Are child athletes winners or losers?

Daley, McIlroy and Djokovic demonstrate the advantage of starting a career in sport while very young. But, asks Peter Stanford, what's lost on the way to winning?

The trophy cabinet in the kitchen was the size of a small van. We asked our hosts – friends made at the school gates – where all the medals and cups and plaques had come from. Their children, they told us, very matter-of-factly. Two were junior swimming champions, on the cusp of getting into national squads for their age group.

Two contrary reactions immediately started slugging it out in my head – the same pair that go into battle whenever I see a child sporting prodigy on the tennis court or golf course, or, recently, when I heard Tom Daley, at 14 Britain's youngest Olympian last time round in Beijing, describing on the radio his build-up to defending his diving gold medal at the World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai later this month.

The first is to look askance at my own children, at 14 and 11 theoretically perfectly placed to launch a bid for precocious sporting stardom, but in reality, solid middle-of-the-roaders, happy enough to go with the flow of games lessons at school to get in the odd team here and there, in the relay squad or as 12th man in the cricket, but definitely nowhere near the edge of anything national, regional or – aagghh – even local. Are they missing out on something, I start to worry, suffering from a lack of get-up-and-go that will blight their whole future? Or worse, do they lack the parental encouragement to explore and fulfil their athletic potential?

At which point, reaction number two kicks in. A photo-montage begins running through my brain of all those mums and dads who hover in press photographs at the shoulders of their champion children: Earl Woods teaching his two-year-old son, Tiger, how to hold a golf club; Gerry McIlroy, himself a decent amateur golfer, taking 18-month-old Rory on to the local course in Northern Ireland, and on course for a US Open title at 22; Melanie Hingis, once a top 10 tennis player in her native Czechoslovakia, answering a question in an interview about when she first knew her daughter, Martina, would be a champion, saying "from the time she came out of the womb"; the Djokovic parents in Serbia practising on the public courts with all three of their small sons, Novak, Marko and Djordje; and Anthony Hamilton, buying his son Lewis his first go-kart at the age of seven, the prelude to a glittering career in Formula One.

Each has a question mark over their heads. Justified or not, the suspicion that these parents are somehow living out their own dreams through their children never quite goes away. Best not to be that parent in that place, I conclude.

When our hosts with the trophy cabinet describe the schedules required of their future swimming champs – up at 6am for an hour in the pool before school, back there at 6pm between homework and dinner, galas at weekends, summer camps et al – my prejudices are confirmed. That's not the childhood I want for my kids.

There is already enough pressure on children to grow up too quickly. Every magazine, website, pop idol and padded bra for eight-year-olds seems to be conspiring to accelerate their transit into an adult world of sex, success and stress. A parent's role has to be to regulate and, when necessary, hold back that tide until it becomes age-appropriate, and thereby preserve precious qualities of childhood such as innocence, pleasure in mundane things, friendships and even long hours of boredom.

The track record of child sports stars turning into well-rounded, contented adults is not always an encouraging one. Think Jennifer Capriati, who made her professional debut on the women's tennis tour at just 13 in 1989 and was in the top 10 by the time she was 14. Three years later, the "Can't Miss Kid" had dropped out, been arrested for shoplifting and possession of marijuana, and has gone on to have a troubled adult history with drugs. "When I looked in the mirror," she recalled of her teen years winning trophies, "I actually saw this distorted image. I was so ugly and fat I just wanted to kill myself, really. At the end of a match, I couldn't wait to get off court. Mentally, I'd just lost it. I wasn't happy with myself, my tennis, my life, my coaches, my friends."

Ruth Cairns started playing tennis when she was eight on public courts in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Tall for her age, she was soon spotted as a precocious talent and, by the time she hit teenagerdom, she was practising every evening after school, spending her holidays at special coaching camps in Telford, Coventry and the North-east, and competing in the under-14s at the national championships in Nottingham, showcase for what British tennis hoped would be the new Virginia Wades and Sue Barkers. But at 16, she packed it in. "I wanted to have a social life and I wanted to concentrate on my school work," she remembers, "and I knew I couldn't do either, let alone both, if I was spending all my time playing tennis. I didn't want to 'make it' that badly. Lots of the girls I played with were going off to Florida to Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy, where they had the reputation of turning out champions. Their whole life there would be on the tennis court, but it wasn't for me. Going out with my friends at home, and going to gigs in Leeds suddenly was just too tempting."

Having given up the tennis, Cairns settled down to her academic studies – inevitably sidelined when she had been training so intensively – won a place at Oxford and is now an associate director in a major PR agency. She has, she says, no regrets. Does she ever pick up a tennis racket? "Not often, and only for fun."

There are echoes in her story of remarks made by Tom Daley and Lewis Hamilton. "It's just the fact that I can't have a normal school life like everybody else," Daley once complained, after it had been revealed that he was bullied at the local comprehensive he attended in his native Devon. "At weekends," Lewis Hamilton has recalled, "I never had a chance to go to any of those under-18s clubs or parties. And that affects you because your friendships are not so strong."

An essential difference, though, is that Hamilton and Daley both concluded that the price of success was worth paying, and have gone on to reach the top of their trees, but Cairns jacked it in. "I always knew that I was only ever going to be an also-ran," she explains. "If I'd had Tom Daley's talent, I'd have gone for it. He's amazing. I certainly don't see him as a sad figure being robbed of his childhood. The ones I do wonder about, though, are all those juniors who missed out on being a teenager and on their education, and then at 20 realised they were never going to make it as professionals."

