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For Kids In Sports, Parents Must Play Well Too


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And if you're like me, you're probably spending more than a minute glued to the TV watching the nation's athletes perform at the highest levels.

And you might also be inspired to hear how those athletes got to that level, the sweat, tears, and time they and their families have sacrificed to get to London. Take 16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas. Here's a clip from a Proctor and Gamble video of Gabby's mom, Natalie Hawkins, talking about what she calls her gut-wrenching decision to send her daughter to Iowa for training.


NATALIE HAWKINS: Letting go of Gabrielle was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. But it's now one of the most rewarding things that I've ever got to experience in my life because there's no greater joy than for a parent to see their child reach their dream.

MARTIN: Of course it takes a lot to become an Olympian but involving children in athletics in any level can be a serious commitment. But we've been thinking about how much is too much? How far should parents go to support their kids' athletic dreams? And how do you avoid becoming one of those people who seem all consumed by their children's lives?

We wanted to talk more about this so we're joined now by three moms of athletes who have earned their stripes, or shall we say, medals. Janet Hill is the mother of Grant Hill, an NBA player who just signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. He was part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1996. He's in London now as part of the U.S. presidential delegation to the Olympics. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JANET HILL: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Janis Meredith is also with us. She is the mom of three. All of her children played youth and college sports and now she writes about parenting and sports for her website JBMThinks.com. Janis, welcome to you.

JANIS MEREDITH: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And Binte Adebiyi is the mother of athlete Seun Adebiyi. He is a swimmer. He's also training for the 2014 Winter Olympics in skeleton. Binte, thank you so much for joining us.

BINTE ADEBIYI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Janet, I'm going to start with you. Your husband Calvin Hill - many people might remember this - is a former professional NFL player.

HILL: Yes.

MARTIN: So you're definitely a family with a lot of familiarity with sports at a high level. Did you always assume that your son, Grant, would play a sport? And how did you go about figuring out what he should play and how much he should devote to it?

HILL: Well, he started in soccer. We did not want him to play football at a young age because it was too dangerous, although I think he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. He then went into basketball, and on the clip that you played, he had rules. I believe, with children, they have to have rules. And one of the rules was that if he didn't get his academic work done he could not play.

So that kept him motivated, both academically and athletically. He went into basketball at Duke University where he won two national championships and he's had a magnificent NBA career for 18 years. He is now 39 years old. One of the secrets, I think, in terms of his being very level-headed for a 39 year old superstar, is that he has not been pedestal-ed - I'll use that as a verb - by his parents or his wife.



HILL: He married well.

MARTIN: That's right. We'll leave that there for now. We'll come back to you.

HILL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Janis Meredith, you're the mom of three - two still in college, one who graduated recently. But at one point you were telling us that you and your husband were going to four basketball games every week, some an hour or two away. And some people might wonder, why? Was that worth it?

MEREDITH: Oh, my gosh, yes. Well, you know, we never wanted to say sorry, you can't play because, you know, your older sister's playing or whatever. You know, so we did our best to, you know, always let the kids play when they wanted to and if we could feasibly afford it and we could fit the time in. And it was only one season.

And it was a little stressful. I'm not lying. I'm not going to lie. It was a little stressful and crazy. But, you know, it's done now and so now I look back and say, oh, gosh. I'd love to go through that again, because even though it was stressful it was well worth it. And just enjoy watching your kids out there.

MARTIN: Tell me why. Tell me why it was worth it because some people might be thinking oh, my goodness, that lady's crazy.


MARTIN: She could've been, like, reading her Essence magazine. She could've been, you know, drinking tea. They could've played in the back yard. So tell us why it was worth it, why you think it was worth it.

MEREDITH: It's worth it because, you know, I guess as a sports parent I always think that, you know, I want to look at the big picture. And the big picture to me and to my husband was not how many points our kids scored or, you know, how many minutes they played, but what kind of person they were going to become in the end.

And so as we went through the of driving to these games and flying out of our work to be there on time and, you know, yeah, eating fast food in the lot because that's all you had time for. We saw that our kids were growing as people and learning lessons that were going to help them grow up and mature. So, you know, I guess just being able to see the big picture really helped.

