The perfect partnership or a conjugal catastrophe?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

In the Commonwealth Games all eyes will be on husband and wife team Chris and Gabby Adcock who will be competing in badminton mixed-doubles. The couple pose a serious gold medal threat in Glasgow following their victory at the Hong Kong Open beating China’s Cheng Liu and Bao Yixin in the final. While there are many examples of married couples successfully competing in elite sport, including skeleton stars Shelley Rudman and Kristian Bromley, Paralympic athletes Rik Waddon (cycling) and Natalie Jones (swimming), Barney and Dame Sarah Storey, none of these work as closely together in a team like the Adcock’s. So how does their relationship work on and off the court?

Being an elite sportsperson involves enormous dedication often involving long periods of time away from home separated from family. For many athletes the support of their partner or spouse forms a critical component of their sporting career. If a partner is not supportive or resents aspects of the athlete’s sport then problems can arise and this can often impact performance. Gabby explains how their relationship alleviates some of the stresses involved in professional sport:

‘I think we’re quite lucky that we get to travel the world together because there are a lot of people in the squad that miss their partners while they are away.’

Athletes benefit from an effective social support network often including their partner or spouse. Social support can act as a ‘stress buffer’ for athletes provided the type of support offered is appropriate to the stressor itself. So for social support to be effective partners need to be able to provide the appropriate support at the right time. This is no easy task and for those individuals to which the elite sport environment is unfamiliar it may be a struggle to understand the type of stress placed upon the athlete resulting in poor or inappropriate support. Unhelpful support, such as trying to reduce the importance of an event or even avoiding talking about an event, can be detrimental to the athlete’s performance. An athlete needs to feel secure that support is available at times of need and this is crucial to an athlete’s psychological well-being and ability to cope with stress. The Adcock’s feel that their off court relationship enables them to understand each other better in pressure situations on court making it easier to help one another cope with stressors.

GB Hockey Olympic bronze medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, who married in 2013, agree that being married to a fellow sportsperson, and in this case teammate, has had a positive effect on their sporting career. Kate explains the benefits of this dual relationship:
‘It helps when your partner understands hockey and what it takes to play at that level – to know that when you’re going off training again, getting up at a stupid time, or only talking about hockey, it’s because you love it.’

Although there are undoubtedly benefits to this scenario combining the two relationships may not always be trouble-free. Potential difficulties include a lack of distinction between the two roles where personal and professional issues become intertwined. Personal conflicts may infiltrate into the sporting environment or performance issues may impact on the athletes’ personal relationship at home. Either way maintaining a good work life balance is key in this situation. It is imperative that both partners are able to segregate the two aspects of sport and home for such a relationship to be successful in both domains.

For some professional athletes forming and maintaining relationships can often be a challenge due to the constraints placed on their lives by strict training regimes and competition schedules. The culture of certain sports may also impact on an athlete’s relationship with one study showing male athletes tended to use power and control in their relationships as a result of their sporting profession. Conversely relationships can effect an individual’s sport performance with Farrelly and Nettle (2007) reporting that professional male tennis players performed significantly worse following the year after their marriage compared to the year before, with no such effect for unmarried players of the same age.

All relationships have their complexities yet within the world of professional sport these difficulties appear even more intricate and diverse. Personal relationships and their associated complications will undoubtedly have a bearing on an athlete’s mind-set. Andy Murray’s poor performance in his match at Wimbledon against Dimitrov was followed by rumours linking this to a dispute with girlfriend Kim Sears immediately before the match and Tiger Woods certainly experienced a dip in form since his very public divorce. Intriguingly, since their split in May this year, both Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy have seen their careers soar with Wozniacki winning the WTA Istanbul Cup and McIlroy becoming the Open champion.

Social support from a spouse or partner and an understanding of when and how to offer this support seems to be the key to a successful sports marriage and so it will be interesting to see how the couple fair in Glasgow and whether Chris and Gabby Adcock may just have found the perfect partnership!

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