Ep. 30 - The joy of being a sporty Christian family
Ep. 30 - The joy of being a sporty Christian family


Graham Daniels: Welcome to the Christians in Sport podcast. Now we've got to fit this in about half an hour, so this could be hard going because I'm a talker, Sally Dixon's a talker. Could a while this one. Let me give you some background to our story. This is thinking about young performance athletes. They've got four children. Iona has been on the sailing pathway. She now rows at uni. Callum has been on the sailing pathway in a fin boat, traveling all over the place, all over Europe, but the Olympics, have pulled the plug. In other words, that event's not going to be in the Olympics; therefore the funding stops. Ross was on the canoe slalom pathway, he's now left school and stopped competing. And Honor is in a national youth ballet. I don't think you'd call that a pathway, but she's at that level of performance. So if you want an expert in dealing with the ups and downs of having children on elite performance pathways, here's your woman. Sally, welcome.

Sally: Thank you.

Graham Daniels: Let's dive in. How do you deal with the intensity of winning and losing with teenage children at this level of sport? It's murderous, isn't it?

Sally: I think instinctively you want your children to do well and they obviously wanted to do well themselves, so the idea would be that they're winning and they're getting on squad and they're progressing, but I think that it's about keeping things in perspective and as an adult, holding your children's view that now is the only thing that is important and thinking a bit more long-term.

Graham Daniels: When you say that every parent who's listening to this, probably lots of young people be listening to this and thinking about their own mum and dad in the situation. They understand that probably, but pin down, what does that mean? What's best practice for a mum or dad? Then if that's your first premise?

Sally: I think it's to not be reactive. You don't want to always ask about results; you're waiting to be spoken to. Maybe they want to give you a blow by blow account of what's gone on? You also want to listen to the emotions behind what they're saying. What is it like for them? Because I think you can have your own view of what the outcome might be, as a parent, and actually they've been looking for something different. And I think as a parent as well, I need to remember that I am mum. I'm not the coach, I'm not the athlete, I am at the end of the day, mum. And I will always be there, whatever the ups and the downs.

Graham Daniels: You've not just done this once; you've done this four times and you're in a fourth iteration of it with Honor. I'm going to change angles a bit on this and say: you've watched your children go all the way through a pathway, and like the vast majority of children, they come out of the pathway and don't necessarily end up doing it for a living. That's normal. As you reflect on that now looking back, you're not deeply embedded in it, how helpful do you think your philosophy or your approach to this has been, in retrospect?

Sally: I think it's that as parents you're there for your child and so there is a longterm perspective I think in the same way that really God's there for the long-term. So Sally Dixon's on a bit of a pathway too, and maybe you don't take note of this race and that event and this audition and that performance, and look at what the life skills and the outcomes and all the spinoffs and the really positive things that come with both winning and losing and making the grade and not sometimes making the grade. And so you can look back and think of all the wonderful things that have come out of it and what that can transition into in life.

Graham Daniels: Have you observed that? I know we got to be careful about talking about your children because it's very specific to them and, and I want to be careful about that of course, but when I see Iona, Callum, Ross, when you look back at some of their experiences as they've come out of those pathways, do you feel it's been enriching of your relationship with them?

Sally: Absolutely. I mean, I wouldn't have missed any of what we've been through at all. I think when you're in the middle of it, you don't necessarily appreciate it, so I think that there's something about living in the moment, not always looking for what's to come, what the next level might be, enjoying the moment for what it is taking out of it, what you can. I really see Callum, who had his hopes of going all the way in sailing, taken from him, not through anything that he did and so transitioning now into another sport and watching him being able to make comparisons in a different sport, learn new things. I look at Iona who again made a choice for herself to transition from sailing and into rowing and that drive that comes from within them to go as far as they can with what they can do and then Ross who went as far as he wanted to, and is now trying just enjoying a different sport for the sake of enjoying something.

Graham Daniels: What fascinates me now is that lots of the research of elite performance pathways shows that when a young person leaves the pathway, a huge number are disenfranchised, demotivated from sport. You seem, I'm not blowing smoke at you to feel good because I know you're a realist, but you seem to have three young people on your hands who have navigated disappointment for different reasons, choices, snatched away because not dealing picks and so on. Do you think that the love of sport is anything to do with the fact that you as a Christian parent have navigated this with a different perspective?

Sally: So I think what you consider success or even what you consider as failure can be different when you have a Christian faith because you're not defined by results and achievements and what silverware may or may not be on your mantelpiece. That actually I am defined by what God says about me. And I think really that's what we've tried to show our children, that actually what we do is to love them for who they are, and they're not going to be any less important to us any less my child, just because the pathway didn't work out or they made a choice to stop for themselves. And so we're in a position where for different reasons they're in a different place, but that's still okay by us. And that's what I feel in my own faith, is that God's still okay with me whether I've made a mistake, I didn't make the grade.