MARTIN: Binte Adebiyi, you came to Alabama from Nigeria where your son Seun was - when he was six. Now I understand at one point you were commuting from Huntsville nine hours each week so your son could go to school in Jacksonville, Florida. And you know what? And the other thing, I hope you don't mind my mentioning that, in addition to your day job, you also picked crops at some point with your son to make ends meet and to, kind of, support all the things that he was involved in. And I wanted to ask you, why was it worth it? Why do you think that was important to do?

B. ADEBIYI: Well, he enjoyed swimming so much and that's what your child makes your child so happy, you'll go to all extent as much as possible to support that. He really was into swimming, he liked it. Even as a very little boy when he was four, he made me get a stool so he could wash up dishes just to play with the water. So he's always been around water and he's always loved it. Now, there's so much to swimming other than just competing and winning. It's helped him in terms of time management. It's helped him in terms of being focused. He was able to pay attention to details, to follow rules. I mean, swimming is really an exact sport. If you are doing breast stroke you can't do a one-handed touch, things like that. So that was really very good in terms of his overall development and, of course, he knew he had to also pay attention to is academic work. So being able to balance things was something that was so important that I felt any sacrifice was worth it. So I didn't mind, in fact, I really was so happy when he was able to attend Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida because they have an excellent swim program. And...

MARTIN: And - I'm sorry. Let me just jump right quick to say as families around the world are watching the Olympics, we're talking to three sports moms about involving children in athletics. I'm speaking with Binte Adebiyi. She's the mom of swimmer and skeleton racer Seun Adebiyi. Janis Meredith is a mom of three current and former college athletes. And Janet Hill is the mom of NBA player - superstar - Grant Hill.

Now, so Janet, I'm going to go back to you and I think any parent who has ever been involved in sports has always, there's always seen the one on the sidelines who is, you know, yelling or who is like running onto - this actually happened at one of my son's soccer games - ran on the field during play to give his son water. Don't know why he thought that was OK, but he did. And so, and then the impression that you get is that some parents are just so consumed with their kid's athletic participation, that it becomes them, it becomes a reflection of them. And I wanted to ask if there's ever, you know, what do you do about that? Did you ever feel yourself becoming consumed with his life? And how would you caution people to know if they're getting the signs of that?

B. ADEBIYI: Well, you know, I...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I was asking Janet Hill that, and Binte, I'll come to you. I'll come back to you.

HILL: Well, I...

MARTIN: Janet Hill? Mm-hmm.

HILL: I think what you described happens very often, and it has happened for years and years. So, again, as I said, Grant is 39 but it happened 20, 25 years ago with him when he was the age of some of the young people out there today. I think parents can do the most for their children by the kind of sacrifices that have already been described by the other women on the phone, and that I went through too, when he was in elementary and high school. But I think, to put things in perspective, and what I meant by the pedestal, is that the school, the team, the teammates, the press may put your child up on a pedestal. But his parents have got to - with him or her - make sure that they understand that this is an important activity, but there are other important activities going on, too, in the family. We have a small family, so in our case just one child, but my work, my husband's work - and now that he's married - his wife's career and his children, they are also very important. And I think he understands that as a father and a husband.

MARTIN: Well, you also insisted that he have other activities too. I remember your insisting that he play an instrument.

HILL: Yes. I myself play the piano and he turned out that he played the piano also. He also tried a number of other things. He had the big bass and the slide trombone, he wasn't particularly good at those two, but he tried them. But I think having an appreciation of music. I didn't realize that one day he'd marry a musician, and now thinks that he is the sixth Temptation, but he can't sing.


MARTIN: OK. Well we'll keep that to ourselves.


MARTIN: Janis Meredith, I have to ask you about something that has been in the news. Unfortunately, you know, leading up to the Olympics and there have been a couple of stories about coaches who have been inappropriate with the athletes that they were coaching. And, of course, there's the terrible Penn State, you know, terrible story out of Penn State when an assistant coach was, you know, abusing - has been convicted of - abusing young children who were not players, but who were very young children with whom he was involved and with whom he had access to, in part, because of his profile in the sports community. And I just wanted to ask if, how you think about, you know, protecting your children from inappropriate behavior by coaches, because when they get to a certain elite level they can be spending more time with the coaches than they are with you?

