Katelyn Perkins – You Can Dream It, But Can You Achieve It?: Child Athletes and Parental Expectations

A young gymnast, Ava J. competes all over the South, in hopes of earning a Division I gymnastics scholarship to college. Her goals and dreams are far out of reach as she is already in the 10th grade and only a level 8 gymnast in the Junior Olympic gymnastics program. Anyone who is realistically considering college gymnastics should at least be a first-year level 10 by the time they reach the 11th grade. The skill difficulty drastically changes between these levels, which takes years of experience to obtain; years Ava J. does not have. Sadly, Ava J. has a slim-to-none chance of becoming the star gymnast she has always dreamt of being.

Like Ava J., many young sports fans dream about becoming collegiate, professional, or even Olympic athletes one day. The invalid and unrealistic myth that “If you can dream it, you can do it” inevitably plays a role in this popular dream that so many youths have today. Despite its fame, this great American myth conveniently overlooks how children and even some parents have very large, impractical dreams when it comes to athletics. In other words, these monstrous ambitions give false hope to children who were not destined to become collegiate athletes, therefore crushing their dreams the moment they do not make it to the “next level,” leaving them questioning their true purpose. In recent discussions of how these unrealistic dreams have had such an upsurge, many scholars and psychologists have tied Walt Disney to this issue of why everyone believes they “deserve” to become collegiate athletes in their future. Although Walt Disney did not actually create this quote, he did popularize this phrase by including this idea and concept in most of his fairytale stories. Ivor Swartz, a writer for the Medium, explains how this is “complete rubbish” and only a “half-truth,” which is “just as good as a lie” (Swartz). People began to believe this cliché quote to be true since “someone rich and famous said it, it has to be true, and therefore, possible to do” (Swartz). Although the majority of Disney’s movies and stories have happy endings and fairytale qualities, real life is not that fortunate. Sadly, children and even parents are confusing reality for fantasy. Many of these children’s goals of becoming a star athlete are simply unreachable due to the rarity of success, the pressure from parents that causes low self-esteem, and other factors such as the finances that play into becoming a collegiate athlete.

Despite parents’ and children’s high expectations of Division I collegiate, professional, or Olympic success, becoming an elite college athlete is extremely rare. The National Collegiate Athletic Association reports that “nearly 8 million students currently participate in high school athletics in the United States. More than 480,000 compete as NCAA athletes” (“Estimated Probability”). Essentially, this number correlates to nearly 6% of all high school athletes making it to the “next level.” This demonstrates just how large the number of athletes that get rejected by college scouts and athletic programs truly is. With shockingly low rates, it would not seem to come as a total surprise to the athlete if they did not get invited to play on a collegiate team. However, as journalist Rachel Stark notes in her article, “Debunked” most high school athletes are shocked to learn that they do not possess collegiate-level talent, despite the NCAA’s grim statistics about their chances for success. There was a major gap between expectation and reality in men’s basketball, where “three-quarters of Division I men’s basketball players said it was at least ‘somewhat likely’ they would become a professional athlete or Olympian” (Stark par. 4). This concept is supported by the fact that in reality, “only 1.2 percent will go on to join a U.S. professional team” (Stark). With repeatedly low data, it is alarming how many athletes have that “entitlement” attitude, as if anyone would deny their athletic talent. So many kids and even young adults expect to reach the collegiate or professional level, when in reality, so few actually do.

The belief that these kids have unrealistic expectations is due to the pressure that their parents and coaches put on them from the very beginning of their athletic careers. Some parents even go to the extreme of deciding their child’s sport for them before they can even walk or talk. This exact scenario was displayed when National Public Radio’s Anders Kelto interviewed the father of three-year old J.C. Gamble. J.C.’s father told Kelto, “When he was about 14 months old, I put a golf ball in his hand to let him know how a baseball would feel when he got older” (Kelto). As an infant, J.C.’s father essentially chose what sport he would participate in throughout his youth, without giving his child any sort of option. This immediately becomes an expectation on the child and takes the freedom and fun out of sports because these poor children are trying to live up to what their parents want them to be. Sarah, a young elite gymnast who trained at a National Gymnastics Training Center, had a coach who “put her on a restricted diet and imposed mandatory daily weigh-ins before practice” (Mountjoy and Bergeron). Because of the deficit of calorie intake, Sarah did not have enough energy to complete her gymnastics workouts safely. This led to more injuries and caused her to have body image problems. Her coaches put so much scrutiny on her shape and weight during such an emotionally vulnerable time in her life, during puberty. And unfortunately, Sarah’s “story is not unique” (Mountjoy and Bergeron). This happens far too often in youth athletics, as the children try everything they possibly can to live up to the expectations set upon them, putting their physical and mental health aside. Children are terrified to fail, therefore, believing if they fail then they will also be a failure in life. An author from Psychology Today, Jim Taylor, Ph.D., writes how children state that they genuinely have a fear of “disappointing [their] parents (and, by extension, [that their] parents won’t love [them]).” In our intense youth-sport culture, it is the parents that these children should be encouraged by in a positive manner, seeing as though there is more to sports than just winning. Situations like these happen quite frequently, as the children put enormous amounts of pressure on themselves to be the best in order to please their parents or make their parents or coaches proud. Sports were designed to be a fun activity for children to learn life lessons. As one can see, parents and coaches shape kids starting at a very young age, which creates these far-fetched ideas and mental insecurities that can last through high school athletics.

