Category Archives: family

Abstract Call for 4th Annual OU Sport & Fitness Conference – My Child: The Athlete

My Child: The Athlete

Tickets are on sale now – Click here to register!

The 4th annual OU Sport and Fitness Conference focuses on youth development in sport with particular attention paid to contemporary issues such as:

  • Youth physical development

    E.g. Strength and conditioning, injury prevention, physical literacy, skill acquisition

  • Psychological development

    E.g. Building resilience, coping with and learning from failure

  • Parental support for talented athletes

    E.g. Research to support parents of talented athletes, effects on siblings and family members, family dynamics and youth development

  • Coaching considerations when working with children

    E.g. planning training and practice, coaching behaviours, managing expectations, managing the needs of each athlete

With three world-leading keynotes confirmed, this promises to be an illuminating and thought provoking two days:

Toni Minichiello – Coach to GB’s 2012 gold medal-winning Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill. (Day 1 evening keynote presenter)

Dr Jean CôtéProfessor at Queen’s University, Canada and world-renowned researcher within the fields of youth sports and coach development. @JeanCote46

Dr Camilla Knight – Associate Professor at Swansea University and leading expert on the psychosocial experiences of children in sport, with a particular focus upon the influence of parents. @cjknight

Whether you’re an academic, a student, a coach, teacher or parent, we invite you to join us for two action packed days full of dissemination, discussion, and learning opportunities.

Call for Abstracts (Now Open for Submissions):

The OU Sport and Fitness Conference team invites the submission of abstracts for consideration as either an oral or poster presentation. Submissions may have either an academic or applied focus resonating with the themes of the conference (see above bullet points). We would also welcome submissions which report on research in progress or the initial stages of development.

Please download the abstract submission guidelines here:

Abstract Submission Guidelines


Click here to register!

Full conference packages:
Access to the whole two days – keynotes and breakout sessions
Three course conference dinner on day 1*
Lunch and refreshments on both days

*Please note – we have a limited number of tickets for the evening session – book early to avoid disappointment.

Evening only package*:
Access to the evening session on day 1
Keynote presentation from Toni Minichiello
Q&A Panel with Toni, Dr Jean Côté and Dr Camilla Knight
Three course conference dinner

*Please note – the evening session will take place at Kents Hill Park Training and Conference Centre, MK7 6BZ. There are a limited number of tickets available for this session so please book early to avoid disappointment. 


Don’t forget to follow us for all the latest conference updates: @OU_SportConf and use the hashtag #OUSportConf to share that you’ve registered!


We look forward to welcoming you to My Child: The Athlete in March 2019!

For any conference queries please contact


Siblings in the scrum: long history of brothers makes rugby a family affair

By Jessica Pinchbeck

It’s well known that family plays a key role in a child’s initial socialisation into sport and his or her continued participation. This family involvement is certainly evident on a Sunday morning at my local rugby club where siblings of both genders and all ages participate in a range of activities. Add to this the fact that as many of the mums and dads are former players who now help with coaching and refereeing, with a few grandparents thrown in as well, there can often be three generations of the same family involved.

The level of family involvement in the 2015 Rugby World Cup appears to confirm research that family influences a players’ introduction and experience of the sport in a variety of ways – from taking up the game to sibling rivalry driving performance. Being an England fan I was already aware of the two sets of brothers in the England squad – Billy and Mako Vunipola and the brothers Ben and Tom Youngs (whose father Nick was a former England scrum-half).

Tom and Ben Youngs, whose father also played rugby for England.
Steve Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images

Then there is Scotland and the Gray brothers, Jonny and Richie. Interestingly it was Jonny, the younger sibling, who first took up rugby, sparking Richie to then follow suit.

Scotland’s siblings Jonny and Richie Gray.
Jeff Holmes / PA Archive/PA Images

The Ireland squad features brothers Dave and Rob Kearney. Rob has said that his passion for rugby was strongly influenced by his father’s love of the sport though he also acknowledged the important role of mothers in today’s game – if his mum didn’t want him playing the game he wouldn’t be doing it.

What all these sets of brothers have in common is their closeness and the bond between them, as well as a healthy element of sibling rivalry. Dave Kearney explains this relationship: “If there’s someone with you it’s easier. It’s competitive too. You’re working hard against each other and trying to get the best out of each other. It was good having someone you can work with and push on.”

