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Being an Olympic Parent: the family behind the athlete

Updated Friday, 10th July 2020

Top athletes typically have teams of coaches, sports scientists, nutritionists, physiotherapists and psychologists working with them around the clock, but at times a simple hug or words of support from mum or dad are invaluable to the athlete. 

To become an Olympic athlete requires an abundance of hard work, determination, talent and plenty of support and being an Olympic parent is not an easy job either. Aside from the obvious financial and logistical support, it’s important to know when to step in and offer emotional support and when to step back and let others take over. For most athletes continued family support is crucial and plays a large part in their success, with many Team GB athletes over the years attributing their achievements in the Olympic games to their parents:

‘You forget your mum and dad are probably more nervous than you … but I just felt so happy I could reward them now and give them back a gold medal for all their help and support down the years. It made me think of how supportive my family had been through the years, how through all the sports I tried they were there pushing me on, driving me to Eton for track or to Birmingham for football. They always gave me everything I needed.”

(Greg Rutherford, 2012 Olympic gold medalist)

In most cases, parents are responsible for introducing their children to the sport. For example, GB Downhill skier Chemmy Alcott began skiing at only 18months old with her first race aged 3 years! Likewise the summer athletics camp Jessica Ennis-Hill’s parents’ saw as ‘cheap childcare’ proved instrumental in her athletic development, as did Andy Murray’s frequent visits to the Tennis club where mum, Judy, coached.

As well as introducing their children to activities families provide help to athletes in a variety of ways and Tom Daley remembers his mum and dad showing their support early on in his career:

‘For my Tenth birthday, in May 2004, mum and dad got me a massive trampoline to go in the garden. I could always practise the somersaults and twists I needed for my diving’.

(Tom Daley)

Parents of sporting children can often find themselves providing extensive logistical and financial support which can impact the rest of the family and dominate family time spent together. Max Whitlock feels he owes his parents ‘everything’:

'They’ve been my biggest supporters and made massive sacrifices. For seven years, my mum drove me an hour from Hemel to Essex for training every day and waited seven hours to drive me home again'.

(Max Whitlock)

Family support is a crucial factor for most athletes throughout their career however the role of the family and the type of support required changes throughout the athlete’s development. A key researcher in this area is Jean Côté who developed a model of sport participation.

The Sampling Years

Côté labelled a child’s initial stages of involvement in sport ‘the sampling years’ and these are said to occur when children are aged between 6-13 years. During this stage the role of the parents is to provide opportunities for their children to enjoy sport, encouraging all children within the family unit to participate in a range of different sporting activities. It is often within this stage that parents recognise their child is particularly talented in an activity.

‘Lots of people used to tell me how much natural ability she had. And there were one or two people who said she could go a long way in athletics… I was a bit cautious… I suppose I wanted to be protective of Jessica…’

(Alison Powell, mother of Olympic Athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill)

The Specialising Years

Child playing cricket, mid-strike. Under the sun Creative commons image Icon Photo by Patrick Case from Pexels under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license As children got older Côté discovered that they tended to become committed to one or two sports. For example, Usain Bolt was a keen cricketer as well as a sprinter and Chris Hoy represented Scotland in rowing as a junior before taking up track cycling. At this stage, the family start to make a financial and time commitment to their child’s activities and their own interest in the sport begins to grow. At this stage, most families tend to still place emphasis on both school and sport achievement. GB ski slopestyle athlete James Woods explains how he had to persuade his parents to agree for him to go to Mayrhofen for two months during his GSCE year, and then to complete his A-levels by email the following season!

Côté also found that within those families where the child athlete had older siblings they often acted as role models to the athlete. Olympic Triathlete Alistair Brownlee jokes, ‘I did pretty much everything first then Jonny copied me like a year later’. Similarly, GB gymnast Ellie Downie used to watch her big sister Becky training and after seeing Becky taking part in the 2008 Beijing Olympics followed her sister's footsteps and made her own Olympic debut in Rio 2016. Siblings certainly have a role to play in athletic development although the exact nature of these relationships is still an emerging area of research within the sport.

