What do you want to be when you grow up?

Richard Fryer and Wayne Goldsmith

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This was the question posed to Richard’s kids by their primary school teachers last week. And come to think of it, each of them has been asked the same question multiple times already in their short lives. A simple question. A question about dreams and role models.

Fast forward to the other end of the spectrum. We work with elite athletes. These are aspiring Olympians and professional athletes who dedicate themselves in pursuit of the dreams that in many cases were set when answering that simple question in primary school – what do you want to be when you grow up?

Except, for every successful Olympian who makes the team, makes the podium, or for every pro athlete who gets to run out for their Team, State or Country, there are countless others who fall short. Either they missed the qualifying time by milliseconds, or they couldn’t quite replicate their training efforts when it mattered most. And then for those who do succeed, it doesn’t last forever. Eventually there will be others who are faster and stronger, and the inevitable retirement will follow.

And what next? This is where that simple question becomes a problem. In a population of athletes who fall short in the pursuit of a dream or who are at the point where they need to move on in their lives, the common story is that of sport becoming their entire identity. They define themselves by what they do and failing or retiring becomes an identity crisis. I believe we can trace this issue back to that simple question asked of kids the world over. When we mistake what we do with who we are problems follow.

So, it’s that little two-letter word – be­ – that is at the core of the issue. We don’t ask kids what they want to do when they grow up, even though that would indicate we can shift and change what we do and still be us. We don’t even ask kids who they want to be when they grow up, indicating that identities can, and should, be multifaceted and unique. No, our choice of words is specific and universal – what do you want to be? In that simple sentence we are priming our children to think of themselves as synonymous with what they do. We are fusing career with identity and setting in place a ticking time bomb for years to come.

The Shane Gould Story: I am more than what I do.

At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Gould won three swimming gold medals, setting a world record in each race. She also won a bronze and a silver medal. She is the only person, male or female, to hold every world freestyle record from 100 metres to 1500 metres and the 200-metre individual medley world record simultaneously, which she did from 12 December 1971 to 1 September 1972. She was the first female swimmer ever to win three Olympic gold medals in world record time, and the first swimmer, male or female, to win Olympic medals in five individual events in a single Olympics. She is also the only Australian to win three individual gold medals at a single Olympics.

At the age of 16, she retired from competitive swimming, citing pressures placed upon her by her success and media profile.

One of Australia’s greatest ever swimmers and Olympians Shane Gould tells her story with remarkable insight and confronting reality.  Shane made the decision to live a life away from swimming for two decades. When she resumed public life, she told this story.

“When I was 15, I was a national celebrity. I met political leaders, famous people – and I was always introduced as Shane Gould the swimmer or Shane Gould the Olympic medal winner or something similar. I decided to retire at 16. One day – now retired – I was looking at the mirror – and thought – My God – I’m Shane Gould the NOTHING. The thing that had defined me was gone. It took the next 20 years to figure out who I really was”.

Shane’s story is exceptional given her incredible achievements at such a young age, but it is by no means unique – in sport or in many other vocations. It is incredibly important for people’s long-term health and wellbeing for us to help them to broaden their sense of who they are to loosen the connection between our chosen activities in life and our sense of identity. Our Athletic Identity Model illustrates this shift.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t aspire to represent our country at the Olympics, or aim for other pinnacle achievements? Not at all! Goal striving is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. But we need to look beyond this for our sense of what defines who we are, so that when we reach that inevitable transition to the next chapter of life, we can move on and grow.

Coaching Applications:

  1. Focus on developing the athlete as a human being: coach the person before coaching the performance.
  2. Incorporate personal development into practices and training daily. Empower kids to make decisions and show them the power of the choices they make. Rather than focusing on “building” a great tennis player or swimmer or football player, “build” a wonderful human being: selfless, committed, passionate about playing, honest etc. – and if the player has the talent and the desire to succeed those attributes will carry them to success.
  3. Think about values before goals – what enduring qualities are you helping to develop that is independent of the specific goals the athlete may have?

Sporting Parents Considerations.

  1. Love, value and accept your child for who they are – not for what they do. When they win – love them unconditionally. When they lose – love them unconditionally. Winning or losing should make no difference to how you parent or how you show love to your children.
  2. Develop personal values, character, and self-acceptance in your kids – then the person they become will determine what they achieve. Remember the wonderful line from Steve Hansen – former All Blacks Coach: “Being a great person makes them successful. Becoming successful does not make them a great person”.

About the authors

Richard Fryer is one of Australia’s most in-demand performance psychologists. He currently works with the women’s Olympic water polo team, the Australian archery team, Sunshine Coast Lightning netball team and a host of individuals in more than twenty other sports. Richard started out in sport as a rowing coach and spent two-decades working with some of the world’s largest organisations helping them build sustainable performance.

Wayne Goldsmith has worked in the sports industry for more than 30 years. He’s a writer, speaker, presenter, coach and educator who’s influenced coaches, athletes, parents and sports leaders all over the world. His passion is coaching coaches to coach and educating parents of sporting kids to parent with unconditional love and acceptance.

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