Owen and Ben Franks are the latest in the line of 43 sets of brothers who have played for the All Blacks over the years.
Reuters/Nigel Marple

New Zealand has a long history of brotherly participation with 43 sets of brothers having played for the All Blacks at different times. However for those brothers lining up alongside each other this figure drops to nine. This year Ben and Owen Franks make up the fraternal component of the 2015 squad. Once again it was their father who was instrumental in their rugby career, training the duo from a young age. Like the Kearney brothers, sibling competition also plays a key part and Owen revealed that: “Ben would try to bait me into fighting him because I was so much weaker and smaller but as I got older I could start to compete a little bit more.”

Springboks brothers Bismark and Jannie du Plessis.
REUTERS/Howard Burditt

Canada also join the brotherly club with the inclusion of Phil and Jamie MacKenzie as do the Springboks featuring Jannie Du Plessis and Bismarck Du Plessis. The Du Plessis brothers have spoken openly about their strong relationship and bond and even made their Springboks debut together in the same game. Their closeness is magnified by their working, living and playing together and their unified goal of playing in a World Cup final watched by their father.

Potential record breakers

At the top of the list is Samoa, which is fielding three brothers: George, Tusi and Ken Pisi, in the same squad. If all three appear on the pitch at the same time they will create Rugby World Cup history. George explained his feelings of brotherly love: “When Ken was small, Tusi and I used him for tackling practice … Later, whenever we were on opposite sides in a game, I had this extra-special feeling of just wanting to smash him.”

Samoa is fielding three brothers in this year’s World Cup: Tusiata, Ken and George Pisi.
Reuters/Paul Childs

Samoa are no strangers to family ties and the Tuilagi brothers Henry, Freddie, Anitelea and Sanele have all played internationally for Samoa and brother Manu played for England. Brother Alesana Tuilagi, a winger in the Samoan 2015 squad would therefore also contribute to the history books if he makes his Rugby World Cup debut.

The family connections continue still beyond brothers, with other family links in the competition including Ireland’s Luke Fitzgerald whose father Des played for Ireland, Welsh back Ross Moriarty who is following in the footsteps of his father and uncle who both played internationally for Wales, and the England player Owen Farrell whose father Andy, a former England player, is also part of the England coaching staff. Rugby, it seems, truly is a family affair.

Jessica Pinchbeck, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Parenthood and Tennis – the challenge of being an athletic parent

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss and Jessica Pinchbeck

A glance at the top seeded men and women at Wimbledon this year reveals an interesting contrast in terms of family. While Djokovic, Federer and Wawrinka all have young families none of the top ten seeded women in this year’s tournament have children. While sporting mothers are not an uncommon concept, it seems within the world of tennis motherhood and being a professional athlete are a harder combination to balance, with research in the field recognizing how pregnancy and motherhood are key reasons why female athletes may end their career. (Nash, 2011). There is no hidden reason why so few female players give birth during their career, and these are in no way unique to tennis, very few women want to harm their career in their twenties whether that is sporting or otherwise, but perhaps more importantly for an athlete is the physical impact that pregnancy and having a baby can have on a woman. For the better part of a year if not longer the competitive regime is gone, add to that the return to playing which sees huge demands on an athlete in terms of time and travel which can prove almost impossible to handle, with tennis involving if not the most travel demands of any sport.

There are however, examples of tennis players who have managed to successfully combine the two worlds of motherhood and professional tennis, one such player is Lindsay Davenport, a player who is reported to have planned her first pregnancy and only retired when pregnant with her second child. While the demands of tennis may mean it is difficult for a woman to continue to have a competitive career after children there seems to be little negative impact on actual performance. Take Kim Clijsters, who retired from tennis to have a family but made ‘The Mother of All Comebacks’ when she won the 2009 US Open a couple of years after retiring just 16 months after giving birth to Jada Ellie.

It is clear that women who do return to sport following their pregnancy come back as different athletes. Of the women who have made it to the third round of Wimbledon Dellacqua is possibly the only player to spend a night on the floor, taking a turn lying next to her son’s cot the night before a crucial 2nd round match. Dellacqua has highlighted how having her son has led to a shift in priorities and even credits being a mother as “helping me in lots of ways” saying that having another mouth to feed had only made her more focused on her career.

