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Wella Peirsol Hartig: Mom of 2 Olympic-Level Athletes Advises Parents Not to Pressure Kids To Succeed in Sports

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Being the mother of an athlete is a challenging yet rewarding role.  At momsTEAM we think sports moms deserve to be honored, not just on the second Sunday in May, but for an entire month. So we have designated May as National Sports Moms Month and invited some veteran sports moms to share their wisdom by responding to a series of questions. We will post a new blog for every day of May, which we hope you will find interesting, empowering, and informative, and that you will share them with your family and friends.Aaron Piersol

Today we hear from Wella Peirsol Hartig, mother of not one, but two elite athletes: her son, Aaron Peirsol, a seven-time Olympic medalist and the holder of two world records in the men's backstroke, and her daughter, Hayley Peirsol, just the third woman in the world to break the 16-minute mark in the 1500-meter freestyle, among other accomplishments. 

momsTEAM: Were you an athlete and what sports did you play as a youth (under 19)?

Hartig: No, I really wasn't an athlete, except that I used to run around the playground. I was always on the monkey bars, to the point I had to put band-aids behind my knees! The ability to do athletics was in me, but nobody tapped it, which was a shame. I don't know if I would call my dancing "athletics." I started out in ballet, where I loved the outfits, but I wasn't in that long, because I couldn't be bothered to pay attention to all the details. They put me in tap, which kept me busy, I remember. Then I started modern dance in high school. Dancing is disciplined, and I was too wild for it, so I ended up in modern dance. I did begin doing sports on my own at 19. My first year of junior college I started running, which is something I have continued all these years.

momsTEAM: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a sports mom?

Hartig: Probably watching my kids excel. That doesn't mean excelling to the farthest degree - just watching them learn to swim was a thrill. It is rewarding to see your kids do better and enjoy an activity.Hayley Peirsol

momsTEAM: What lesson has your sports-active child taught you? 

Hartig: So many! That's probably the biggest thing of all. I constantly think of what my kids have taught me. I would be a completely different person if I didn't have my children in sports. I see the world differently, and am a lot better person.  By watching other parents, I learned what I wanted to be like. In athletics, it is especially important that you not push kids into doing a sport, in any way, shape or form. You can pull them out of the car and drag them to practice, but they really have to want to do it.  If they see you want their success more than they want it, then you've shot yourself in the foot. Just drop them off at their practice, whatever sport they are playing - whether it be waterpolo, swimming, t-ball - and my only advice is then for you to leave.  Let the kids have that time. That's time for them to grow. You don't need to be there on top of them.  

I have been working with a writer named Laura Cottam Sajbel on a book about being the mother to two elite athletes. We're calling the book Buoyant. One of the main reasons I wanted to write about being a sports parent is that no one tells you all the things you need to know in raising an incredibly talented kid. I will have a lot more to say in my book, so be on the look out; it should be coming out soon.

momsTEAM: What is the most important lesson your child is learning from his/her sport?

Hartig: Oh, golly, that would be better for them to answer than for me. SO many things, if you were to ask them. I think humility would be a really big one for my kids. That's what I learned from watching Aaron, too. He was so humble about winning that when he got in the car after a meet, you wouldn't have even known he won. The emphasis shouldn't be all about winning. The question you should ask your child is, "Did you have fun?" What Aaron and Hayley would tell you is that the journey and the wonderful people they meet along the way that are the best part, that there are so many positives.

momsTEAM: If you could "flip a switch" and change one thing about the culture of youth sports what would it be?Peirsol hartig family

Hartig: I touched on it in my last answer, but it is one word: Parents! If we could get the parents out of youth sports,  I think we would be a lot better off. Parents need to watch over their kids to protect them, of course, but parents can put a lot of pressure on their kids, just sitting and watching. I have seen people give hand signals to their kids from the pool deck. Some people do live vicariously through their kids, and that's too much pressure.

I think that's just a giant mistake people make with their kids. Don't have the medals up in the house; don't make that a focus. You can't have these shrines people put up in their homes; that can do a lot of harm. We had nothing in the house that suggested swimming. At home, in our house, we were just a family, watching movies together.

You also have to be prepared for things to move on; inevitably, it will end. When Aaron stopped competing, I have to say, I was a little bit shocked about that. So it is important for everyone to realize that sports is just a part of your life, not who you are.

momsTEAM:  Here's a chance to brag a little: what have you done to make sports better for kids?

Hartig: If anything, I gave birth to Aaron and Hayley; it's the only thing I can possibly say. They are great kids to emulate, and that's really important for younger kids to watch. We need to see more humility.  Parents don't teach that enough. If you lose, you should always shake the other person's hand, be a gentleman or a gracious lady. If your kids don't have that in them, then you, as a parent, did something wrong. I will say you definitely look to the parents for that one.



For more blogs in momsTEAM's May is Sports Moms Month series, click here.