Richard Keegan: Children need our unconditional support

Sam Webster, Ethan Mitchell and Eddie Dawkins celebrate their cycling gold medal at the Commonwealth Games  in Glasgow. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sam Webster, Ethan Mitchell and Eddie Dawkins celebrate their cycling gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo / Greg Bowker

Picture your son or daughter watching an event at the Commonwealth Games, then turning to you and saying: "I want to do that."

Let's imagine you're aware that substantial sacrifices lie ahead, with no guarantee of the child becoming world champion.

There are stories of parents who have raised their children to become world-beaters in sport: the Williams sisters and Andre Agassi in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf.

What cost a few early mornings, a few extra lessons or a summer camp every year, compared with the returns on your investment?

First of all, we need to remember the odds of the bet. The American National Collegiate Athletic Association found that of athletes still competing at age 14:

*0.03 per cent (1 in 3300) will turn pro in basketball.
*0.09 per cent (one per 100 teams) in football.
*0.08 per cent (1 in 1300) in American Football.

And turning pro is still a long way short of becoming world champion. There are much better ways of making money.

To seek only global success grossly underestimates the value of what sport can teach us:

*Winning and losing gracefully.
*Goal-setting skills.
*Dealing with criticism.
*Moral awareness.

In addition, children who participate in regular physical activity tend to be active later in life, with all the health benefits that brings.

Reflecting on my research, here are a few hints and tips offered by interviewees, some of whom were children and adolescents, and some of whom were elite athletes who had made it.

1 Don't force it: many athletes report a key moment where they realised they didn't want to compete any more, and in many cases their parents pushed, guilt-tripped and cajoled them into continuing.

Consider this quote from an elite athlete, talking about a world champion friend of hers:

"When [he] was younger he went through a phase of not really liking [his main sport] and I think [his mum] was obviously aware of the knock-on consequences, but she didn't want to force him to do it. He was actually quite into [another sport] and he got offered a contract in that [] and I didn't see him for a while, a couple of years [] but then he just got back into this which is obviously in his favour."

Remember, this boy went on to become world champion.

2 Just help, no strings attached: a key idea from athletes young and old is the "conditionality" of parental support. The less parents attach strings to their support (and affection), the more kids feel free to play, learn and improve.

3 Don't be a coach, be a parent: athletes across the spectrum reported frustrations when parents tried to coach them and offered the advice that, at best, "just reinforce what the coach has told me to work on".

Parents don't need to do the coaching - they need to provide emotional and material support.

4 Leave it all on the paddock (or court or pool or track): in the same way we often want to leave work at the office, our kids often want to leave their sport behind once it's done. In interviews, I heard stories of parents offering feedback on the car ride home, over dinner and even at bedtime.

A 9-year-old boy told me: "When you're playing a match, if you missed it, if you did a terrible shot and it went miles wide, they'd remember it, and then at the dinner table they'd say 'remember that shot that you kicked miles wide?' And you're [like]: 'I thought you'd forgotten about that'."

5 They will remember it: one pleasant message in our research was that while children may not appreciate it at the time, once they grew into adults they invariably valued the support their parents provided.

6 Go and watch: in a yet-to-be published study, we analysed which themes linked together in people's narratives. Parents being present at training and competition was a root cause of many of the motivational influences parents exerted (positive and negative).

Time together, a shared experience and working towards shared goals all build a strong relationship and allow you to be a bigger part of your child's life as they grow up.

Richard Keegan is assistant professor in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Canberra.

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