This change in focus is something echoed by Heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, “Before I had Reggie, it was all about me, me, me,” she said recently. “Now Reggie comes before everything else, but I’m still really competitive. I want to be there, and be at my best again.” But she also recognises that it is hard to do, “I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been days when I thought, ‘I’m not sure I want to do this, because this is really, really hard.’ I thought, ‘I’ve already become Olympic champion. Do I want all the stress again?’ But I have to give it a go. I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Oh, maybe I could have done it.’ This could explain why some women wait until they retire until they have a family as it makes the job of professional athlete so much harder. As Palmer and Leberman (2009) note it isn’t just the sleepless nights often it is the management of the multiple identities of athlete and mother that can prove difficult, with constraints such as guilt, lack of time and lack of support all being potential barriers to a smooth transition back into sport which explains why more elite female athletes choose to wait until they retire to have a family.

Although men don’t experience the physiological repercussions of having a baby, as evidenced by Federer returning to tennis 6 days after the birth of his twin boys, they are still subject to the psychological impact of becoming a parent and having to balance family life and the demands of being a professional tennis player. In the last 25 years there are only nine players that have won grand slams as fathers. Federer however has accomplished winning grand slams and holding the world number 1 ranking since becoming a father and the key to his success may well lie in the fact that his wife and children frequently travel to tournaments with him, thus alleviating the psychological stress of having to spend long periods of time away from his family. Djokovic became a father in 2014 and won his first grand slam as a father earlier this year beating Andy Murray to win his fifth Australian Open Title. Replicating the views of Ennis-Hill and Dellacqua Djokovic feels fatherhood has benefitted his career and his approach to tennis claiming ‘I think it has a deeper meaning, more intrinsic value now to my life because I am a father and a husband’. Taking advice from Federer and his methods of balancing fatherhood and tennis Djokovic’s family often travel with him to tournaments and this year he took time off before Wimbledon to spend time with his family.

This all sounds like an easy solution however it should be noted that both Federer and Djokovic became fathers while already having established careers and are typically wealthy and successful enough to travel with their family to various tournaments or to take short breaks from the sport. Other professional tennis players with less lucrative earnings aren’t quite as lucky. Ivo Karlovic has an ATP ranking of 25 but talks of the struggles he experiences spending time away from his wife and daughter and relies on Skype to keep in touch.

In a 1984 study of analysing magazine articles on leading male and female professional tennis players for males the status of star professional athlete superseded other statuses such as husband and father, however for the women players the status of female took priority over the status of athlete. However after watching and reading the Wimbledon media coverage the role of the father has become more prominent in male tennis with increased media coverage on stars such as Nadal and Federa and their role away from the court as fathers and husbands.

John McEnroe admits that having children brought out the best in him, describing how often on the tennis circuit players lose touch with reality but having children changes that. Karlovic acknowledges that having a child does change things for a father stating that before having a child everyone is a little bit selfish but once you have a child life completely changes and everything is about the child. Research also suggests that fatherhood ‘may lead to a decrease in the output of cultural displays (behaviour used by males to compete for potential mates, such as the competitiveness in sport) which could have a negative effect on sports performance. Studies also document that married men and in particular married fathers have lower testosterone levels but to date there is no research on the effect of this on tennis performance. There is also a lack of sufficient data on fatherhood and the role that social and familial status has on sporting performance.

So whether you are a professional tennis player and a mother or a professional tennis player and a father it would appear that parenthood brings about change and challenges men and women in different ways. Some of the change incurred has a positive effect on a player’s career and some of the transitions to being a parent may be difficult to manage alongside the lifestyle of being a professional athlete.

‘This girl can…’ with the right balance of inspiration and support

By Jessica Pinchbeck

‘I used to love playing netball at school’ is the standard response I get when I happen to mention to a female friend or colleague that at the age of 34 I still play netball. This response is typically followed by a few minutes of reminiscing about their school experiences and what position they enjoyed playing. However when it is suggested that they join a local club or come to a training session, among the all too familiar barriers of time and family commitments, I have frequently observed a lack of confidence and even fear of taking the plunge to return to sport . For many women I talk to there appears to be something scary and intimidating about playing competitive sport and it is possible that this mind-set is contributing to the current figures and insight on female participation in sport. However, where does this ‘mind-set’ come from and what else might hinder a woman’s involvement?

It is quite well known that there are fewer women participating in sport in the UK. Indeed, the latest Sport England (2015) research shows that 40.9% of men play sport at least once a week, compared to 30.3% of women, but 75% of women would like to participate more, so what might the barriers be and how can we increase the number of women playing sport?

