents are staying, she watched families drift in after their children’s events.
“They just look wiped,” she said.
Nobile, the Hingham author and mother of a budding soccer player and gymnast, can sympathize.
“Especially in today’s competitive parenting world, I feel like I’m constantly monitoring myself,” said Nobile. “I don’t want to be too excited, but I don’t want to be too passive. I’m constantly nervous trying to figure out the right way to be.”