‘One step at a time’

 

Reflecting on his experiences as a gold-medal swimmer, national coach and parent of two, Alex Baumann offers some time-tested advice on reaching for the top

 
 
 
 
Former Canadian Olympic swimmer Alex Baumann with his son Ashton, 16, and daughter Tabitha, 14.
 

Former Canadian Olympic swimmer Alex Baumann with his son Ashton, 16, and daughter Tabitha, 14.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

Few people are as qualified as Alex Baumann to coach parents on the complexities of raising a phenom while also advising kids on the pressures of being one.

The greatest swimmer in Canadian history, Baumann was nine when he first made a splash. He went on to own 38 swimming records before winning two gold medals at the 1984 Olympics.

Everyone needs balance, he says. “You can’t be thinking about the sport 24 hours a day” — or, for that matter, 12 months of the year. On this, Baumann echoes hockey great Wayne Gretzky, who has advised developing players to break from hockey during the summer to play other sports.

Baumann says that rather than taking on too much, too soon, children should experience a variety of activities. “The challenge is to ensure kids don’t burn out. So that kids aren’t training so hard at nine and 10 that it becomes detrimental, that they get out of the sport and hate the sport and never go back to it again.”

Baumann says that even elite athletes must try not to let their lives revolve “all the time on just one thing.” While training for the 1984 Olympics, Baumann was enrolled in a full course load at Laurentian University. Having another focus was key, he says. “Some of those people that take time off, it creates total pressure. I would say at a younger age, especially, you’ve got to keep that balance.

“Sport isn’t everything.”

No matter the endeavour, Baumann says the best advice for parents and kids — not to mention coaches — is to take things one step at a time.

“When I was swimming, I was setting realistic short-term goals almost daily.” Attain that goal? Move onto the next. “I just think you get so much more satisfaction out of it that way, rather than saying, ‘I want to compete at the Olympics.’”

There’s nothing wrong with dreams of glory, of course, but a little perspective is also useful. “It’s a long hill to climb to reach that stage. We know it’s only a very small percentage that will make national teams in the end.”

And what about the parents of aspiring superstars? Baumann advises them to keep their distance: Avoid meddling. Give young achievers room to breathe. “We have to stay away from the parent who brings the stopwatch down to the training session, or meet, or whatever.”

He adds that parents should be honest about their aspirations for their children. “Sometimes parents want to attain goals that they didn’t actually achieve in their lives. They want to live through their kids.”

Children don’t need the stress, he says. “Kids these days have enough pressures, whether it’s at school or in trying to keep up with technology, or whatever. I like to be more hands off as a parent.”

 
 
 
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Former Canadian Olympic swimmer Alex Baumann with his son Ashton, 16, and daughter Tabitha, 14.
 

Former Canadian Olympic swimmer Alex Baumann with his son Ashton, 16, and daughter Tabitha, 14.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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