Graham Daniels: No, perfectly clear. Let me move you then. So let's say that theoretically you are crystal clear that the grace of God wins all and that drives the relationship with sport. And you're not the parent who wants the child to prove themselves something valuable to their mum or dad so that you can live your life through them. That comes through loud and clear through you. Let's look at the calendar then of yours and Peter's life and your children's life because the rubber hits the road, not in a theoretical conversation, but in the day-to-day challenges of having children traveling all over the country for all kinds of reasons. Help parents listening to this who are entering this world or embedded in it, understand the demands on your calendar and family life. When you put your worldview, your philosophy into practice, what's it like trying to navigate weeks and months with young performance athletes?

Sally: I think there was something about naivety when we first started. I think we absolutely had no idea at all about what was to come. And then I think there was a sense in which me and Peter put our lives a bit on hold. And so our calendar was dictated by British sailing and British rowing. And when my mother would say, "Oh, but it's Mother's Day," or, "Oh, it's my birthday," there would be that sense in which actually that's not important on our calendar that's being dictated to us. And even Easter Sunday we'd go by the board. And so there's a sense in which you make sacrifices but that you do so whilst trying to maintain the important things alongside that. And I think there's also a sense of just gratitude and thankfulness that actually what a privilege to be a parent, to have children, to have children who wants to be active, to have opportunities provided for them.

And so the things, that I am in some way being asked to give up actually on the other side of that, I'm being given such tremendous amounts of good things and opportunities and I wanted to be thankful for that and grateful and to acknowledge that along the way.

Graham Daniels: One of the things that has surprised some of us, my children were never in a performance pathway, so of course one doesn't live it, and in the interviews, and more than once now when you reinforce it concept or the idea has come up of gratitude. That your child wants to be healthy and fit and is competitive and wants you to come with them and spend time with them, and it creates incredible opportunities in teenage years when all kinds of things can derail the relationship. So I think as people are listening, if I may, I want to reinforce this, that it's so easy to have conversations about this with negative spectacles on. "We won't be able to do that as a challenge with this as a difficulty with that part of our lives." The overwhelming gratitude that you show here is a real indicator into a positive perspective on your child's life. Give us some very practical examples, Sally, of how you have turned long trips or weekends away, how have you turned those things into positive opportunities socially?

Sally: So I think some of what we've done, Peter was very good at it, when he was away, he would see if he could spend a night with a friend who might live in a particular part of the country. And so maintain relationships, as a family, with other people. And then there's also the opportunity of sitting in the car for hours with children. And I think that the thing is that they may not want to talk, but that being available and so respecting their desire if they want to sit in silence but facilitating conversation if they were also willing to do that, I think that there are particular things that you could listen to or not choose to listen to. So I would put my foot down over what music we might listen to, but we could listen to a particular radio programs, things like that.

And I think also using opportunities like the Saturday night of a weekend away and make that a point of almost putting away from you what that has gone on in terms of the sport for the day and using that as a opportunity, especially as a mom of four, it's great. I don't have to cook on Saturday night and actually I've only got one child. And one-to-one, you children are very different than one to four and so you'd get conversation and use that time to really just be available and to enjoy being with each other.

Graham Daniels: What about you then, in this, Sally. It's good that you're with one of your children at a time usually, but you're on the road a lot then. You're on the move. You've just said it yourself; Peter, and you are raising four children. It's hard enough to get time on your own when you've got four kids and life's normal. When you've got young performance athletes, you haven't got a minute to yourself. How did you, there's two things are in my mind and you could merge both or go with either. How did you and Peter managed to make time for each other because that's hard? And how did you manage to make time for yourself just to reflect on who you are with God?

Sally: Okay, so I think Peter and I, I mean it would be great if I could say it was all wonderful and it all went swimmingly. I don't know that that is necessarily the case and there were ups and downs, but I think that there is a big positive that comes from digital media communication. So I think being able to send a text and just say, "Hello, how are you?" Or, "Can you remember to put the baked potatoes in the oven?" Really helpful just to keep in touch like that. I think being able to send photos to each other or windswept beaches in Pwllheli or, where there's absolutely no wind and you're just sitting around and waiting.

And then Peter and I came across something called Half Hour Holidays a very long time ago before we had children. And for us they became really important. So no, it wasn't me and Peter going away for the weekend, it wasn't even necessarily Peter and I being able to have an evening together, but there was this wonderful Half Hour Holiday. So actually we'll have the most expensive cup of hot chocolate with all the cream and all the marshmallows on the top of it and really celebrate just putting aside absolutely everything else for half an hour. It might've been a little bit longer, but that sense in which don't moan about what you haven't got.

