Talent: Discovering and developing it in your child
By Greg Bach
Helping kids discover and develop their talents – regardless if they reside in sports, music or another pursuit – requires all-in focus and planning on the part of parents, says a leading expert on the subject.
“I think all parents really need to look at talent as a continuum,” says Dr. Kenneth Kiewra, a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Nebraska and author of Nurturing Children's Talents: A Guide for Parents. “Not everybody is going to be a world champion or an Olympic gold medalist, but the pursuit of talent is really the enjoyable thing. It’s the climb, not standing at the top of the mountain. And I think parents realize that. So, it’s not all about the winning and the trophies and the awards. It’s about the process of being better on Thursday than you were on Tuesday. The parents I spoke with embodied that idea.”
Kiewra did extensive research for the book, interviewing Olympic and world champions, and talented performers across many domains – as well as their parents. Plus, he shares his personal experiences raising a chess champion and provides parents with step-by-step plans for helping children reach their potential.
“The parent and child have to be partners,” Kiewra says. “It can’t be about the parent doing this.”
We caught up with Kiewra, a former high school tennis coach who also coached all three of his kids in youth soccer, to discuss what parents need to know when it comes to nurturing talent:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What is the most important point you want parents to take away from your book?
KIEWRA: I want them to know first and foremost that talent is largely made, not born, and that parents can potentially play a huge role in all aspects of developing children’s talent. When I look at talent development I see that there’s a number of critical factors, such as practice, good coaching and a singleness of purpose, and while all these factors are important and all need to fire, I think it’s parents who early on are in a prime position to make those factors fire. They can introduce the child to a number of talent domains to see what the child gravitates toward; they can provide early coaching; they can line up expert coaching later down the line; they can help the child to practice; and they can manage the child’s talent development in so many ways. So I think that would be the real takeaway is that there are these various factors that need to align and I think that parents are in the prime position to help make that happen.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: By saying that talent is largely made and not born, do you have any concerns that some parents may take that to push their kids even harder in pursuit of athletic glory?
KIEWRA: What I stress in my book is that the talent train doesn’t move unless it’s the child who is supplying the power. If the child isn’t passionate and doesn’t have a rage to learn and to master and to practice, that train is not going to pull too far out of the station. So while parents may want to push their children to some extent, I don’t think that that is going to be very successful. I get to see the talented people who have succeeded, and I can say that they really didn’t have pushy parents. It’s really the kids very often who are pushing for the resources that they need to continue their talent journey. I’m not saying that the parents are just along for the ride, they’re sort of partners in this. But it has to be the child who has the motivation and the passion or it’s just not going to go very far.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: As someone who has coached soccer and other sports, what did you learn while researching your book that you wish you would have known while coaching?
KIEWRA: Like many coaches, I probably was sometimes too caught up with the performance of the team and I think I would have a different attitude now working with the youngest kids. It should just be go out and have fun. The most important thing early on is just to expose kids to a number of different things and make it fun and see what they gravitate to. One thing I would do more of is get the parents more involved. Rather than allow them to just sit on the sidelines during practice have them get involved in drills, have them see the fun of soccer and the fun their children are having so this way they feel equipped to go and practice with their child in constructive ways. I think coaches can do a better job of educating parents along the way. I believe that it’s a triangle: you need coach and parent and child. And then parents can be a very helpful and supportive link in that triangle, especially if the coach brings them along and helps them to fulfill that role. I think you end up with a stronger player, and somebody who enjoys the sport more, when all three parts of that triangle are operating.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What does the term “over-parenting lite” that you use in your book mean?
KIEWRA: I think we’re at a time where it’s easy to point the finger at parents and say: back off, stop being the helicopter parent, and let your kids stand up on their own and get out of the way. And while some of that is true – of course we want kids to be independent and to know how to navigate the world – what I see is parents who are involved and properly involved. They understand that their kids can’t do many things alone, that they need parents’ assistance and they’re there in the trenches day to day. They don’t just sit on the sidelines, they’re attending lessons, they’re taking notes, they’re practicing with them; they are signing them up for the things they need; and getting them to the places they need to be. They are involved and they are all in just like their children are. While some people may frown on that I think that’s the kind of involvement that is necessary. And they are not doing it for the glory or for themselves, they’re doing it because they really love their children and love what their children are doing.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: You spoke with individuals who achieved remarkable success. Is there a common theme that emerged from those conversations?
KIEWRA: One of the things I saw is that the people I studied just had this wonderful confidence. They knew that they weren’t going to be figure skaters all their lives, but they were able to take with them the lessons that – ‘I know how to be good at something, I know how to work at something’ – and if I can do it in that realm I can do it in another realm. And the idea that talent is a process, that the goal doesn’t need to be some award or some championship, but rather it’s the process. In that way I think all kids should be on that talent journey to some extent. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s cooking or soccer, and it doesn’t matter if today it’s cooking and in a month it’s soccer. I think the pursuit of some activity and the pursuit of trying to improve one’s self is just a delicious and nourishing thing.
Former University of Michigan hockey player and current youth sports coach Tim Cook, author of the new book Youth Sports: How to Play the Game, on talking to coaches, celebrating failure, and more
Use these tips to be a positive influence and source of support for your child while helping them have a fun and rewarding youth sports experience
If you don’t intentionally create habits that serve you and the people you love, who will?
Troubling trend: Young athletes overusing acetaminophens and ibuprofens