Campaigning and role models
Sport England are investing £10 million in national campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and £2 million to extend local campaigns such as ‘I Will if You Will’ to attempt to close the gender gap that exists in sport participation. Close to my own heart is the ‘Back to Netball’ campaign where over 60,000 women have taken part since 2010. Netball has seen increases in participation in England each year in all age groups of the Sport England Active People Survey, showing a more positive outlook moving in the right direction. The weekly TV coverage of the Netball Superleague on Sky Sports has helped to raise the profile of our top netballers such as Pamela Cookey and sisters Kadeen and Sasha Corbin to provide positive role models for women, but its reach is limited to those who subscribe to Sky. With the growth of netball and England’s recent Europe Championship win more media attention needs to be given to women’s sport to promote these positive female role models more widely.

Not only do national campaigns and media coverage need more development and attention to raise the profile of women’s sport to inspire participation, there is also a need to address the logistical, financial and emotional support required for many women to play sport at any level. Family responsibilities can often take precedence because women are still typically regarded as the main caregivers.

The importance of family
Parents provide the early opportunities for children to be active and a child’s experiences of sport and their enjoyment of it are often shaped by the family influences which determine participation later in life. In a research project on 1507 pupils aged 8-16 years the influence of the family played a central role in the children’s attitudes towards sport and physical activity. There are also certain stages in life where participation is most vulnerable. For teenagers family support is essential to maintaining participation at what are termed ‘key transition phases’ with the transition from childhood to adulthood being a crucial risk time for dropout. In a study investigating girls and young women’s participation in physical activity the majority of participants who always played sport lived in households where parents and siblings also regularly participated in sport, with many examples of family members acting as role models. Therefore the importance of the family in encouraging and supporting girls to play sport is a key strategy to ensure the future generation of women continue to participate into adulthood.

Similarly at certain phases during adulthood participation is ‘at risk’ such as moving into full time work and having children. At times such as this encouragement and support from family to help balance work and life commitments is essential to being able to maintain participation. Playing competitive sport is less flexible than other fitness pursuits such as going to the gym and so an extra layer of organisation and commitment is often required. This is where a good support network is invaluable to maintaining participation.

So for me encouraging more women to play sport requires two key strategies in addition to the national campaigns and media hype. The first is to educate parents on the importance of providing opportunities and positive sports experiences for their daughters growing up to ensure continued participation later on in life. This will ensure that women’s sport plays a key part in future generations. The second is to inspire and empower women to seek much needed support to help overcome the barriers of work and life commitments that often prevent competitive sport participation. If we get both of these right then surely more women will feel inspired and supported to play competitive sport throughout all of life’s more difficult transitions.

Sibling Success In Sochi

By Jessica Pinchbeck

Within sport there are many examples of successful sporting siblings such as the Williams sisters in tennis, the Brownlee brothers in Triathlon, and the Schumacher brothers in Formula One. Inevitably the role of the family plays a part in this success such as the emotional, financial and logistical support offered, as discussed in the article ‘Being an Olympic Parent: the family behind the athlete’. This article takes a slightly different approach and focuses on the siblings in the family unit, specifically the birth order of siblings and what effect this may have on an athlete’s sporting success.

A Family Affair

On day one of competition in Sochi a story of sibling success emerged. Three Canadian sisters competed in the ladies Moguls with two gaining podium places. Justine, Chloe and Maxine Dufour-Lapointe all competed, however the eldest sister Maxine failed to reach the final phase. Interestingly it was the youngest sibling Justine who gained the gold medal with middle sibling Chloe taking silver. However this sibling success is not a first and was the fourth time that two sisters have taken gold and silver in an Olympics. In the 1964 Games French sisters Christine and Marielle Goitschel won gold and silver in the slalom and giant slalom and in 1992 Austrian sisters Doris and Angelika Neuner took the first two podium places in the luge.

Day three in Sochi saw Dutch twins Michael and Ronald Mulder taking gold and bronze in the 500m speed skating, making them the second set of twins to take medals in the same event in the history of the Winter Olympics.  American skiers Phil and Steve Mahre were the first twins to achieve this in 1984 winning gold and silver in the men’s slalom. In Turin 2006 brothers Philipp and Simon Schoch of Switzerland owned the top podium spots in snowboarding with younger brother Phillip having gained gold four years earlier in 2002. Both brothers are set to compete in Sochi. Over both the Summer and Winter Games there have been eight gold-silver brother finishes; so will Sochi see any more family photos on the podium?

