The Role Of A Sports Parent. Have You Got What It Takes?

14/08/2014 17:02 | Updated 20 May 2015

Sports parent

With the World Cup still fresh in children's minds, and now the Commonwealth Games kicking off in Glasgow, many a child's dreams of making it as a professional sportsperson will be going into overdrive.

Whilst for most, these dreams will remain just that, a few extremely talented sporty kids must have a real chance of making it to the top.

So what's life like for children who show sporting ability and their parents as they attempt to travel the path to sporting stardom, be it in football, tennis, swimming or something else?

For the young potential pro, each sport will usually have regional or national training centres and clubs offering schemes for children with particular promise. Arrangements for joining these vary.

In football, for example, the Premier League and other leading clubs scout for 'talent' and then 'sign' players as young as eight to their academies.

In tennis, there are officially designated international or national High Performance Centres which hold talent identification days, or players can be referred by other coaches in the area.

Regardless of the set up, the commitment involved for parents and children alike, will be considerable, with much carting about to training, matches and tournaments. It makes the average family's 'mum and dad taxi service' (the odd party here, a few activities there...) seem decidedly amateur.

Take Buckinghamshire dad Paul, who's travelling the sporting parent path with his gymnast daughter, Sami, nine. In fact travelling is the key word here as he drives her a total of 120 miles over three return trips a week so she can train in an elite squad.

Sami started gymnastics at her local club aged five but when she later won her county competition's gold medal for her age group, she had the opportunity to join the elite academy. With almost 10 hours' weekly, on top of several hours' travel time, it's a very significant commitment which requires sacrifices in other areas for both father and daughter. This is one of the challenges of the top sporty kid journey: balancing training with school work and other activities.

Paul says: "Fitting it all in is difficult and expensive....and she misses out on some after school clubs and the Christmas show, for example."

He adds, however, that they still manage a life outside of the gym hall: "She does do other activities and after school play dates with friends."

Ceri's son Harry, 13, trains similarly intensively. He was signed to a Premier League football club's programme at the age of eight and has since switched to a League Two club's scheme.

The family works hard to ensure the academic side of things don't suffer - something that's a concern for many parents in this situation. Ceri says: "We've always impressed upon him the importance of school work and that this must come first. On nights when he has football training he has to complete homework beforehand and also do this at the weekend before he catches up with his friends on a Saturday or for his match on a Sunday."

"As a result he tries to keep on top of his work as it comes in rather than leaving it all to the last minute where possible!"

Fortunately Ceri is supported by the club with this. "They also stress the importance of school to the boys and they're told that if their work is suffering, they're at risk of losing their place."

Elite and performance training at a high level isn't for every family and some make the decision to keep things casual instead. Victoria's son, Luke, 11, was showing significant early promise in tennis: "He was invited to join the regional training centre but it was going to take over all our lives. He would have had to be there four times a week and it was quite a drive away. I work and he has two sisters. This was on top of tournaments and matches.

"He's good but it's incredibly unlikely that he's the next Nadal and we decided the sacrifices were not for us or in his or the rest of the family's best interests."

The compromise is that Luke keeps playing but at a more measured level: "He's still playing tournaments and has a private lesson a week plus a group session but it's all done locally and feels more balanced. He does his homework, he sees his friends, he gets to chill out at home. I'm not sure that would have been possible so much if we'd joined the regional centre."

Does she feel guilty for not giving it a proper go? "Sometimes I do, to be honest. When I see some of the other children who play at the level above and think, 'That could be him'. It doesn't mean we can't reconsider in a couple of years' time though."


If you do head down the performance academy route, it's wise to be acutely aware of the real risk of shattered dreams, given so few will make it as professionals. Handling this disappointment, especially given the years of blood, sweat and tears, is incredibly tough on kids in this situation.


Dr Amanda Gummer, a child psychologist, advises parents to "focus on all the other good things the child has in their life and encourage them to enjoy some of the activities they've had to give up in pursuit of their dream."

She adds that parents should try and keep their child down to earth and realistic throughout, so that if they have to let go of their hopes, they'll be more resilient (admittedly tricky when they're the coolest kid in school as they just got signed by Man City). "Siblings, cousins and old friends are great at keeping children grounded and stopping them from becoming too self-important," she adds.

She also highlights the importance of focusing on any siblings too – this can be challenging when one child's sporting schedule takes over but is vital to avoid resentment either now or later on. "Parents do need to work really hard to give all children in the family equal time and attention," she says.

If it doesn't work out, Ceri doesn't feel Harry's efforts will have been wasted. "We don't want to deny him the opportunity of getting good quality coaching and sporting development in an area he is passionate about.

"He dreams of being a footballer when he gets older but is well aware that this chance can end at any time and he's thinking about other ways he could work in sport, like being a physio, sports journalist or sports analyst."

If it doesn't happen for Sami, Paul also feels she will still have gained a lot more than she will have lost. "The disciplined training will benefit her for life, giving her a really positive 'can do' self image."

And if it weren't for parents like Paul and Ceri – the ones willing to put the mileage in and to then stand on the sidelines or sit through yet another competition – maybe we wouldn't have quite so many stars to cheer on come the World Cup and this summer's other major sporting events.

It's just a shame that the majority have to fall by the wayside along the way to success.

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