The line between becoming a prodigy and being left with a lifelong sense of failure is a thin one. The decision about embracing the all-excluding training schedule required of future champions might be easier if, at eight, coaches could say with any certainty who was going to make it and who wasn't. But it just isn't that simple. You have to feed a hundred or even a thousand hopefuls into that twilight world of training regimes day-in, day-out, for one champion to emerge (or not, as is the case of British women's tennis).

It takes, the experts say, 11 years of training for an athlete to realise his or her potential in their chosen sport, and that requires a minimum of 40 hours' training each week. Given that human beings tend to reach their physical peak in their early to mid-twenties, there is a natural argument for an early start if you don't want to miss the boat altogether. As champions get younger, and professionals still at the top of their game into their thirties get rarer – Venus and Serena Williams are already being written off post-Wimbledon at 31 and 29 – the pressure grows to focus intensively on potential stars of the future at earlier and earlier ages.

All of which creates a dilemma for both parents and the regulatory bodies in sport. In the case of the latter, however well intentioned, there is an inevitable tension between their (usually well-funded) goal of producing the next generation of home-grown champions, and their duty of care to vulnerable youngsters. Jennifer Capriati's spectacular crash and burn, for instance, caused the WTA Tour in 1994 to introduce an age limit that means that Wimbledon crowds today are unlikely to see anyone under 18 competing in the main draw. But the new women's champion, Czech Petra Kvitova, is only 21. Her achievement is built on a very early commitment to tennis.

And what of the choices parents have to make on behalf of their children? There is an increasing body of evidence of both the physical and emotional damage caused by pushing children – or allowing them to push themselves – into the world of competitive sport. Clear links, for example, have been established between starting young in pursuit of gold medals and anorexia, with one in five elite female athletes having an eating disorder. The NSPCC, meanwhile, has produced a short film telling children that sport is there to be enjoyed, and sounding a warning to "pushy parents" that too much encouragement of their child prodigy to succeed can become abusive.

The experts are divided on how parents should behave when their children show exceptional sporting potential. US sports psychology consultant Dr Alan Goldberg, who has worked with Olympic champions, believes that few children, left to their own devices, would embark on the sort of regimes that lead eventually to the winners' podium. "What drives children are their parents," he says. "A lot will have dreams, but whether they act on them immediately depends on the parents they have."

And it is not only a question of the parents' emotional response to their child's talent. There are more basic questions about the financial support they can offer. Nurturing a sporting prodigy doesn't come cheap, which may explain why a disproportionate number come from more affluent homes. Anthony Hamilton, however, overcame this economic disadvantage by juggling a variety of jobs to provide financial support when his son was on his way up through motor racing's lower levels.

However, Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, rejects Dr Goldberg's thesis. Exceptional children – whether in sport or in school work – drive themselves regardless of parental attitudes, she argues. "The parents are running along behind trying to keep up." While many would readily accept her point in terms of academic work, it causes raised eyebrows when it comes to sporting prodigies. A case of double standards, she insists.

Contrary to the questions always asked of them, some parents do manage to maintain a balance. By all accounts, Tom Daley had a good relationship with his father, Rob, who died of a brain tumour in May at the age of just 40. "I hope he will be watching and waving his big Union Jack in London [2012] from somewhere else," the apparently eminently well-balanced Daley said recently. "Without my family, I wouldn't be able to do anything."

Perhaps one key was that Rob Daley wasn't his son's coach, but instead provided the supportive structure Tom needed. When parents try to be both, there is a conflict of interest. The coach in them needs to drive their child to ever-greater achievement. The protector in them needs to help their child to avoid physical and emotional damage during what is, regardless of sporting prowess, an extremely turbulent and vulnerable time in their lives. "It is a very delicate balance," according to Dr Rod Jaques, the national medical director of the English Institute of Sport, "between encouragement and support for that child and its potential for being a mentor of torment of that child."

When the two get mixed up, it can go disastrously wrong. This week, Justin Wright, a 17-year-old New Zealand swimming prodigy, ended up going to court after his parents, Paul (a swimming official) and Sandy, tried to prevent him competing in the national team. They had nurtured his career from an early age but had fallen out with their son when he moved in with Rhi Jeffrey, a 24-year-old American former Olympic swimming champion. They accused Jeffrey of having "stolen Justin from the cradle". The charge might just as easily be levelled at them.

It is back to those two conflicting reactions caused by the kitchen trophy cabinet. There was undeniably something particularly inspiring about seeing 14-year-old Tom Daley on the diving board in Beijing, alongside fully grown men, taking them on at their own game and beating most of them. Yet at the same time, it is also a slightly disturbing spectacle.

If child sporting prodigies pose tough questions for their parents, they also challenge those who watch sports. There is potentially a heavy physical and emotional price tag for them so that we can experience the exhilaration of seeing a 14-year-old at the Olympics or Wimbledon taking on the grown-ups and winning. Might those dangers be mitigated if sports audiences were content to wait, for example, until these boys and girls reached 28 to get their trophies and medals? Probably. The "wow" factor for fans might not be quite so great, but their physical achievement ultimately would be exactly the same.

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