New Zealand brothers Jossi, Byron and Beau James Wells are all competing in Sochi. Jossi will compete in the ski halfpipe and slopestyle along with his youngest brother Beau James. Middle brother Byron will compete in ski halfpipe. The family picture is completed by their father Bruce who is also their coach. At present Jossi, the eldest sibling, is the most successful although with Byron only 21 and James even younger at 18 this has time to change.  The Switzerland team also have their own sibling story with sisters Aita, Elisa and Selina Gasparin all aiming for success in biathlon events. Within Team GB brother and sister, Posy and Andrew Musgrave, are both competing in cross country ski events in Sochi. GB cross country skier Andrew Young also makes up a sibling duo with older sister Sarah, although Sarah failed to qualify for these games. Andrew Young describes how being a younger sibling helped both his and Andrew Musgrave’s development:

“My sister is three years older than me, and [Musgrave’s] sister is a few years older than him, so it was always a competition to beat the girls …They were older and they were just as good as we were, when we were 11 and 12.”

 Does birth order matter?

Jenny Jones, GB bronze medal winner in Sochi is the youngest of three children, with two older brothers, and interestingly it was the youngest Dufour-Lapointe sister who took the gold medal. Musgrave and Young are also developing more impressive international careers than their elder sisters. These examples support research evidence that elite athletes are more likely to be later born children with an association between birth order and skill level (Pathways to the Podium, 2012). So why is this the case?

One explanation is that younger siblings often report having to compete for their parents’ attention. Evidence suggests that later born children are more competitive (or ego-orientated) than their elder siblings, as demonstrated by Andrew Young trying to beat his older sister. This is thought to stem from parental tendencies to compare younger siblings to their older counterparts resulting in first born children being motivated to learn with younger siblings motivated to win.

Role modelling provides another explanation with younger siblings taking part in sport to be like their older brother or sister. Research also showed siblings were more likely to participate and compete in sport if their siblings, particularly elder siblings, did so too. For example, Molly Summerhayes, sister of Team GB’s Katie Summerhayes, is certainly an emerging GB ski slopestyle talent and her introduction to the sport came when she joined a Sheffield ski club with her older sister.

Personality characteristics may also play a part with first born athletes reporting significantly higher cognitive and somatic anxiety compared to later born athletes (Flowers and Brown, 2002). Athletes with higher anxiety levels are often reported as being less able to cope with the demanding pressures of elite sports performance. It will certainly be interesting to watch Molly’s development and whether this supersedes that of her elder sibling.


The question of birth order certainly raises some interesting discussion although evidence is far from conclusive. However the stories of sibling success in sport suggests that siblings do have a part to play in athletic development and it will be interesting to see what further sibling stories emerge from Sochi.




BBC (2014) ‘Sochi 2014: Michael Mulder wins 500m speed skating gold’ [online] Available from:

Carette, B. Anseel, F. and Van Yperen, N.W. (2011) ‘Born to learn or born to win? Birth order effects on achievement goals’, Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 45, pp. 500–503.

Krombholz, H. (2006) Physical Performance In Relation To Age, Sex, Birth Order, Social Class, And Sports Activities Of Preschool Children. Perceptual and Motor Skills: Volume 102, Issue , pp. 477-484.  

Little, C. (2013) ‘For Andrew Young and British Team, Preparing for a Once-In-Four-Years Opportunity to Reach Their Public’ [online] Available from:

Pathways to the Podium (2012) ‘Faster, higher, stronger… and younger? Birth order, sibling sport participation, and sport expertise development’ [online] Available from:

Ronbeck, N., F., and Vikander, N., O., (2011) ‘The role of Peers: siblings and friends in the recruitment and development of athletes’, Acta Kinesiologiae Universitatis Tartuensis, Vol.17,

Toronto Sun (2014) ‘Dufour-Lapointe duo not first 1-2 Olympics sister act’ [online] Available from:

Motherhood and Olympic Success: an inspiring combination

By Jessica Pinchbeck

When skeleton athlete Shelly Rudman makes her Sochi Olympics debut there will be one very important spectator in the crowd – her 6 year old daughter Ella; but how easy is it to combine life as a professional athlete with motherhood?

