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Crossing the Line - or Championing our Children?

It’s that wonderful time of year again when we all become tennis fans, get the strawberries and cream in, and maybe even dust off our own rackets and have a game. Yes, it’s Wimbledon time. For many of us, playing tennis will mean a casual knock about with no great importance placed upon the result, while the top pros at Wimbledon have a lot more pressure on them to perform well - none more so than Andy Murray – although they are rewarded very handsomely for their efforts. However, for many young players, there is often too much pressure to perform well - and win – from an early age, with only the hope of future rewards. Pressure often applied by their own parents.

The reigning Ladies Singles Champion, Serena Williams, and her sister Venus, have possibly the most famous ‘pushy parent’ - their father Richard Williams. Supposedly, he decided they would be Grand Slam champions before they were even born!

Andre Agassi was another champion with a similar tale. In his autobiography ‘Open’, he wrote of the pressure exerted on him by his father to succeed at tennis. "I'm seven years old, talking to myself, because I'm scared, and because I'm the only person who listens to me. Under my breath I whisper: Just quit Andre, just give up... But I can't," he recalls. "Not only would my father chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, won't let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice." Setting aside the more important point of how unhealthy an environment that would be for any child, it is arguable that Agassi achieved his 8 Grand slam titles despite this relationship not because of it.

Whilst Agassi and the Williams sisters are no doubt grateful to some degree to their fathers, given their subsequent success, for every success story there are countless others of those who give up sport completely and even become ostracised from their parents as a result.

In a 2015 study by Chance to Shine, 45% of 1002 children aged 8 -16 said that the behaviour of their parents could make them feel like they didn't want to take part in sport. 4 in 10 said that their parents criticised their performance, with 16% admitting that it happened frequently or all the time. The same study asked parents how they felt about their conduct, and the vast majority acknowledged that bad behaviour discourages children from taking part in sport. Almost half reported that they had witnessed other parents abusing the coach or referee.

Undoubtedly, enthusiasm and support from parents can really help children succeed, but there is a fine line between healthy support and the above kind of behaviour, which can be detrimental to children’s self-esteem and motivation. For many parents who step over this line, the reason is an attempt to live out their own sporting dreams through their children, maybe correcting past mistakes of their own. What should never be forgotten is the fact that the main reason for playing sport is enjoyment. That is what will encourage hard work and ultimately success, and increased fitness at any level of any sport.

Helping our children find things they enjoy doing is important, whether that’s sport or something entirely different. Getting the right balance between encouraging them to work hard, without forcing them to do something they don’t enjoy, is key.  We need to keep communication channels open, listen, ask questions, champion them in whatever they choose to do, give them the freedom to flourish or fail – so that above all they know that, whatever the outcome, they are loved.

Communication is at the heart of great parenting. Check out our Top Tips guide here for help with how to talk to your child about puberty, relationships and sex.

Ben Hockley

Finance Officer - and tennis coach!