Even though the Olympics are over, my kids are still whipped into a frenzy. Fiona has a new passion for volleyball, and Molly is signed up for gymnastics in the Fall. I know we aren't alone; households all over the world are currently filled with children dreaming of gold medals. So what does it take to become an Olympic athlete? Researchers across disciplines have studied extensively what it takes to be an elite performer; I've blogged about their findings in detail here. Drawing on this research into what it takes to go from being good at something to being great at it, here are some things we can do to encourage our blooming Olympic hopefuls.
  1. Focus on their happiness. If we want our kids to be successful in their endeavors, we'll do well to foster positive emotions. Happier people earn more money, perform better, and are more helpful to their coworkers. Most people assume that this link exists because people feel happy when they are successful. But research suggests that happiness usually precedes success.
  2. Foster self-discipline. Kids can't gain mastery over anything if they don't have the discipline to practice, and that discipline needs to come from within our kids (rather than from bribes, threats, or cajoling).
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Most of us assume that Olympic athletes have incredible innate talent. It bears repeating however, that researchers across a wide array of fields have shown that innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being good to being truly great. Instead, greatness is all about practice. Elite performers practice hard, in a really specific way, and they practice consistently. This posting goes into more detail about the type of practice that breeds success.
  4. Also practice dealing with failure. Winners know how to handle loss, and so they aren’t afraid to challenge themselves or “go for the gold.” Instead of fearing failure, we need to teach our kids to cope with it so that they can learn, grow, and focus on the future.
  5. Eat dinner together . Your family is the foundation for all of your children's success and happiness, and a daily family mealtime can be a powerful foundation for your family. What do you value most? Is it their winning, or their trying hard? Your family or their performance? Show your kids at dinner tonight.

© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.


Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G.V., Pastorelli, C. (2001) "Self-Efficacy Beliefs as Shapers of Children's Aspirations and Career Trajectories," Child Development, 72(1), 187-206

Dweck, C.S. & Kamins, M.L. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835-847.

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Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., Tesch-Romer, C., (1993) "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance," Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

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I loved this post! My daughters were absolutely enthralled with the olympics. We live near Vancouver (in Washington State) and only get one station on our very old TV. It happened to be the Vancouver station that was broadcasting the Olympics. We got a very close look as to what was going on. My 5yr old loved all of the skiing events, particularly the x-countlry skiing events. All she has been talking about lately is participating in the Olympics, asking how old she has to be and so on. I thought of the necessary steps to get her involved physically but not all of the emotional steps. So thank YOU! -Ali http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif

Ali | 8:54 am, March 4, 2010 | Link


Oh, by the way, i have your book and LOVE it! Thanks! http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif

Ali | 8:55 am, March 4, 2010 | Link


Don’t for get about money!  Which, of course, is the best predictor for success at the olympics.  I wonder what the going rate will be 12 or 16 years from now for 1/100th of a second better time?  For Canada this year it was $100 000 000 / 200 athletes = $500 000 per athlete for a 14 / 200 = 7% chance at a gold medal.

Chris | 10:05 am, March 4, 2010 | Link


I know your intentions are good…that eating dinner together as a family is a good thing…but, i can remember dinner with my family as rigid, uncomfortable with strict rules, and etiquette to the point that I couldn’t eat and didn’t want to.  If you have a dysfunctional narcissistic scewed up family, it doesn’t matter if you eat together or not!

B.B | 5:56 pm, March 8, 2010 | Link


I would also like to add that the research in the sport psychology literature has consistently shown that elite/Olympic level athletes are intrinsically motivated.  The focus of these athletes is meeting short and long term measurable, achievable and controllable goals (just to name a few of the important qualities of goal setting). Winning is generally a side benefit and/or not the primary goal because there are too many factors that are out of the athletes control (performance of the competition, weather conditions, time issues, officials, etc.)
My students have told me time and again that the only measure of success is beating an opponent, but again the research is clear when it comes to elite level athletes.  They practice, plan and then put it all out there, with the understanding that they can only control their own performance, no one else’s.  I think our young athletes would be much better athletes (in the whole person sense of the word) if we could teach them to focus on their own personal athletic growth and let the competition/winning part take care of itself without “it” being the goal.

Michelle | 10:59 am, March 10, 2010 | Link

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