Following the recent announcement of athletics’ golden girl Jessica Ennis-Hill’s pregnancy the question of how motherhood can impact athletic success has been a prominent discussion point in the media. There are those sceptics that allude to this being the end of Ennis-Hill’s athletics career however many Olympic athletes have shown that motherhood does not symbolise the end of a career, but simply marks a transition into the next phase of their development, with a different set of challenges to overcome.

Competition and Motherhood

Combining motherhood and Olympic success is not a new trend as shown by 1988 Olympic Silver medallist Liz McColgan. McColgan continued form winning gold in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo one year after the birth of her daughter, and continued to have a successful career winning the London and New York marathons. Similarly Irish long distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan returned to training only 10 days after the birth of her daughter in 1999, and in 2000 won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in the 5000m. More recently in 2007 Paula Radcliffe triumphed in the New York marathon just 10 months after giving birth to her baby daughter Isla. Paula claimed being a mum actually improved her performance:

‘The happier I am, the better I run… Certainly I’m a lot happier with Isla in our lives …I think your body is just a little bit stronger after pregnancy’.

Radcliffe continued to train throughout her pregnancy but chose not to run competitively, although some athletes do continue to compete. During the history of the winter Olympics there have been three known cases of pregnant women competing. In 1920 a Swedish figure skater, Magda Julin, was three months pregnant when she won gold. In 2006 German athlete Diana Sartor competed in the women’s skeleton at nine weeks pregnant and in Vancouver 2010 Canadian curling athlete Kristie Moore won silver at five and a half months pregnant.

Other examples include GB equestrian Mary King who famously competed in the European Championships in 1995 at five and a half months pregnant, and came away with a team gold and individual bronze medal. King has continued to successfully combine competition and motherhood and added to her medal tally in London 2012 with a silver:

‘Everyone warned me that motherhood would change me and my attitude to riding and competition…I didn’t think it would – and it really didn’t’.

Zara Phillips, Olympic silver medallist, also caused a media furore when she competed in the Brighting Park International Horse Trials days after announcing her pregnancy. She has also publicly stated her intent to return to competitive eventing as soon as possible with hopes to compete in Rio 2016.

Providing inspiration for female athletes 11 time gold medallist paralympic cyclist Dame Sarah Storey made an impressive return to competition winning the 3km pursuit in the Paracycling International Cup in December 2013 after becoming a mum. Storey got back on her bike only 6 weeks after giving birth, and gradually increased her training revolving her schedule around the demands of a newborn baby:

“Since coming back it has been about fitting training around Louisa’s feeding regime. I haven’t missed a day of training – I’ve just had to adapt how I have done it. It has been a big learning curve but one I have enjoyed.”

Sliding to Success in Sochi

Shelley Rudman, Skeleton Olympic Silver medallist in 2006, portrays another inspiring female role model. Following the birth of her daughter Ella in 2007 Rudman returned to the sport within three months. In an interview with the BBC Rudman discussed the issues she faced upon her return:

‘My funding got reduced and I had targets to meet. Three months after Ella was born I had to hit targets and when I did my funding incrementally increased… Fortunately I was doing really well and won a few races, but it was a real worry.’

Rudman and her husband will both be competing in Sochi 2014 and rely heavily upon the support of their family to help them look after daughter Ella. Rudman is a prime example of how to strike the balance between motherhood and being an Olympic athlete. When the family are away from the UK Rudman’s day typically consists of training and home tutoring Ella. In 2013 Rudman proved this regime to be a success by becoming the Women’s Skeleton World Champion, and cites Ella as her main inspiration for competing in Sochi:

“At the back of my mind, I thought ‘how cool would it be for Ella to say she’s been at an Olympics to watch her mum compete. That’s probably the biggest motivator’

Timing it right

For women the decision of when to start a family is a crucial one and even more so for top level athletes due to the physical as well as the logistical challenges that motherhood brings. Some like Ennis-Hill and Phillips opt to take a break from their sport following career highs with the aim of returning to competition in time for the next Olympics. A feat that Olympians such as Liz McColgan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Mary King, and Paula Radcliffe have all managed to achieve. Other Olympic athletes choose to wait until their retirement to begin a family such as Gail Emms, badminton silver medallist in Athens 2004, and Katherine Merry, 400m bronze medallist in Sydney 2000. For others the timing can be far from perfect.

