Friday, August 08, 2008

Debbie Phelps to swim parents: Chill

(A longer version of this post appears at the Beacon Press blogsite.)

Not long ago, I spent some time in the principal’s office – about 45 minutes in a hardback chair, if I recall correctly.

I’ve been thinking about that visit and about the principal of Windsor Mill Middle School outside Baltimore, Debbie Phelps. Debbie will be in Beijing for the next two weeks for the Summer Olympics, which begin Friday. Her 23-year-old son, Michael, will be there too. Michael is the iconic American swimmer of whom much is expected by U.S. sports fans. He will be the favorite in every race he enters during the Summer Games. A record eight gold medals is a possibility. Fewer than six for Phelps would be a stinging disappointment. It’s a good thing Michael Phelps has the broadest shoulders on the planet. He’ll need them to carry those outsized expectations.

When I went to see Debbie, it was evident that I wasn’t speaking to just another sports mom. We spoke about a trip she was planning to see Michael swim. Rome or Vienna or someplace similarly distant. She mentioned her own literary project, a book she would be writing about her experiences poolside, a guide to raising a humble, well-adjusted world record holder.

In other ways, I was struck that her story was so utterly unexceptional.

She had three kids, Michael being the youngest. She and her then husband lived in rural Maryland in a home surrounded by five acres. “I got the kids involved in as much as I could: baseball softball, gymnastics, tap, ballet, scouts. Michael was never a scout. But the girls were scouts,” she told me.

The family belonged to a swim club. Debbie says the main attraction was for her children to learn water safety. She wanted them to conquer any fears early in life. In short order, the two girls were on the club swim team. Then champions. Then dreaming of the Olympics.

The Phelps sisters were such hotshots, a swim club in Baltimore more or less recruited them to join the swim team. Debbie shuttled them to practices with a new baby. Boy Michael spent hours, days, at the pool. “Michael grew up with the smell of chlorine. It was such a natural environment for him,” Debbie explained.

There’s more, obviously. I devote several pages to the Phelps family in my book.

As I sat with Debbie Phelps, I asked how she saw the role and responsibilities of a parent whose child is a superstar athlete. She told me that parents frequently approach her, asking the same thing. With a laugh, she also explained that they tell her she is a role model for them. Hard to say exactly what about Debbie they were modeling. Or maybe not so hard. My guess: raising the best swimmer in the world.

“People often wait around to speak with me, to ask questions. Like, “My son was 9 he was doing this, and when he was 11 his time was that. They’re looking for answers. I just say, parent your child. Love them for who they are, whether they swim the fastest(butter)fly or finish eighth in their heat.

“To me, there’s a very fine line between the athlete, coach and parent. Everyone has their roles. If you sat here right now and told me you’d give me $200 million to recite Michael’s world fly record, I could not tell you that. Yet there are parents whose child is trying to beat my son who can spit out those things. I don’t get involved in that. I talk to Michael as a parent.”

I asked Debbie what concerns her about the parents she runs into at swim meets.

The answer was somewhat impolitic. Yet it sounded like one that would come easily to a middle school principal. “They nag too much,” she said.

“They go to an athletic event and their kid isn’t doing their best time. They get upset with the child. They think that it always has to be better, better, better, better, not realizing that even for the most talented swimmers it’s a progression.”

“Parents just need to chill. Realize that it doesn’t help to set expectations, especially unrealistic ones. Put yourself in their shoes. Do you map things out so carefully in your own life? Such as, I am going to be CEO of a company? Does it fall out in nice little pockets? Same with kids. Their progression is not going to fall into nice little pockets. There may not be another Michael Phelps for decades, even though, I have parents tell me their son is on the same track.” As I left her office, I asked Debbie to let me know when her book was coming out, and told her I would very much like to read it. I suggested a publication date well after mine.


FREDTERP said...

Rodgers Forge is not rural Maryland? FREDTERP

Mark Hyman said...

Thanks for reading, Fred. And thanks for taking the time to write.

The Phelps family lived in northern Harford County until 1990, before moving to Rodgers Forge.

arlington, texas said...

I think a lot of parents live through their swimmers and that can bring out their "competitive spirit" (thus the need to chill).

As a swim mom for many years and still a few more to come, this lesson has been learned. I can't say I don't push him to do his best or be his best - but I emphasize this in everything he does - not just the swimming.

Michael Phelps set an excellent example to all athletes who want to succeed; hard work and practice, practice, practice does pay off. And, the appreciation and respect he showed to his mother is commendable.

middleagedmama said...

I'm with Debbie Phelps. I have a son who's been swimming with a team since he was 8; in the pool since he was 1. It was his idea to join a team at 8 and it's always been his idea to participate and continue to do so. He is now 13. He's always been a slow swimmer but with great form, which has been a bother to coaches and his Dad. His coaches have always said we need to find the competitor in him, that he needs to go faster. But I think that it's his commitment to the behaviors that it takes to compete that makes him strong and will make him succeed in swimming or whatever he decides to do in life. Even after various health issues that had to be resolved, he always goes back to the pool and his team. I've never pushed him, or even been with him at every practice or meet. It's been his own devotion that has driven us to the pool every night. I've seen parents change personality in the stands at meets, become incredibly intense, angry and quite uncomfortable to be around because their child is not performing to their expectations. This for the child is very upseting and for the family. The parents are missing the point of participating in the sport. The joy is in being able to "Do It" not the winning. Can you swim 400 meters without stopping? Wow! Michael Phelps has achieved great things this week - for once the word awesome applies. I'm sure his mom is throroughly proud. Proud of his swimming but also equally proud of how he's handled himself in the media. The kid has patience and grace. I think it's this mother/son relationship that bolsters this kid, Phelps - what was it he said after the last relay he won with his team, when he was being asked a million questions by reporters about strategy, work ethic, etc. everybody looking for the perfect sound bite to air on the networks ..."I just really want to see my Mom right now." Sounds perfect to me ...