To support your child in their sporting endeavours in 2019 can you have these awkward conversations?

As our children get older, there are conversations which become more awkward. As parents of sporting athletes, there are several conversations which, despite their awkwardness, if we don’t have them they will close the door to enabling our children to feel that they can talk to us about these important issues.  By keeping those doors firmly closed, we run the risk of increasing shame and reducing their ability to process some of the challenges that pursuing sporting dreams offers them. We also diminish their ability to understand who they are in environments which often seek to ‘mould’ them in clonelike ways.

We, as parents, have an opportunity to model courageous honesty in talking about difficult conversations in ways in which reduce shame and enable our young people to know that at home there is a safe space to talk about the sort of topics that they may not find easy to talk to coaches about or those in the sports environment for many different and obvious reasons. More importantly it offers our children an open door to understand and receive our love and understand who they are.

Now, of course, keeping these conversational doors open doesn’t necessarily mean our young people will walk through that door and take the opportunity or advantage of having the conversation. If they are awkward topics for us then they are definitely awkward for your children. However, I believe it’s our role as parents to keep these conversational doors open, so that our children, when they want to use them, when they feel that it’s appropriate to use them, can do.

The first topic of conversation I think you should keep open is, ‘you can stop playing your sport if you want to’. Now, this is a massive challenge for parents. Parents who have invested huge sums of money, who’ve given up tons of lie ins, who’ve travelled all over the country, all over the world to support their child in performing at the highest level, for parents whose dreams for sporting success mirror their children’s ambitions.  But it is very important that our child realises that when the fun has run out, when the desire is gone, that it’s okay for them to stop. That our family identity is more than being sports stars. Maybe they’ve had a number of injuries, and it’s time to take some time out from the sport. By asking them the question, ‘do you want to carry on?’, you’re helping them realise that they’re playing for themselves and not for you. You’re helping your young person realise that you do not believe that they have to keep playing, that their identity as your child or as a human is not enveloped in playing a certain sport or by striving for certain sporting achievements. You are also preparing them for the day when you have to have the conversation at the end of their playing career.  When Missy Franklin five time olympic gold medal swimmer had to make the painful choice to retire early, she said To my parents, my family and my dearest friends, who will forever be the most important people in my life, thank you for raising me, teaching me and inspiring me to be a strong woman who is brave and courageous enough to make this decision, and to support it with all your hearts.” Will your children say that of you when they stop playing? (You can read her wonderful and emotion letter here.) 

I recognise that if you’ve been supporting a child for a long time on this journey, it can be quite a scary thought thinking about giving up, because your family life and social life becomes intertwined with their sport. Keeping this conversational door open shows that you value them being honest, it shows that by asking this question you’re giving them permission to be genuinely honest about how they’re feeling and that even if mum and dad don’t agree you want to hear what they want.

Now, this is not a question to ask every week. I would say this is a question to ask once a season and I reckon most parents have had the challenge of a young athlete saying, “Oh, I’m so tired, I don’t want to do this today.” I’m not talking about those type of feelings. I’m talking about that feeling of, ‘this has run its course’. Are you open to the possibility, have you left the door open in your conversations for your children to be able to come to you and say, “I think I want to stop.”

Now, I would then say, and this is certainly a rule in my house, that if you want to stop that’s fine, but you have to fulfil your commitment. You have to fulfil your commitment to your team for this term or this season. But if at the end of that time you still genuinely want to stop, we will support you in doing that.

The great practicality of this question is that not only does it leave an open door to say, “Do you want to stop?” but in most cases they’re going to say, “No, I want to carry on playing.” In which case you say, “great, what do you need to do in the next season? What are going work on? How can I best support you to carry on fulfilling this dream? What are your long-term goals? Where are the challenges going to come?” So it’s not even that this is just a negative question. It helps you spring into the positives about what you can do as a parent to support them, but it firmly establishes in their mind that if I really wanted to give up I can go and talk to mum and dad. To talk to a coach, or a school teacher, about wanting to stop would be incredibly hard for a child. I think it’s important that they know that at home, stopping is okay, that they are not playing their sport for mum and dad, they are playing it for themselves.

Do you know as a parent that your child’s sporting journey may end before you want it to? Are your children defined by their sport and sporting success at home? If they wanted to stop competing, could you support them in taking what they gained from their sport environment and apply it elsewhere?

Young people need to know that there is a home environment which supports them making their own decisions. A difficult door to keep open, but one that I think is essential.

