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Getting to the podium: A family affair

Updated Friday, 11th July 2008

Behind every child's sporting success, there's a complex network of support back home.Ben Oakley considers family support to athletes in their school age years and the impact on such families.

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The support needed to get a talented young performer to the podium is immense. When such achievement happens in childhood it brings added emotional and psychological pressures. Support is provided by coaches, a squad or club environment, and above all by the family.

A young performer’s involvement in sport can become a commitment that gradually absorbs the whole family, until it determines family activities and behaviour to such an extent that it dominates family life.

Tom Daley [Image: davesanford under CC-BY-NC licence]
Tom Daley [Image: davesanford under CC-BY-NC licence]

Families in this situation refer to sport as ‘a way of life’ and to themselves as ‘sporting families’. As one parent put it in Kay’s interviews, "Swimming used to take up a few hours a week but now without realising it, it takes up most of our lives".

Families’ capacity to provide the resources of time and money vary according to their circumstances, and those that face shortages may have difficulty providing children with competitive opportunities.

Sometimes these resource shortages are made up by coaches, clubs and squads, and this is partly evident in the judo and table tennis examples of Olympic Dreams.

Children are more likely to achieve success in sport if they come from a certain type of family since this relates to family resources. For example, children are more likely to achieve success if they come from a family in a higher socioeconomic group. They are also more likely to succeed if the family is headed by a ‘couple’.

Kay’s Interviews

A total of 20 families, drawn from three sports (swimming, tennis and rowing) took part and interviews were conducted with the performer, at least one parent and one sibling. The performers ranged in age from 12 to 20 years. All performers trained on at least four separate days in a normal week and had spent time away from home, with or without parents, to attend either tournaments or intensive training.

How families contribute

Families play a major role in influencing both children’s entry into sport and their focus towards achievement, and provide the continuous practical and emotional support on which their participation depends. As children progress in their sport, it’s their families that meet the financial costs (clothing, equipment, competition fees), provide transport to training and competitions, and adapt their routines to further the child’s sports career. Providing such support is not easy, and may cause stress within the family.

In 1992, the TOYA Training of Young Athletes Study found that, overall, families of elite junior swimmers had to spend up to 12% of their total income on their child’s sport. Supporting elite junior sport also requires a high time commitment.

Writers have also described the influence of social class and it being less likely that independent transport (for example a car) is easily available to those on lower incomes. A difference in attitudes of middle-class parents has also been observed in an Australian study referred to by Tess Kay. A mother from an Australian lower income family said:

I just think it’s important for all of us to do a lot of things together as a family. Another thing about gym [gymnastics] is that [our daughter] went off for three hours at a time on her own. She quite often didn’t have tea with the family. And I really resented that, because I like to do a lot of things as a family. But I felt…jealous, I think, that they’re taking my child away for three hours and I want her back. Well, I think that’s their childhood memories …. I don’t like the way certain sports split the family up.

How much of this is true in British families is unclear since it hasn’t been fully investigated.

Now let’s turn to the five main themes that Tess Kay identified.

1. The financial impact on families

Families themselves most readily identify the financial costs of supporting their child’s sport as the main, overriding implication. Parents spoke most emphatically. As one father put it, ”If I’d known how much rowing cost I would have given him a bigger football”.

Parents made an effort to ensure that, while their children might be aware of the financial difficulties, they did not actually feel affected by it. As this quote suggests:

I wouldn’t say there’s been any problems. Sometimes the financial costs are a lot, when I’ve had big hotel bills it’s made my mum and dad wonder where it was coming from. But it always came, so they must have found it from somewhere.


Generally, it was the sheer cost of supporting the child’s participation that was perceived as the biggest challenge.

2. The impact on family activity patterns

The second substantial impact on families was the effect on family activity patterns. The time demands of the sport affected the daily, weekly and annual rhythms of family life. Several interviewees commented on the disappearance of ‘normal’ elements of everyday family life:

Your life is certainly broken up a lot more, even silly things like having tea together, it just doesn’t happen any more.

(Tennis player’s mother)

The impact on daily life was particularly acute in swimmers’ families, where the demands of twice-daily training virtually dictated the structure of household activities:

Starting at 5am her Dad has to take her up to Nottingham for training. He sleeps in the van for an hour or so for a bit of extra sleep before going to work. Then we have to take her to school too, as by the time she has got home from training she has not got time to catch the school bus. I pick her up for training after school and take her training, then come home and cook the dinner so it’s ready for when she gets home and her dad picks her up. Everything has to be arranged around her swimming.

(Swimmer’s mother)

3. The impact on relationships and emotional life

The level of commitment required to support the performers’ sport had implications for the emotional life of the family. Most parents were particularly aware of the possible impact on siblings, and stressed their determination to treat all of their children equally. Some tried to do this by encouraging all of the family to be involved in and enjoy the sporting child’s activities. Some siblings seemed particularly good at taking the imbalance in their stride:

Well now she’s swum for years so I can’t remember what life was before she started to swim

(Swimmer’s brother)

Others grumbled a bit about the trials of living with the emotional ups and downs that accompany the lives of the talented:

I don’t like it when he comes home from a tournament and he’s lost, and he’s in a really bad mood and so is Dad, and Robert will take it out on me. Then Dad being in a bad mood will reflect on Mum as well. It can cause some conflict within the family.

(Tennis player’s sister)

4. The importance of family support

All family members recognised that the role they played in nurturing their child’s talent was essential for his or her success. They considered it literally impossible for a child to progress within sport without a very high level of support from his or her family:

From our experience swimming relies completely on the support of families to get kids involved and get them to train and so on.

(Swimmer’s father)

Almost all parents commented on the negative impact if, for whatever reason, such support was not available:

It just depends on the parents doesn’t it, what they think is important. We think it’s important and good for them all to be involved in some sport or outside school activity. They all benefit from it, but you do have your families who don’t bother, who wouldn’t help them, would see it as too much of a hassle.

(Rower’s father)

The performers themselves were in no doubt about the role their families played.

5. The priority given to sports in family life

Supporting talented children’s success placed such extensive demands on families that providing this support became the dominant influence on the family lifestyle. Few families had anticipated just how all-consuming the demands of the sport would be:

It is of major importance and I would say that it is probably the main importance to all the family and a big part of all our lives. It just seems normal to do now and we couldn’t imagine a life without swimming in it.

(Swimmer’s mother)

Families did not accept the demands placed on them unreservedly. Some felt that their support had reached its limits and were fearful of whether they could give more, while others described the frustration they occasionally felt:

We feel that we could probably do even more, take him to tournaments further afield, but I am not actually sure that we would be able to go to that level. We can cope at this level but probably not any more.

(Tennis player’s mother)


The studies demonstrate the crucial role played by some families in nurturing a child’s talent, and identified two major ways in which family life became shaped by providing this support. First, there was the burden of financial cost and second, there was the impact on family lifestyle – on family members’ use of time.

Both of these can be regarded as a resource and therefore the availability of family resources are likely to affect their ability to provide support. The absence of appropriate mechanisms to support children whose families cannot provide support may exclude such children from realising their own talent.

Further reading

About this piece

Ben has adapted the work of a leading researcher from Loughborough University, Tess Kay, in two studies: Sporting Excellence: A Family Affair? and The family factor in sport: A review of family factors affecting sports participation.

Interview quotes from participants in Tess’s study have been used to illustrate sporting families’ views.


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