Sally and her husband Peter have four children, all of whom have competed and trained within elite sporting pathways.
So, if you want an expert in dealing with the ups and downs of having children on elite performance pathways, Sally is your woman.
What are some of her top tips for those supporting a sporty family? What can other parents of performance athletes take away from Sally’s experience?
Anyone with a child competing in top level sport will know that it can be an intense environment. Not only does your child and their squad or coach want to see results and taste success, you as their guardian or parent are rooting for them to do well.
But this is a situation which can become toxic. If results are the perceived key to happiness, all parties can become too focused, obsessed even, with results.
In Sally’s experience, bringing a long-term perspective and a right understanding of your role as a parent can help smooth out tensions here.
“Instinctively you want your children to do well, but I think that it's about keeping things in perspective and thinking a bit more long-term.”
This can look like two intentional actions when supporting your child: not being demanding with results and reinforcing your supportive role as a parent.
Sally expands, “I think it's important 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?”
Sally also reflects on how parents and guardians can ensure stability for young performance athletes by emphasising their long-term support.
“I think as a parent I need to remember that I am mum; I'm not the coach, I'm not the athlete. I am mum at the end of the day. And I will always be there, whatever the ups and the downs.”
And where do Christian parents get the strength to support their children through it all? They can provide ultimate support because their themselves know the unconditional sacrifice and love of Christ, and their identity and their children’s identity is secure in this.
Sally and Peter have worked to share this truth with their children in intense sport environments. “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.”
What wonderful, unconditional love Christians can know and share with their families in the stresses of high-performance environments.
Many of us will appreciate that having children playing top level sport can be costly. Routines are squeezed, calendars are full, the house is manic.
So in the midst of the travel, long training evenings and weekends filled with tournaments, how have Sally and Peter turned these things into positive opportunities for relating to their children?
Long car journeys have proven great chances to be there for their teenagers. Regardless of how chatty or not they feel ahead of a competition, Sally says that sitting in the car for hours is valuable time to be available for them.
Travel time can also be an opportunity to learn from God’s Word or the experiences of others together. “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 particular radio programs, things like that.”
Podcasts can also be a great way to be intentional with what parents and children listen to. Check out the full Christians in Sport Podcast archive here ahead of your next car trip and find something to encourage your young sportspeople with.
On the other side of the coin, Sally reflects on the value of resting with children whilst away for competition.
“It’s great on the Saturday night of a weekend away to make a point of putting away what’s gone on in terms of sport for the day. I don't have to cook on Saturday night and actually I've only got one child with me. And one-to-one, your children are very different than one to four, so you'd get conversation and use that time to really just be available and to enjoy being with each other.”
It can be easy to feel some resentment or stresses within the timetable that supporting a high-performing child can create. But it’s clear also that the extended time in travel allows for valuable time spent with children and chances for intentional input listening to things and sharing together. This is a great a privilege and an opportunity for parents and guardians.
For all the opportunity that sport can provide to invest in your parent-child relationship, how can time be kept for your spouse? And how about guarding time for your relationship with God?
The Bible shows us in Hebrews 10 that these relationships, particularly with the Lord, are crucial to press into in order to better serve and love others.
Sally has found that regular messages with Peter are good to keep up with each other, particularly whilst away. “I think it’s good being able to send photos to each other of windswept beaches in Pwllheli or where you're just sitting around and waiting. It’s really helpful just to keep in touch like that.”
They also celebrate Half Hour Holidays together. “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.”
This type of completely set aside time has also been helpful for Sally to keep time for herself and God. Prayer on early morning runs by herself have been particularly precious to create head space and be able to support her family better after being refreshed like this.
Finally, Sally emphasises that time with God as a family can look different but still rich and fruitful when you’re busy with top level sport. Church is so crucial in the encouragement, teaching and maturing of Christians, but those involved in the highest levels of competition like Sally’s family can often find it clashing with sports commitments. She reflects:
“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.”
This has looked like a range of things for Sally and Peter’s family. From having other sporty families around for a Bible thought, food and prayer, (“just something quite simple with the opportunity to pray together and invest in people's lives”) to prioritising mid-week youth groups when they knew Sunday was full of competition; time in God’s Word and in Christian community has been sought for the spiritual good of the family.
If you’re interested in thinking more about how churches can support families with top level athletes, listen in to our podcast where we discuss Sunday sport with Gaynor, the mum of a young performance runner or see a full range of blogs here.
A main thread of the conversation with Sally was gratitude; thankfulness for the chance to share God’s unconditional love regardless of the children’s performance, for the opportunity to spend time with and invest in her children and for the provision of time to maintain relationships with each other and with God as a family.
Every parent or guardian of a child playing top level of sport can feel the pinch that these sporting commitments create. But there are also wonderful opportunities, as Sally has shown, to enjoy and grow within these seasons of life.
Why not prayerfully consider how you can invest in and point your children to Christ more intentionally through their experience of high-level sport?
If you’d like support in this, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch today.
And if you would benefit from some resources to help reflect, why not download our booklet with the top 10 questions asked by parents of young performance athletes. The booklet, ‘How do I support my child as a Christian in the world of elite sport?’, is available here.
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