The tightrope that parents of sporting prodigies have to walk between encouraging their child to fulfil their potential and pushing them too far – possibly to the brink of damaging their mental or physical health – was highlighted yesterday by one of the doctors responsible for the health of British athletes at the last Olympic Games.
Dr Rod Jaques, who is now national medical director of the English Institute for Sport, which works with elite athletes, told the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference that parents, coaches and schools all played a key role in preparing our future sportsmen and women.
In the case of parents, he warned that in rare but "worrying" cases their love was "conditional" upon sporting success. "I think it is a tough one when a parent... is both the coach and parent. It is a potential for conflict of interest there. It's a very delicate balance between encouragement and support for that child and its potential for being a mentor or tormentor of the child.
"It is often anecdotally said that behind every injured child is a parent athlete wanting to get out. We probably have witnessed this on the side of our rugby fields or football fields of the bawling parent, not just at the referee but at the child on the field of play."
He added that this type of behaviour by parents could actually be counterproductive, as a child was more likely to feign injury or simply give up the sport if put under pressure.
Dr Jaques stressed that most parents had exactly the right attitude and that, "the love is entirely unconditional". However, he added: "Occasionally, I don't see that. The love is conditional upon them [the child] having sporting success. In the worst case it can create eating disorders or even protract injuries – where we find no evidence of injury still existing but they still complain of pain."
He also had a warning for coaches, whom he said should be careful when choosing the words they use with their protégés. A wrong word, particularly in the case of a gymnast conscious of their weight, could provoke an eating disorder.
He added that most schools, particularly in the independent sector, had the balance between sport and academia about right. He said sporting prodigies did, in the main, get the best out of their schooling, with research showing that on average they achieved better exam qualifications than their non-sporting peers – possibly because of the leadership skills and discipline their training gave them.
They were absent from class for lengthy periods and were treated differently by staff and the school, but could still keep up. The biggest problem for the schools was losing their star players for games against rivals, as they were too busy competing or training at a national level.
Dr Jaques pointed out that it took around 11 years of training for an athlete to reach their peak in their chosen sport, and up to 40 hours of training a week. As the average age of competitors at the Beijing Olympics was 25.6, they needed to start specialising at 14.
"They [the athletes] were worried about injuries they could pick up from other sports," he said.
Dr Jaques also pointed out that at the last Olympic Games, 48 per cent of British medal winners were from private schools, which educates only 7 per cent of the country's children. There were fewer representatives from lower socio-economic groups, he said, with athletes from single-parent homes particularly under represented at just 5 per cent.
"The taxi service to take them home from training is not there," he said. "It takes two to make that happen. Unless we were to move towards those other countries [the US and Australia] where sporting schools are largely state funded, it is difficult to see change."
The world champion diving sensation, 16, often found himself in the deep end at school. Like many sporting prodigies, he struggled to cope with sudden fame, and after springing to prominence during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 an older pupil at Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth allegedly threatened to break Daley's leg. "It's getting to the stage now where I think 'Oh, to hell with it. I don't want to go back to school,'" he said. Daley's parents later pulled him out of Eggbuckland, accusing staff of not doing enough to stop the builying. He transferred to the independent Plymouth College, later emerging with five A* grades and two grade-A passes in his GCSE exams earlier this year.
The teenage golfer, now aged 21, would be the first to confess that his school, Sullivan Upper in Holywood, near Belfast, was not top of his priority list. In his formative years he struggled to cope with the time required to train, saying: "When I was at school I was good, but I was rarely there so I was always trying to catch up. I'd say if my attendance had been any better I would have been OK."
If anyone provides a model for combining sporting and educational success it was the former England cricket captain. He went to Manchester Grammar School and then Cambridge University where he gained a first in history. During his undergraduate career his teammates would refer to him as FEC, or Future England Captain – a job he held by the age of 25.
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