Parenting is hard. Probably the toughest gig you’ll ever take on. And even the bits you most look forward to and think will be straightforward, can be tricky – like introducing your children to sport. If you’ve got the next Messi or Mo in your family, you probably already know that there’s quite a lot of pain mixed with the pleasure. And it gets even worse if your teen loves sport but hasn’t quite got the required level of speed, or co-ordination, or is small for their age…
The benefits of sport are undisputed, but let’s have a feel-good look at a list anyway:
- It’s great for the body
- It’s good for the mind
- It can lead to rewarding friendships, teamwork, camaraderie – and that goes just as much for the parents as the players (as anyone who has bonded over watching a match in driving sleet will know!)
- It grows confidence, maturity, commitment and determination as well as the understanding that hard work tends to pay off (which is why sport is so respected by employers and uni admissions teams; an added bonus!)
- It helps with the valuable life-skill of learning to gracefully accept failure and rejection
- It’s a brilliant bond (and something to talk about!) between the teenager and the parents who are their biggest fans
- And, of course, there’s the indescribable joy of winning (especially when your boy is captain and they've just won a national final...)
But then there are the downsides:
Top of mind, as we’re right in the middle of exam season, is the challenge of balancing academic life with time spent playing or training. In an ideal world, sport provides an essential break from studying and one that offers a total escape from books, screens and stress, so the worst thing you can do is encourage your teen to give up sport while they’re doing their exams. But if your child plays a lot of different sports, or a particular sport to a high level, it’s really tough to help them find the right balance. The guilt and worry involved in what to do for the best when your kid trains/plays six or seven times a week, sometimes involving car journeys of two to four hours each way, plus residential stays in the holidays, is excruciating. Even though that’s the extreme, making decisions about how much to study rather than play sport is tough for us all – and it gets even worse when there are other interests and commitments added into the mix.
Forgetting the little darlings for a minute, being a parent to a sporty child can be tough. Everyone wants their kid to have their moment in the sun by winning the race, scoring the winning goal, claiming the trophy – we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t (although we’re delighted too when others have their day). If your child is in the top spot a little more than average though, you certainly hear about it. I lost count of the number of times I was asked when my son was younger if he didn’t ‘deserve a little break’ – when he was so miserable if not constantly active that he was always out in the garden in swimming trunks if it was raining hard and I was fed up with wet clothes, or begging us to get up early on a weekend morning to take him to swim fit training (I remember him worrying at the end of a rugby season not too long ago that “I might get more boisterous in the classroom”!!). You have to be able to take a deep breath, tune out all those ‘well-meaning’ comments and spend your energy cheering the team on rather than fighting back.
And, finally, the biggie. Not everyone can be good at sport; not everyone is going to make the top team or be able to fulfil their dreams. And it hurts. At whatever level, watching your teenager cope with disappointment when you’d do anything – anything – for them not to have to, is agony. When they are left behind by siblings, or taller friends, or just don’t find their niche, it’s heart-breaking. We’ve both lived through this, and have a lot to say about how we’ve coped with it both well and pretty disastrously, and what we’d do differently with hindsight, but we’re going to leave that for next time.
It’s certainly not all gain with no pain. So, would we do it all over again? Would we recommend to those with younger children that they encourage their kids to play any and all sports as much as they possibly can? In a heartbeat.