If your child’s PE teacher suggests that they are showing some serious promise, it’s probably easy to get carried away with daydreams of champagne and strawberries in the Wimbledon players’ box, or working out just how you’ll arrange their Olympic medals on the mantelpiece. But being the parent of a potential sports hotshot is no picnic.
Helping a child along the path to pro status is very expensive and incredibly time-consuming. Even for the most talented young players, the proud moments – victories, awards and trophies – are buried amid a daily family life involving miles of traveling to training and competitions, hours of waiting around between matches and much shelling out for expensive kit, travel, coaching and accommodation. For many it’s simply not an option.
Steve and Jackie Forster, whose 14-year-old daughter, Megan, is signed up with a full-time tennis academy, can attest that when kids get serious in sport, it takes over your own life too. One of the two is up at 6am every day to drive Megan from their Maidenhead home to the JTC Academy in Northwood for an early morning hit with her coaches. Later she will need picking up and transporting to lessons with her private academic tutor, before she has to return to Northwood for a second on-court spell in the afternoon.
Weekends notch up further mileage – Steve will take her to a tournament every other Saturday, often 100 miles-plus each way, with a return trip on the Sunday if she wins through to later rounds. It certainly puts the usual parental moans about taxiing the kids to parties or after-school activities into perspective.
“It does put a strain on us and limits our free time. We all make sacrifices, whether it’s not having a holiday, or a lack of time together,” says Steve.
The financial costs, although eased by a sponsorship deal from tennis brand, Team HEAD, are considerable too, with a hefty weekly petrol bill, academy and tutoring fees, plus accommodation for tournaments to shell out for. A significant chunk of the Forsters’ income is being put into this quest for success. “A week in Scotland comes in at nearly £1,000, so the amount of tournaments she does will be limited by the amount of money we have available,” Steve explains.
The danger in this situation is that so much time and emphasis are spent on sport that education, and therefore those “in-case-it-doesn’t-happen” job prospects, are neglected. The Forsters felt that the 18 hours training Megan puts in per week just weren’t compatible with regular school, so for the last few years they have sent her to a private tutor instead – not something most parents would be able to afford.
Although unconventionally delivered, via a tutor, her education does not seem to be suffering – she is due to take seven iGCSEs a year early next year. Diver Tom Daley also proved that juggling education and training can be done, managing three top-grade A-levels a year after he pocketed Olympic bronze.
Many of the leading football clubs’ youth academies have also now built links to local schools with programmes in place to balance pitch and classroom time. But at the very least, parents will need to find a school which is willing to allow considerable absences in term time for training and competitions.
For Judy Murray – possibly the mother of all sports mothers – success came in the form of not one but two Wimbledon-champion sons. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t worry about contingency plans when Jamie and Andy were traipsing round junior tournaments. In her work as a coach, at the LTA and in her mentoring role at Team HEAD, she tries to emphasise the importance of keeping young players’ lives balanced, just in case. For every Andy or Jamie, there are countless others who had to pack away their racquets, football boots or swimming trunks and were left devastated, wondering what the heck to do with themselves.
“The onus is on parents to get the mix right between school, friendships and family. You have to be very organised. It can be really challenging,” says Murray. “Only a handful of men and women dominate the professional game. Younger players should be doing things beyond their sport. If it doesn’t work out, or you get a bad injury, it’s important you have something to fall back on.” Failing to become a pro player doesn’t mean all is totally lost though: “You can have a successful career as a coach or administrator – there are plenty of offshoots without actually playing the game professionally.”
In the meantime, for those who have felt the temptation to become that sports parent stereotype – the one yelling insanely beside the pitch, pool or court, telling their child to run or swim faster, to hit harder, kick further – she suggests steering your attention to more positive feedback. “I was always watching thinking, ‘How can I help them improve?’; ‘What do they need to work on?’ Then you’re able to speak about that afterwards and it makes handling defeat easier because it’s positive – the kids can recognise why they lost a certain match or what their opponent did better and they then take that onto the court next time.”
“When you’re young, if there’s a pressure it usually comes from the people around you, so I think parents, coaches and the whole system have to be very careful with young children so the experience stays enjoyable.”
Judy Murray’s top tips for sports parents
• Be a smart sidelines spectator: parents want things to go right for their kids but once they’re in a match they need to be able to think for themselves.
• Focus on analysis to distract from the temptation to interfere: an activity such as charting their shots during matches – drawing a court on a sheet of paper and for example putting a cross in the service boxes to mark which serves worked well or which didn’t, anything that might help provide feedback which isn’t judgmental is so much better than shouting or gesturing at the side of the court
• Find a coach who knows the journey of developing young players and understands the demands of the game – someone you can trust to guide you, otherwise you’re spending a lot of money chasing a dream.
• Not everyone can get to the very top but everyone can enjoy playing sport. Just ensure there are goals and targets at every stage of your child’s development and that these are both reachable and fun, as well as challenging.
• Let your child know that it’s about learning from your wins and your failures and that it’s OK to miss and it’s OK to lose.
Judy Murray is brand ambassador for Team HEAD.