At the age of 14 I was a talented squash and football player. I was an England international under the then England Squash coach Jonah Barrington and was representing England Schoolboys, Northamptonshire Centre of Excellence, and Kettering Town FC in football. I was well on my way to making a career in elite sport.
However, as I grew up through my teens and with added pressure of academic studies, a bustling social life, and then moving home - something snapped! Effectively, I was burnt out.
My parents were unbelievably supportive. They did the usual ferrying around across the country and supporting me financially with equipment, kit and subscriptions - but at the point of seeing their son have a physical breakdown, my parents were helpless.
In those days there weren’t talent support and lifestyle programmes, parent workshops and safeguarding information, sports psychologists or education support programmes...they were on their own.
So how do you go about addressing the physical and emotional wellbeing of a 14-year-old adolescent who was becoming a recluse and pulling his hair out...literally...in fist full clumps? They reacted in the only way that they knew how and made choices for me - starting with a trip to the doctor. With hindsight, they were ill-informed choices and ultimately (on the advice of the doctor) they pulled me from all sport from the age of 15 to 16-years-old.
From a physical and emotional perspective the course of action worked, but we have often had the conversation as a family of ‘what if?’ What if they felt empowered and better prepared to support my needs? What if they didn’t stop me playing at the highest level but were able to access the right support and information and cut my participation in other things to help me realise my potential?
So much has changed in youth sport since I was growing up and while there are a lot of ‘what ifs’ - there are no regrets. But that does not stop me from questioning how having access to the sort of opportunities like Performance Parent and the Talent Inspiration Programme (TIP) programmes when I was trying to battle my own pressures might have impacted my potential in the sporting arena if my family had the opportunities there are today.
TIP brings together young aspiring county and regional level athletes from across the country to participate in a residential learning experience. What’s so great about it is that the activities are specifically designed to engage and inspire aspiring young athletes. It also encourages them to start thinking about how they can reach their sporting potential and the impact that will have on their development as a young person. We reach them at an early age before the pressures get too much and the hard choices start having to be made so that they are prepared. They get opportunities to work with experienced Athlete Mentors to bring to life the world of an elite athlete and understand the journey it takes to reach the top. They also have the opportunity to get involved in workshops, put their performances to the test and experience what it is like at a multi-sport event.
And for parents, the Performance Parent programme is an e-learning resource containing guidance and suggestions from experts in elite sport including Loughborough University. It also has extensive research in sport parenting, support services and most importantly, firsthand advice from parents of talented young athletes. There is no magic formula on how best to support and nurture children and their talent, but resources like the Performance Parent gives ideas and suggestions that may help and reassure parents of talented young people that they are on the right track.
What does plague my mind frequently when looking back on my experiences during the 1980s and 90s – is that I wasn’t alone. I witnessed many young athletes who never reached their potential across different sporting disciplines and much of that wasn’t because of raw talent, but because they didn’t have the right support and information. More importantly, their parents didn’t have it either. This generation of young talent have a better chance with fantastic support - they might not realise how lucky they are yet - but I would urge parents to take advantage of the support and give young athletes the best possible chance of reaching their potential, not just in sport but in life.
As a father of three now there is some simple advice here. Expose your children to lots of experiences when they are young but don’t let them do too much too early. Don’t be consumed by the push to over-train and over-develop children before they are ready physically or emotionally and when they do find their sport help them manage their lifestyle. Often I find parents insisting they know what is best for their child’s sporting future but they are often ill-informed and believe what they see in the media, or hear from the coach - until the child breaks down and they are left trying to hold it all together.
We, as parents, can prevent young people from looking back on their early years with question marks looming over them and change the ‘what ifs’ into ‘yes I can, and yes I did’.