Tasha Danvers’ story is a particular heartfelt one. 400m hurdler Danvers fell pregnant at the peak of her career just months before the 2004 Athens Olympics. With a tough decision to make, and even getting as far as the door of the abortion clinic, Danvers put aside her Olympic dream and chose motherhood. This was an emotional time with her career plans shattered. However, Danvers showed tremendous determination and strength of character gaining silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and later winning an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing in 2008, proving Olympic dreams and motherhood can co-exist. Still ambitious Danvers aimed for London 2012 although training and being a single mother with little support took its toll. Her son moved back to LA to be with family leaving Danvers alone in the UK following her Olympic Dream. Her depression escalated until the situation became unbearable and Danvers attempted to take her own life. Fortunately Danvers recovered and in June 2012 retired from athletics returning to LA to be with her son:

“It’s hard to be a mother. Full stop. If you’re a working mum, it’s that much harder, and if you’re a professional athlete and a mum you have the added pressure of being away for weeks and months. It’s very difficult, not just for you but for your child, who also has to sacrifice time with you.’


For most new parents life becomes a juggling act with a whole new set of demands placed upon them. As these Olympic athletes show with the right support networks in place, and the ability to find a suitable balance between athletic success and motherhood, Olympic dreams can be achieved. Being a mother is certainly not an easy task and these women lead the way in providing inspiration.


BBC (2013) Shelley Rudman ‘had skeleton funding cut after pregnancy’ [online] Available from:

BBC Radio 5 (2013) ‘Pregnancy in Sport’ [online] Available from:

Flanagan, J. (2012) ‘London 2012 Olympics: Mary King, the farmer’s wife, chasing gold’ [online] Available from:

Hudson, E. (2013) ‘Dame Sarah Storey set for racing comeback in Newport’ [online] Available from:

Lewis, A. (2013) ‘Shelley Rudman on her Sochi hopes and teaching her daughter’ [online] Available from:

Mail Online (2014) ‘Paula Radcliffe wins New York Marathon – less than 10 months after giving birth to baby Isla’ [online] Available from:–10-months-giving-birth-baby-Isla.html

Being an Olympic Parent: the family behind the athlete

By Jessica Pinchbeck

To become an Olympic athlete requires an abundance of hard work, determination, talent and plenty of support. Top athletes typically have teams of coaches, sports scientists, nutritionists, physiotherapists and psychologists working with them around the clock, but at times a simple hug or words of support from mum or dad are invaluable to the athlete. Being an Olympic parent is not an easy job. Aside from the obvious financial and logistical support it’s important to know when to step in and offer emotional support and when to step back and let others take over. For most athletes continued family support is crucial and plays a large part in their success, with many of the London 2012 Team GB athletes attributing their achievements in the games to their parents:

‘You forget your mum and dad are probably more nervous than you … but I just felt so happy I could reward them now and give them back a gold medal for all their help and support down the years. It made me think of how supportive my family had been through the years, how through all the sports I tried they were there pushing me on, driving me to Eton for track or to Birmingham for football. They always gave me everything I needed.”

(Greg Rutherford, 2012 Olympic gold medalist)

In most cases parents are responsible for introducing their children to sport. For example GB Downhill skier Chemmy Alcott began skiing at only 18months old with her first race aged 3 years! Likewise the summer athletics camp Jessica Ennis-Hill’s parents’ saw as ‘cheap childcare’ proved instrumental in her athletic development as did Andy Murray’s frequent visits to the Tennis club where mum, Judy, coached.

As well as introducing their children to activities families provide help to athletes in a variety of ways and Tom Daley remembers his mum and dad showing their support early on in his career:

‘For my Tenth birthday, in May 2004, mum and dad got me a massive trampoline to go in the garden. I could always practise the somersaults and twists I needed for my diving’.

Parents of sporting children can often find themselves providing extensive logistical and financial support which can impact the rest of the family and dominate family time spent together. Louis Smith’s mum Elaine recalls:

‘I made the effort to take Louis to a gym 26 miles from home and was paying up to 100 pounds a week on petrol because I knew it would give him a better chance of success.’

Family support is a crucial factor for most athletes throughout their career however the role of the family and the type of support required changes throughout the athlete’s development. A key researcher in this area is Jean Côté who developed a model of sport participation.

The Sampling Years

Côté labelled a child’s initial stages of involvement in sport ‘the sampling years’ and these are said to occur when children are aged between 6-13 years. During this stage the role of the parents is to provide opportunities for their children to enjoy sport, encouraging all children within the family unit to participate in a range of different sporting activities. It is often within this stage that parents recognise their child is particularly talented in an activity.