The second door to keep open, and this is a really uncomfortable one for lots of parents, is to talk about puberty and body change. During the Olympics in 2016, when a Chinese diver was asked about her lower than expected performance, she was honest and said, “I’m on my period,” and that made headline sporting news, because it was uncommon for a female athlete to be honest about the way her menstrual cycle had affected her performance. Sport and puberty have a close and often uncomfortable relationship. 

When I talk to teenagers, when I listen to teenagers, there’s a huge amount of shame around body image, and around puberty and around sex, and that shame comes from all sorts of parts of society, often including home. This is a particular challenge, I think, for dads. To leave that door open, to be able to talk to your children about how their body is changing, and about puberty, porn, and about menstrual cycles, and to see that home is a shame-free place around these topics, keeping this door open means that our children know that they can talk to mum or dad about these topics.

Our children may not want to walk through this door, they may not feel comfortable talking to mum and dad about periods or some of the body changes that are happening at puberty. That’s absolutely fine and normal. What is essential is that as parents we leave that door open to enable our children to, again, know that there is no shame in talking about these topics. When you think about sports stars, they put their body through a lot. A lot of sports mean that a child’s body is intentionally developed in certain ways which don’t always fit to the stereotypical norm, cultural norm of what a good body looks like and that means they’re under more pressure and can be more body conscious.

When I talk to gynaecologists, or pelvic floor physiotherapists I hear of huge numbers of women who,  (A), don’t understand their own anatomy and, (B), are very shameful and unable to talk about it. Now, if you then put on top of that elite sport performance and the pressure that comes with it, you have a potentially harmful and toxic cocktail of emotions.  Which is why it is really important that parents keep an open door on these topics to enable their children to know that there is somewhere safe where they can come and talk. Again, they may not want to use that open door but it’s about enabling our athletes to understand their own bodies and to be able to talk to parents who can signpost the best places to get support and where to get the best advice.

So how do you do that? How do you talk about puberty? Well, you talk about puberty naturally and normally. If it comes up on the television, if it comes up in normal life you don’t hide from it. You don’t run away from it. You don’t give tampons and other sanitary products pet names. You’re just honest about it. Dads get involved in going to the shop and buying, if it’s on the shopping list. Don’t make a joke about, “Oh, they’re on their time of the month, watch out for the moods”. Avoid embarrassment-fueled banter so that it’s just a normal part of life and in doing so you’re enabling young people and athletes to be natural about who they are and what’s going on with them.

The last door important to keep open is that you enable your young person, in a performance pathway, to realise that they don’t have to be like you. Now, that might sound really obvious. But I think, sometimes as parents we create an environment which, particularly if you were good at sport, particularly if you love sport, may make the young person feel like they have to follow in your footsteps, or emulate your success, or your approach to sport. That their success is in someway tied to who you are and their identity. It’s incredibly important that our young people realise that you are hoping to give them a very solid and firm foundation for going off and being successful, on and off the sports pitch. But, that you’re also, as a parent, courageous and honest enough to realise that our young people will make their own path in life.

It saddens me when I hear of young athletes in their 20s still having to wrestle with mum and dad’s dreams for their sport, and their future, and their life, and what life will look like, rather than the parents saying, “Go be you! What do you want life to look like?” We keep an open door to having this conversation. “We will give you our wisdom. We will give you our love. We will give you our encouragement, but we give you our permission to modify life from how we brought you up, to reject some of the things that we brought you up with and to adopt some new things.” In my house I often say, “I wonder how you will be different from me as an adult.” so I am say  ‘“I’m not expecting you to be walking in my footsteps, I’m expecting you to make your own new paths, which will cross my paths, but diverge where you feel is best for you.”

Our children are going to do this anyway, giving them permission to be different to you enables the sense of being disloyal to mum and dad to be replaced with the understanding mum and dad love my sporting journey, but it is my sporting journey.

These three are difficult doors for parents to keep open. It takes real courage and honesty to be open about whether your child wants to carry on playing sport. And in all likelihood, they will want to carry on. It takes honesty and courage to talk in a natural and normal way about puberty, and the body changes that young men and women go through. Finally, it takes courageous honesty to say, “I have dreams and aspirations for you, but it’s your life. You go and do it as you want.”

Keeping an open door on these conversations enables your children to see that they are more than just a sporting star to you. They’re a human being whom you love for who they are, regardless of whether they carry on in sport, regardless of what puberty is or isn’t doing to their body, regardless of whether they are like you or not.

These open doors will enable your children to be more effective and have more fun, not only on the sports pitch but in all areas of life.

If you would like support in having conversations with children which build sporting character please check out Richard’s book.