MEREDITH: Oh, yeah. And it is scary but I think this is where it's important for parents to have somewhat of the knowledge of the coach and to know him or her, to do their homework. You know, I mean you don't just send your kid to a camp or a coaching clinic or something without knowing anything about the coaches. And there are lots of, you know, some organizations will do background checks and, you know. So it's good to ask questions and to ask these organizations or your coaching or your school - I'm sure schools are going to have to have that but - you know, we thought Penn State did. But, so you ask the right questions, you be sure that they are cleared and then talk to other parents too and see, you know, get the background or hear anything going on. You know, so just - it's just got to be a matter of just asking the right questions and always, you know, always being aware that it is a possibility.

MARTIN: Binte, I know you wanted to talk about pushy parents.




B. ADEBIYI: Yes. Well, I have seen quite a number of pushy parents, and because I work with kids, that, in a way, opened my eyes to a lot of things and prevented me from going to the extreme. When Seun was very young, I sat on the bleachers just watching the practice and all that, and during swim meets I made sure that I was stroke and turn judge, so that way I was out of it in the way I was with the other swimmers really not watching him. So there were some things that I put in place to sort of help prevent my being too involved. So I kept a lookout to make sure that I did satisfy what was required, that's - I mean, I got into the meet that he wanted to go to on time and things like that. But there was never a time when I said OK, we have to do this or we have to do the other one. Because as I have always said, it's always a balance, he had to enjoy the sport, and at any time if he felt he wasn't enjoying it, then that would have been the end of it.

MARTIN: You know what I've been dying to ask you, though? We spoke to your son earlier this month. I just need to play a short clip from that conversation. Here it is.

SEUN ADEBIYI: I'm terrified every time I stand at the top of the track. You're running at a full sprint for 10 or 15 meters and then you dive on a sled that doesn't have any brakes, head first, and you go down this mile-long ice chute at 80 miles an hour. But I try to console myself by saying, I've already had cancer, what's the worst that could happen?

MARTIN: Which is what we talked about. The fact is, your son is training for the skeleton. He started out as a swimmer. He's now training for the skeleton and he's a cancer survivor and he has started this cord blood bank - international cord blood bank - to help other cancer survivors like him make a bone marrow match. He's a very driven person, but I promised myself if I ever get a chance to talk to you I would say, having raised this child, watched him beat cancer, how do you feel about him, you know, diving on a sled that doesn't have any brakes, going, head first, 80 miles an hour down an ice chute?


MARTIN: How do you feel about that?

B. ADEBIYI: Actually, I think I'm really impressed by all that he's doing. When he told me just a few months out of getting out of the hospital that he was going to go sledding, and I said well, I was concerned within me, because his platelet count was very low. And if he was injured, basically, he'll just bleed to death. But at the same time I wanted something to take him out of himself, you know, to get him a focus, some other direction so he's not always thinking about ohl, I'm sick, I'm hurting, I'm this. He's all that, but any other outside interests was welcomed.


B. ADEBIYI: And when he wanted to do this and I saw he really was into it, I supported him right through. So in things like, I mean, when he was going to Salt Lake City when that was when he just came out of hospital, I drove 2,500 miles to take the sled there and make sure that he flew there and then left him and came back home.

MARTIN: OK. You're a better woman than I am.


MARTIN: Janet Hill, can I ask you a final word of wisdom for parents of young athletes who, you know, maybe their son or daughter is not going to be Olympic caliber, but who does care passionately about sports and you want to give them the best support you can, what's your best piece of advice?

HILL: Well, I think - and I'm just piggybacking on the other moms on the phone - to keep a balance in their children's lives. It is a sacrifice, but having children it is expected that you will sacrifice. So it's worthy to do so and good for the kids. So just keep it in balance.

MARTIN: Janis, final thought from you?

MEREDITH: Keep the big picture in mind. What kind of kid or person do you want your child to grow up to be? What do you want them to be when the trophies are done and when the stats book is put away, what kind of person are they going to be? I think that's important to remember.

MARTIN: Janis Meredith is the mom of three. She writes about parenting and sports for her website Jbmthinks.com. She was with us from member station WGCU in Fort Myers, Florida. Binte Adebiyi is the mother of athlete Seun Adebiyi. She was kind enough to join us from Huntsville, Alabama. And here with us in Washington, D.C., Janet Hill, the mother of NBA superstar Grant Hill. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

HILL: Thank you.

MEREDITH: Thank you.

B. ADEBIYI: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.