‘Lots of people used to tell me how much natural ability she had. And there was one or two people who said she could go a long way in athletics… I was a bit cautious… I suppose I wanted to be protective of Jessica…’

(Alison Powell, mother of Olympic Athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill)

The Specialising Years

As children got older Côté discovered that they tended to become committed to one or two sports. For example Usain Bolt was a keen cricketer as well as a sprinter and Chris Hoy represented Scotland in rowing as a junior before taking up track cycling. At this stage the family start to make a financial and time commitment to their child’s activities and their own interest in the sport begins to grow. At this stage most families tend to still place emphasis on both school and sport achievement. GB ski slopestyle athlete James Woods explains how he had to persuade his parents to agree for him to go to Mayrhofen for two months during his GSCE year, and then to complete his A-levels by email the following season!

Côté also found that within those families where the child athlete had older siblings they often acted as role models to the athlete. Olympic Triathlete Alistair Brownlee jokes, I did pretty much everything first then Jonny copied me like a year later’ and Katie Summerhayes, GB ski slopestyle medal hope, showed the way for younger sister Molly in 2010…Molly and I placed 1st and 2nd at the Brits. Molly is 16 now and just joined the British team programme’. Siblings certainly have a role to play in athletic development although the exact nature of these relationships is still an emerging area of research within sport.

The Investment Years

At around the age of 15, although this can be earlier for some sports such as gymnastics, Côté ‘s research showed that the athlete tends to commit to one sport. At the age of 15 Andy Murray made a big decision, supported by his parents, to move to Spain to enhance his performance and develop a stronger work ethic. Zoe Gillings GB Snowboarder describes how being home schooled helped her to commit to snowboarding as they travelled to the Alps for 6-8 weeks each winter. Research suggests that during these years parents tend to show the greatest interest in their child’s sport. However this dedication can give rise to sibling jealousy, as siblings may resent the time and money that parents have to spend with the athlete in the family.

Family support at this stage also shows parents helping and supporting athletes when they experience setbacks such as injury. GB skier Chemmy Alcott, whose participation in Sochi looked doubtful following a leg break, feels her family played a large part in her recovery:

‘My family are the reason I have the strength to come back and give it one last go. My parents sacrificed so much for me growing up and my mother was a huge driving force behind helping me realise my dreams.’

Following this ‘investment stage’ Côté describes the athlete moving on to face the challenge of maintaining and perfecting their performance. For most athletes the support of their family still features heavily at this stage. Shelley Rudman, GB Skeleton athlete, explains how the support from both her parents and her husband’s parents in looking after her daughter Ella, have been invaluable in the build up to the Games:

‘Kristan and I are both competing, which is different, but we work it really well between us and we rely heavily on our families for support.’


As we can see the recipe for sporting success requires a variety of ingredients, the family, and in particular parents, providing for some athletes one of the most important.  The support offered is unconditional and rarely an easy job, it is one that sees much sacrifice and while the destination may ultimately be success, the journey may have encountered some bumps along the way.  What we can be sure of is that we will see some very proud faces in Sochi, an event which for many will be the culmination of four years very hard work and commitment for both athlete and family.  Undoubtedly one of the most touching moments of the games so far is that of Jenny Jones, who dislikes competing in front of her parents, being reunited with her mum and dad after winning Britain’s first ever medal on snow. Her parents had travelled to Sochi without Jenny knowing and stayed out of her sight until being unable to resist congratulating their daughter following her success. Jones’ mum could be heard to say ‘you’ve never disappointed us’ an illustration of the unconditional support parents often provide.


BBC (2013) ‘Shelley Rudman ‘had skeleton funding cut after pregnancy’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 27 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘Chemmy Alcott: The Olympic Interview – ‘Now I want it more’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘Zoe Gillings: The Olympic Interview’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘Katie Summerhayes: The Olympic Interview’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Bell, G. (2013) ‘James woods: The Olympic Interview’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Daley, T. (2012) ‘My Story’ Penguin Books Ltd, The Stand, London.

Lewis, A. (2013) Shelley Rudman on her Sochi hopes and teaching her daughter [online] Available from: (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Maxifuel (2014) ‘The Brownlee Brothers: GB Olympic Gold and Bronze Medalists’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 21 January 2014)

Shivspix (2012) ‘Chemmy Allcott: A race with meaning’ [online] Available at: (Accessed 23 Jan 14)