Graham Daniels: Hey, that's really good. I bet there's 100,000 people now going, "Half Hour Holiday!" We'll tweet that and everything. That's class, really is class. What about yourself? What about time for yourself?

Sally: So what I did was I made a point of, regardless of the time of year or how early it was and how dark it was in the mornings, my thing was to do some exercise for myself. I've stopped posting on our fam chat any times or distances that I run, because they are not in comparison, but actually for me it was, "I'm going to go out and I'm going to go running and I'm going to have that as my head space." Nobody is saying, "Mummy, Mummy," and I would use that as well to pray. And so that was one thing that I did in terms of daily, is just exercise out the house, my time. And then I would sometimes you could see it as being selfish but actually because I also home educated my four children, when I took them to events, if they were then safe and out on the water, perhaps I would use that time to go and take myself off for a walk and I've been to some beautiful places in the country.

That's another thing to give thanks for. I've seen all sorts of places that I wouldn't have seen otherwise and so what I would do is I would just go and walk for an hour and that would again be my time. And particularly I've had one prayer partner we meet at six o'clock in the morning every Thursday morning and she would be somebody that I would share good, bad and ugly, and know that if I texted at any time, she would just be able to pray. And she'd know much of what was going on because we were in contact and then I could just send her a little, "Please pray now," and know that there would be some support in that too.

Graham Daniels: So that leads us probably to the last little area, maybe with a couple of questions around it, which is about your family worship or corporate worship in a hectic calendar and pressurized world, with six of you. Often this is the first question we're asked, Sally. Hundreds of times we're asked the question, "What do you do about Sunday when you're a young performance athletes family?" I've left it to last because I felt in this interview, knowing the background of the story, it would be really helpful to paint a picture of your responsibility as parents, your personal investment in your children's lives and spiritual welfare, that's come through loud and clear. So I've left this to the last question actually, because doing a tick box exercise of how often you go to church and so on, is a simplistic way to do it. So I want you to round us off for a minute or two. Let's talk about this. How have you managed, six of you worshiping together and the wider church family?

Sally: Okay, so it has been difficult to have six of us worshiping together, but I would like to state at the outset that I don't think God just turns up at 10.45 on a Sunday morning in a particular place. And so therefore we took lots of opportunities to do church and to do God, so to speak, in lots of different places. So one of the things that I hosted for a number of years, was something that we called Tea and Pray, TAP. And we had up to 18 children and usually their moms and dads were still at work at tea time. And we used to meet in our house and we would all eat sausage and pasta together and then we would have some sort of thought, Bible verse, God slot, just something quite simple and then the opportunity for the children and also as adults, to pray together and again, investing in people's lives, knowing what people were up to, knowing who was heading off where at the weekend.

And then we've been very fortunate in that being in London, there are lots of other churches around with youth groups and so tapping into, "Okay, really sorry, we're not going to be joining you on Sunday, but can you invest in my young person on Thursday evening for a couple of hours at your youth group?" And really seeing church in its broader context and in relationship with God that's 24/7 and isn't restricted to a Sunday morning service. Occasionally we would try and go to churches whilst we were away at the weekends, but I think that that just reminds me of church being about relationships and I didn't just want to tick boxes to say I'd been to church. It was much more about maintaining the relationships that we've got in our home environment, but not seeing church as just constrained to a Sunday morning service.

Graham Daniels: Have you been members of one particular church throughout this whole period?

Sally: Yes, we have.

Graham Daniels: Where's that, sorry?

Sally: So The Good Shepherd Mission in Bethnal green in East London,, and we've had of support and our children have enjoyed lots of relationships amongst their peers. I mean, I think sometimes not everybody gets it when you are an athlete, but there's something about being supported and again for the children to know who's really behind them in what they're doing.

Graham Daniels: Well, it's been a great privilege. I'd love to meet Peter because you sound like you've had a good chance to think this through together and it's not surprising when you've had Iona, Callum, Ross and now you've got Honor, all in these situations. You've clocked up some years between those four children, that's for sure. The one thing I've heard you say the most in this interview is thankfulness, Would that be your primary reflection on this period?

Sally: I think so, and I think if I wasn't thankful for it, I think it would be easy to look back and to say, all those things that felt like things that we were giving up or that were sacrifices or there were disappointments along the way. And actually I think it's just been such a privilege to invest in the children, spend time with the children and along the way, see God's amazing provision for us. And I'm just thankful for all sorts of, from the tiniest little things up to some of the bigger things that have happened along the way. And it makes my heart sing.

Graham Daniels: Sally Dixon, that was one brilliant interview and I hope it's an encouragement to all our listeners, of the Christians in Sport podcast, that God is at the heart of family life. He's at the heart of young people's lives and people are born to play and we must be thankful for the privilege and opportunity that brings us. Sally, thanks a lot.

Sally: Thank you.

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