Friday, 15 July 2011

How far would you push your children?

Photo credit - pnijhuis
I'm writing this because we've had the coverage of The Open on today, and so Rory McIlroy and Tom Lewis have featured quite heavily. Rory, because he recently won the US Open golf at the age of 22 and Tom, because he is still an amateur golfer and only 20 years old. Some of the footage showed Rory McIlroy as a child and all he is doing is playing golf.

It got me thinking. How are champions made? Are they born talented and just naturally spend their time practising and learning to be better? Or do they need to be encouraged to spend their time improving their craft? I'm suspecting that it's a bit of both really and that is what gives me a problem.

What bothers me is that to be successful at any sport (or equally, pursuits like dance) is that you need to start young. In order to have a chance, you need to be dedicated, spend a lot of time learning your chosen skill, competing and learning how to compete. To me, that is at odds with childhood. You should play a sport, dance or learn any skill because you enjoy it. You might have lessons but they are fun and you're practising things without realising. Well, certainly at a younger age anyway.

As you get older, if you want to get to the top, you need to devote more and more of your time to your sport, training and ensuring you are in tiptop condition. This takes a lot of time, meaning there is less and less for other things - the more sociable and fun parts of being a child or a teenager.

Monkey goes to football training and he has tennis lessons. He does them because he enjoys them and we think it's a great way to keep him active. Occasionally, just occasionally, he doesn't want to go. Well, that's what he says. We encourage him to go because we know that when he gets there, he'll forget himself and have a brilliant time.  And he does. I'd never force him if he really hated it and we've kept him off when he's been ill.

We know he's not bad at either of these sports. I know for a fact he currently wants to be a football player for Barcelona  and to go and live in Spain. I know this because he has written it in his school workbook. Of course, he is only 6 years old - that's the sort of dream a 6 year old boy has. I know how hard it can be to make it as a sportsperson - and it's early days to know if he will really be good at them.

I am no tiger mother. I have high expectations of my children - although that is really limited to my expecting them to try their best. I expect them to do their reading at home with me, but at the same time, I want them to have a childhood so we have days off even that. But what if Monkey turned out to be talented at football or tennis and someone said he needed to devote more time to it and occasionally needed chivvying along to do it when he was having a bad day? Or Missy Woo showed promise in dance and the teacher said she needed special lessons? Just how far could I go? Would I let them off if they said they just wanted to do something else or I could see it was making them unhappy? I think I would struggle, to be honest. It might be different if I was in that situation or it was costing us a lot of money. I don't think I could force my children to be unhappy though. And I'd rather have a happy child over everything. Even the lure of potential fame and fortune. After all, it is only potential - sporting success is extremely hard to achieve and the difference between very good and world class is huge.

I know not everyone thinks that way.  Look behind most successful sportspeople - particularly in the individual sports, like tennis and golf - and you will usually see a strong parent sitting there. Think Judy Murray. Think Richard Williams. It's worked for them and their children. I don't think I could do the same, not without guarantees, and there are none.

So, my question to you is - how far would you go? Is it possible to nurture a talent that might exist, and still allow your children to be children? Would the lure of sporting fame and fortune motivate you as much as your child? I'd love to know what you think.
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