Last summer, Kate Douglass qualified for the 2016 US Olympic Team Trials in swimming — at age 13.

When you’re not at work, you’re basically supporting your child’s sport. It’s a hard slog.

“She probably started swimming competitively at about six-years-old, and she had a knack for it,” said her mother, Allison Douglass, who lives in New York. “Now she’s 14, a freshman in high school and she’s training seven days a week. We fly all over the country for various meets.”

As thrilled as she is for her daughter’s success, being a parent of an elite swimmer requires a full family commitment. There are expenses for coaching and travel, the time spent on swim competitions and practice, and then there’s the fact that she’s not an only child.

 

“She’s the oldest of three kids, and I don’t feel like her brother and sister should have to suffer,” Douglass said. “I would never make them sit through a five-hour swim meet, so it’s a lot of split time where I’m at a meet and my husband is with the other two.”

They get caught up in ‘vicarious success syndrome.’ Just because someone is good at something, it doesn’t mean they want to do it

This summer she will accompany her daughter to Nebraska for the Olympic trials, where they will stay for nine days. “We are fortunate that financially we can afford to do this,” Douglass said. “We can afford to pay for coaches and travel around, but it’s still expensive. It wouldn’t work for every family. It’s a lot of balancing.”

In the US, more than 26 million children aged six to 17 played team sports in 2014, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. In the UK, 80% of children aged five to 15 said they’d done some form of competitive sport in the last 12 months, according to the Sport and Recreation Alliance. In Australia, 60% of kids aged five to 14 participated in at least one organised sport outside of school hours, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

 

Many of us have a sporty child, but if they turn out to be a gifted athlete, here’s what you should really know about helping him or her pursue their talent.

What it will take: Participating in sport at this level is expensive, in terms of equipment, time off work for parents, coaching, travel to competitions and registration costs. It’s also a huge time commitment that can impact other children and family members. “You’ve really got to go into it with your eyes open,” said Nick Holt, a professor in the faculty of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta, Canada. “That sport is going to become a major part of your life. When you’re not at work, you’re basically supporting your child’s sport. It’s a hard slog.”

When you’re not at work, you’re basically supporting your child’s sport. It’s a hard slog.

The Douglass family, for instance, find it nearly impossible to take a holiday together that will fit around Kate’s swim schedule. “Swimming is a gruelling sport and you can’t take a week off from it,” Allison said. “It limits our family travel, which is a bit of an issue for us.”

Holt also believes that if you aren't resilient, you should steer clear. “The best athletes in the world constantly make mistakes,” Holt said. “It’s not about making mistakes, it’s about being able to rebound from them.” If, as a parent, you find it hard to watch your child fail, or you’ll be tempted to lean hard on him if he plays at less than his best, this is not the lifestyle for you.

 

How long you need to prepare: This varies a great deal, because athletes peak in different sports at different ages. That said, experts believe you should give sporty children a broad base in a variety of activities before singling one out in which they specialise. Let them try different sports, or spend time running around outdoors learning fundamental movement skills before focusing on one thing.

“Sometimes parents think they’ve got to get their kids in whatever sport as early as possible, and give them extra training and specialised coaching,” Holt said. “But there’s a greater chance of that leading to injury, and then the kid is burning out by the time they’re a teenager because they’ve had enough.”

 

That said, if your child is showing signs of being particularly skilled in one field, you may want to start saving toward future expenses, which will add up fast.

Do it now: Remember that you’re a parent, not a coach. “Ideally, a child has a couple of parents who play roles that are appropriate for a mother and father to play,” said Peter Jensen, who has a Ph.D. in sport psychology and is the founder of Performance Coaching in Ontario. “Then when the child is elite, whether it’s music or sport, they need expert outside advice, which usually comes in the form of a coach.”

When a parent starts doling out coaching advice, they are blurring the lines, depriving the child of a parent and adding one too many coaches to the pool. “I’m not saying you abdicate responsibility, but once you’ve found a decent coach for your child, you want to stay on the other side of that,” Jensen said.

It should be your child’s decision and motivation, not yours.

Make sure your child is in the driving seat. Each year, you should check in with your mini athlete in the off-season and make sure they are still interested in playing the sport again next year. It should be your child’s decision and motivation, not yours. “Parents get stars in their eyes, and a lot of them were engaged in activities themselves and didn’t succeed,” Jensen said. “They get caught up in ‘vicarious success syndrome.’ Just because someone is good at something, it doesn’t mean they want to do it, and you have got to give kids the option.”

Cut costs where you can. All your expenses can add up quickly, but there are ways to save time and money. Take turns car-sharing kids to practices and sign up for coaching in groups, if your sport allows it. Some parents also volunteer with a club to get part of their fees waived. Others fundraise for their team to reduce travel or competition costs.

 

For Michelle Gesky, whose 12-year-old daughter excels in horse riding, keeping expenses down means leasing a horse at a local stable instead of buying one. “There are kids out there who have really beautiful horses,” said Gesky, who lives in New York. “I’m not one of those parents who can afford the $120,000 horse.”

Be willing to ask questions. When your child reaches a certain level, you may feel out of your depth because you don’t know enough about the sport or the training to know what the best steps are. “How do you know what advice to take, and what’s best for your child?” Gesky said. She recommends each parent does their research by talking to other parents or going online, or in her daughter’s sport talking to different stable managers, or people who have owned horses for years. “You have to get your hands dirty by being a heavy communicator,” she said.

Do it later: Don’t hang your hat on dreams of a ‘pro’ career. If you’re pushing your child to compete at an elite level because you have hopes of a professional sports career and sizeable payday, you may want to check your ego. “The odds are astronomical that that’s going to happen,” Jensen said.

Know that scholarships are also scarce. In places where university is very expensive (such as the US), shining at a sport could land your child a less expensive or free place at school. But those prizes are rare—only about 2% of high school athletes get some form of athletic scholarship to compete in university, according to the US National Collegiate Athletic Association.

That said, success depends on your sport, and it’s not impossible. Gesky has found that colleges with equestrian programs often have trainers at tournaments who may be looking for future team members. “A lot of these kids get scholarship offers out of having participated in this,” she said.

 

Do it smarter: Realise that it’s an investment — in your child. The money you’re spending can feel like a down payment on future success. But if your child decides, at 16, or halfway through college, that she’s done with her sport, it’s not money wasted. Years of athletic endeavours will likely teach your child to handle adversity, be part of a team, work hard even on bad days, and to juggle sport and school commitments. “She’s learned all kinds of things that are going to be valuable life lessons,” Jensen said.

“I think it’s just about balance and keeping things in perspective,” Allison Douglass said. “As long as she’s getting something out of it, we’re all getting something out of it.”

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