The Investment Years

At around the age of 15, although this can be earlier for some sports such as gymnastics, Côté ‘s research showed that the athlete tends to commit to one sport. At the age of 15 Andy Murray made a big decision, supported by his parents, to move to Spain to enhance his performance and develop a stronger work ethic. Zoe Gillings GB Snowboarder describes how being homeschooled helped her to commit to snowboarding as they travelled to the Alps for 6-8 weeks each winter. Research suggests that during these years parents tend to show the greatest interest in their child’s sport. However, this dedication can give rise to sibling jealousy, as siblings may resent the time and money that parents have to spend with the athlete in the family.

Family support at this stage also shows parents helping and supporting athletes when they experience setbacks such as injury. GB skier Chemmy Alcott, whose participation in Sochi 2014 looked doubtful following a leg break feels her family played a large part in her recovery:

‘My family are the reason I have the strength to come back and give it one last go. My parents sacrificed so much for me growing up and my mother was a huge driving force behind helping me realise my dreams.’

(Chemmy Alcott)

Following this ‘investment stage’ Côté describes the athlete moving on to face the challenge of maintaining and perfecting their performance. For most athletes, the support of their family still features heavily at this stage. Shelley Rudman, GB Skeleton athlete, explains how the support from both her parents and her husband’s parents in looking after her daughter Ella, has been invaluable:

‘Kristan and I are both competing, which is different, but we work it really well between us and we rely heavily on our families for support.’

(Shelley Rudman)

Conclusion

As we can see the recipe for sporting success requires a variety of ingredients, with the family, and in particular parents, one of the most important.  The support offered is unconditional and rarely an easy job, it is one that sees many sacrifices and while the destination may ultimately be a success, the journey often encounters some bumps along the way.  What we can be sure of is that the Olympic Games is an event which for many will be the culmination of four years of hard work and commitment for both athlete and family. Undoubtedly one of the most touching moments seen during an Olympic Games is that of Jenny Jones, who dislikes competing in front of her parents, being reunited with her mum and dad after winning Britain’s first-ever medal on snow. Her parents had travelled to Sochi without Jenny knowing and stayed out of her sight until being unable to resist congratulating their daughter following her success. Jones’ mum could be heard to say ‘you’ve never disappointed us’ an illustration of the unconditional support parents often provide.

Please note: this article has been re-versioned from The OU Sport & Fitness Team Blog. To read the original version, you can head over the blog here.

References

BBC (2013) ‘Shelley Rudman ‘had skeleton funding cut after pregnancy’ [online] Available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/winter-sports/21715720 (Accessed 27 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘Chemmy Alcott: The Olympic Interview – ‘Now I want it more’ [online] Available from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/10273497/Chemmy-Alcott-The-Olympic-Interview-Now-I-want-it-more.html (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘Zoe Gillings: The Olympic Interview’ [online] Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/features/ski-interviews/10473638/Zoe-Gillings-interview-2014-Winter-Olympics.html (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘Katie Summerhayes: The Olympic Interview’ [online] Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/features/ski-interviews/10516640/Katie-Summerhayes-interview-2014-Winter-Olympics.html (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘James woods: The Olympic Interview’ [online] Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/snowandski/features/ski-interviews/10574812/James-Woods-interview-2014-Winter-Olympics.html (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Daley, T. (2012) ‘My Story’ Penguin Books Ltd, The Stand, London.

Greenstreet, R. ‘Max Whitlock, gymnast: ‘My earliest memory? Walking on my hands around the house’ [online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/08/max-whitlock-gymnast-olympic-medals (Accessed 10 July 2020)

Lewis, A. (2013) Shelley Rudman on her Sochi hopes and teaching her daughter [online] Available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/get-inspired/25093179 (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Maxifuel (2014) ‘The Brownlee Brothers: GB Olympic Gold and Bronze Medalists’ [online] Available from: http://www.maxifuel.com/team/brownlee-brothers (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Shivspix (2012) ‘Chemmy Allcott: A race with meaning’ [online] Available at http://www.shivspix.com/2012/12/07/chemmy-alcott-a-race-with-meaning/ (Accessed 23 Jan 14)

 

 

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