Mark Huggett Show, Radio 5 Live with input from Russell Fuller, Tennis Correspondent, Judy Murray & Martina Navratilova
Tonight’s programme was centred around the Russell Fuller’s follow-up story of aspiring tennis champion father, Ray Wood and his two daughters, aged three and nine. He previously interviewed the father in 2016 when the family were still living in the UK. His original article can be found on: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/36367629.
When I received a call from BBC Radio 5 Live Sport asking me to comment from an Educational Psychologist perspective I made it clear that in line with the British Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and Conduct my comments on the programme would have to be of a general nature rather than specifically about this family. I sensed the topic would likely be an emotive one that would receive a fair amount of listener response and that hopefully, I could contribute from a professional perspective. See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/43486837 for the full BBC web site article.
In summary, the father, a professional football coach who worked with both Leicester City and Paris St-Germain had moved his family to Australia where he continues to work as a professional football coach and is now going all out to support the girls in being future world-class tennis champions. Last year, Ray’s older daughter Liv won numerous local and state-level competitions and sometimes plays against children five years her senior. Her training regime involves between nine and ten hours a week on the tennis court and four to five hours on the running track. The younger girl, Paloma is currently doing about twenty minutes play-based training a week and when she reaches four years this will increase to about four hours.
Research on parenting suggests that the following are important:
Positive talk about education
Obviously I couldn’t comment on Ray’s personal qualities but I would venture that that there was no question about his high aspirations, enthusiasm and communicative ability. However, I would say from my work with many parents of children with exceptional abilities and gifts that balance is everything and all children need a range of social, academic and leisure experiences in order to thrive. Underpinning all this is the importance of a child’s educational experience and the stability/continuity that their parents/carers provide. Ray has plans to move the family to Spain in the future to provide clay court experience and access to a wider field of competition but acknowledges the possibility that the girls’ physical development and the onset of the teenage years may necessitate a change of plans.
I agree that the start of being a teenager is likely to challenge the choices that he has made for his daughter. It’s a teenager’s job to carve out their own unique identity and therefore her choices and aspirations need to be listened to. Core to this is the quality of communication between child and parents. There need to be lots of conversations between parents and their teenage children in which it is possible for both to express their views, say no, within reason, and sometimes make choices different to the adults’ plans. When a youngster has a particularly busy schedule the time available and opportunities to make choices as to how they spend their time, e.g. to relax, to socialise or to pursue other interests, may be less than ideal. It is important that the parents of teenagers allow a gradual process of development in which, as the child matures, they have more of these opportunities.
Ray has employed a specialist tennis coach for Liv and speaks with regard and respect about his input. The input of a professional who is outside the complex and emotional family system is no bad thing. In a way, it’s what every child experiences when they go to school and this is important in helping the process of separation and development that all individuals must go through to become adult. In addition, the coach is, by definition, able to gage what training experiences are developmentally appropriate.
Clearly, Ray is a resourceful and hard-working man but actually, he is doing what the huge majority of the thousands of parents I have worked with do. He is trying his best to support and care for the family. The way in which parents go about this is infinitely varied. Even though it would help professionals like myself and public services in general to have a template or set of exact criteria by which to measure excellence/competency in truth we don’t. The most important thing is the wellbeing and development of the children and this, at present, is generally only assessed in deficit terms, i.e. signs of lack of wellbeing and/or appropriate development. The increasingly sensitised and aware culture of child protection has increased and the educational and sporting professionals involved in this family’s life are required to spot the ‘red flags’ that signify a problem, i.e. changes for the worse in a child’s emotional/physical presentation and behaviour.
There’s a lot of anecdotal report supporting the idea that to achieve excellence in specialist fields such as sports, music, drama, language etc. starting early is most likely to lead to excellence as an adult. However, there are exceptions to this rule too as every field seems to have its late starters. This mixture of nature and nurture is a complicated one and hard to unpick but it is reasonable to believe that as long as a child has signs of innate ability and is then actively supported and given the opportunities to develop these they are more likely to succeed over time. In my experience, if the child is pressured, i.e. subject to forced and prolonged practice and training that is outside of their particular comfort levels, mental and physical, this is a problem and they are not likely to achieve the desired goals or put in the required work to achieve them.
It’s true, nobody knows what the outcomes over time may be but as long as these children are healthy, happy and developing it is a question of seeing what happens in the long run. One other thought, when we consider the issue of children of aspirational parents, is that there are many children whose talents and gifts are not nurtured and supported and adults who look back with regret at their own unfostered talents but how would we ever measure the costs to them and to the world at large?
It was an interesting discussion and Judy Murray and Martina Navratilova offered some of their own particular insights based upon considerable lived experience. I was pleased that two other female voices were included in this world of predominantly male-voiced sports radio. Even more so, given one especially key player, the mother of Liv and Paloma, wasn’t asked for her views. Apparently the plan is to interview her in a follow up piece in a couple of years.