It takes more than just talent and ambition to become a “next-level” athlete. Money and time dedication are the other major factors that contribute to an athlete’s success. Jen McGovern, a scholar who specializes in the research of sports, race, and ethnicity, wrote an academic article that gives yet another reason why college athletes are so rare. McGovern states how “higher income is associated with more participation in sports” (McGovern). Not only do parents have to pay certain registration fees for their child to be enrolled in these extracurricular activities, but they also have to have money for equipment, specific athletic clothing, private lessons for extra one-on-one attention, etc. These expenses add up very quickly for parents. Another major cost is different competitions that they need to be attending in order to get recruited for colleges. McGovern mentions how “these pay-to-play opportunities are vital for attracting the eyes of college coaches, but are prohibitively expensive” (McGovern). After including these big meet entry fees, cost of travels, and all the other finances that go along with attending these massive athletic functions, one can truly see how children are indeed greatly affected by the amount of money their family has. These pay-to-play opportunities put poor kids at an unfair disadvantage even if they are extremely talented, because their families cannot afford to get them to these financially draining events that college scouts might be attending. Likewise, it also takes a drastic amount of time dedication to reach the level of expertise that college athletes possess. Corliss N. Bean, who studies Health and Exercise Sciences at The University of Ottawa, discusses in an article that not only do the athletes themselves have to make these sacrifices, but also the family has to sacrifice countless hours as well. Bean states how “transportation to and from training and competitions, being present during the training or competition, and adapting family routines have all been documented as causing stress to one or both parents within a family.” Sports typically affect everyone in the household’s life; therefore, everyone must be willing to help their beloved athlete become successful. On average, “parents have reported devoting up to 20 hours per week to their child’s sport programs” (Bean). Such an investment in time can cause other problems such as parents having to adjust their busy work schedules and their other kids’ schedules around their athletic child’s sport agenda. This is well over the golden rule most wise individuals have decided on, in which a child’s age equals the number of hours he or she should spend in sports training each week. This rule keeps the child safe and healthy, as well as limits the number of hours having to be forgone by the athlete and family. Although most people believe that having raw talent should be the main factor in determining athletic success, money, access, and time dedication have really proved to overpower sole talent itself.

In Ava J.’s case, writing for the United States of America Gymnastics program, Vice President Jeff Thompson states that “DI schools are permitted to have no more than 12 gymnasts on athletic grant-in-aid (scholarship) at any one point” (Thompson). Once again, this proves how extraordinary, yet scarce, becoming a collegiate athlete truly is. Ava J.’s story reminds audiences that one can dream big and strive endlessly towards their goals, however that does not necessarily mean they will achieve them. Like Ava J., many children and even parents get so tunnel-visioned on their big long-term goals, that they forget that sports are ultimately existing to be fun. As one can see, it’s healthy and encouraging to dream big; however, it is also just as important to keep a realistic view while striving to be the best one can be. If parents and coaches do not harp on how spectacular becoming a college athlete is, then maybe the youth of today’s athletic world would not solely focus on that being their ultimate end goal, therefore, taking the psychological stress from the parents off the children. It is so important for children to participate in their sports merely because they enjoy it. The simple question, “You can dream it, but can you achieve it?” will leave athletes pondering their destiny as they strive endlessly to see if they were a part of the select few to make it to their fairytale ending.


Bean, Corliss N et al. “Understanding How Organized Youth Sport May Be Harming Individual Players within the Family Unit: A Literature Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 11,10 10226-68. 1 Oct. 2014, doi:10.3390/ijerph111010226

“Estimated Probability of Competing in College Athletics.” NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA, 9 Apr. 2019, www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimatedprobability-competing-college-athletics.

Kelto, Anders. “How Likely Is It, Really, That Your Athletic Kid Will Turn Pro?” NPR, 4 Sept. 2015,https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/09/04/432795481/howlikely-is-it-really-that-your-athletic-kid-will-turn-pro

McGovern, Jen. “‘You Have to Have Money to Be Good’: How Capital Accumulation Shapes Latinas’ Pathways to College Sports.” Journal of Intercollegiate Sport, vol. 11, no. 2, Dec. 2018, pp. 149–171. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=133789347&site=ed s-live&scope=site.

Mountjoy M, Bergeron MF. “Youth Athletic Development: Aiming High While Keeping It Healthy, Balanced and Fun!” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2015; 49:841-842.

Stark, Rachel. “Debunked: An NCAA Champion Feature.” NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA, 2015, www.ncaa.org/static/champion/debunked/.

Swartz, Ivor. “The ‘If You Can Dream It’ Myth.” Medium, 3 Nov. 2016, https://medium.com/@IvorSwartz/the-if-you-can-dream-it-myth-9fdd33b656c3.