AS SHE WAITED to begin her heat in the 100-meter backstroke final at last summer's Olympic Games, Missy Franklin could feel her nerves taking over. She couldn't stop thinking that the rest of her life would revolve around what would happen in the next 59 seconds. But before the pressure crippled her, she reverted to a relaxation trick that has never failed.
"I thought about my parents," says Franklin, now 18. "I thought about how much they love me, how much I love them, and how, no matter what happens in the next minute, none of that will change. Then I took a deep breath. And the pressure was gone."
Thinking about Mom and Dad as a source of calm isn't exactly the norm for high school athletes. Any youth coach will tell you that overzealous parents are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to kids reaching their athletic potential. In fact, in dozens of interviews with youth athletes, parents and coaches for her upcoming book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman didn't once hear children mention using their parents to help them relax.
"They talk about their friends and their teammates and prayer or lucky charms," Friedman says. "But not their parents."