What could an elite sports training camp teach parents? I had the privilege to lead the parents meeting at the October England Under 17/18 Rugby Development Camp. What I learnt in those 24 hours left me questioning everything as a parent and professional!

These are the biggest takeaways I took from my time in Leeds, ways of being for the coaches and staff which would do well to be more present in my parenting.


I’ve spent the last 20 years learning how to ask great questions. Working with parents you have to learn how to ask a question which will go beyond parent defensiveness and begin good self-reflection. The coaches in the camp are masters at asking questions.  I was dead keen to learn in this environment, but the coaches were the ones questioning me. Of themselves they asked, ‘what can we do to make it better?’ I loved this humility. I was talking to John Fletcher about a session I had just observed and his first question to me was about improvement. I was the new boy to this environment yet on a number of times I was asked for my reflective feedback.

As parents, for a number of reasons we can be defensive, unwilling to ask what we could do to make it better. Can we have the courage to ask our kids ‘what can I do better on game day?’ ’how can I do better when supporting you at school?’ ‘How can I do better at listening to you?’ ‘What would make our family holidays better?’. Asking our friends: ‘You’ve seen me as a dad, what would make me a better parent?’.

Valuing the risk and the exploration:

This environment values the taking of risks and they provide room to explore the not-yet formed answers. They understand that allowing exploration will mean a number of stumbles and falls.  The challenge I took away is just how willing am I to allow my children and the parents I work with to explore the space of “not yet worked it out.” In a time-hungry world, we do struggle to allow processes which give real time to allowing people to explore different options to work out their own strengths and weakness and where they fit into it all. I am committed to being process-driven. By this I mean, sort the process out and the results will follow. However, often the pressure of time and my full diary and self-importance means I spoon feed the answer. The outcome of spoon feeding? Less learning.  Just like with questions there is also an element of humility. If you are willing to allow risk and exploration you are opening yourself and the player to the possibility of finding an answer which you have not thought of, an answer which goes beyond our knowledge and understanding.  When it comes to parenting it is allowing our children the creative space to go beyond us. If they use their creativity to its fullness it is likely that their understanding, wisdom and character will go beyond ours. However, you can’t allow this type of creativity if you are not willing to value the 100’s of times you don’t get an answer to the problem, these 100’s of stumbles and fails often look like chaos. Parents don’t do well with chaos. I think a first step to encouraging risk and stumbling for parents would be playing a favourite family board game or card game, only allow a member of the family to change the rules. Then watch the chaos, creativity and problem solving which takes place to solve these new problems within the game. The real learning (and fun) will happen in the exploring, probing and testing of these new boundaries. If as parents we can resist rushing to the answer, for our own time or pride needs, we will find a growth of character in our children which will last a lifetime as our children learn to risk by exploring the failures and successes which come in the space of “not yet worked it out”.

A couple of Gandalfs

I’m not sure you can have a couple of Gandalfs, but they do in the England camp. They have their roles, one a ‘mentor’ to the players. A world cup winner and person who as a player experienced the ups and downs which come with elite rugby. The other was an ‘education officer.’ The voice of ‘elderly’ wisdom is an essential part of community development.  In an age which is increasingly muting the wisdom of tried and tested years, mainly because those people are not as active on social media, we miss out on deep learning and ‘old wisdom’ is seen as ‘untrendy’. Not that these two men were very old! There is more to being an ‘elder’ than words, there is a respected presence and these two oused it, not only to the players, but to the other staff and coaches.

As a parent, are my children given enough time and encouragement to ‘sit at the feet’ of the wise? Do my kids have enough Gandalf role models in their lives? These role models often don’t hold all the power, a headteacher or head coach is unlikely to fulfil those roles because of the mixed economy of power. A grandparent is the most obvious example, but it doesn’t have to be. As parents we can find the wise sage threatening, because they often have more impact than we do. It is hard to put into words what a Gandalf does. I have my own Gandalf, a retired judge in his 70’s. I see him every 6-8 weeks. He asks questions, listens and helps me keep my feet on the ground. He’ll often have a gentle chuckle when we talk, helping me remember that what I’ve got my knickers in a twist about isn’t that important.  When my kids ask me why I see this man I tell them ‘he tends the garden of my soul.’ In the England set up, I was pleased to see the impact of these ‘gardeners’ on those who could become household names in the years to come.

As parents, whose wise voice do we value? Are grandparents just ‘child care’, or do they help weed and nurture our family gardens? Are we providing enough time for such people in our lives?

The beauty of going into a new environment is, if you are willing there is always so much to learn. The England staff set out to create ‘crisis moments’ for the players, to stretch their thinking, they created that in me as well.  As I departed Leeds, I was left with the opportunity to be honest with myself. Had I become complacent about values and practices I highly value? Had the busyness of parenting left me in a comfortable groove? It was time for me as a parent and a professional supporting parents to question these values again and increase my commitment and expression of them. Great questions, risk-taking and wisdom are found in England development camps and courageously honest families.

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