FNew parents go as far as Richard Williams, who began guiding his daughters Venus and Serena to Wimbledon glory by writing an 85-page plan and training them on the public tennis courts in Compton, Los Angeles, every morning before they even started school. For the rest of us, mums and dads can still play a crucial role in nurturing a love of sport and exercise in their children from an early age.
“Parents and guardians play an absolutely fundamental role in introducing children to sport, with their encouragement behind the child’s perseverance and progression,” says Claire-Marie Roberts, psychologist and head of coach development at the Premier League. All children benefit physically, emotionally and socially from staying active, so here’s how to get them moving.
Start as soon as possible, but focus on fun
“Getting kids involved in activities as early as possible sets a pattern…you can’t start too early,” Roberts says. For babies, insert them into the fun by going to the park, swimming pool or soft play center. Greg Rutherford, a former Olympic long jumper and father of two, agrees: “Tossing and catching is great for developing hand-eye coordination, and we’re making up silly games, like getting out pots and pans and trying to figure it out. throw a ball there. This gives children a healthy association with fitness.
Make sports a normal part of life
Roberts also recommends keeping kids active in everyday life: “A stroller is the fastest way to get a child from A to B, but if you take the time to walk or jog, you’ll reap all the benefits. ” When they grow up, if they want to see their friends, they won’t hesitate to ride their bikes. This is confirmed by research published in the Sport Journal, which found that physical activity in early childhood is positively correlated with fitness in adolescence.
Focus on praise rather than improvement
“Praise is important,” Roberts says. Even now, England footballer and former captain Steph Houghton says she needs “that little bit of praise to feel appreciated for the commitment and intensity that I give”.
It’s also, says Roberts, about focusing on “them who put in the energy and their willingness to learn.” Former Olympic cyclist and father of two Chris Hoy agrees: “My son’s first taekwondo competition he lost, but he was still incredibly proud to have tried. We tell him: ‘Don’t worry about the others; you weren’t the best that day, but you’re better than a week ago and you’re having fun.
Primary school age
Try as many different sports as possible
Now is the time to expose children to as many activities as possible. This is exactly what Hoy, Rutherford and Houghton experienced. “My parents wanted me to try different things for different reasons,” says Houghton. “So taekwondo was about discipline and respect; football was about being competitive and working as a team. Through exposure, kids will find something they love and stick with it.
Get involved yourself
Registering and depositing them is not enough. If parents are actively involved, it “sets positive behavioral patterns, so exercise becomes the norm in this family,” Roberts says. Such was the case in the family of swimmer Rebecca Adlington. “We were an active family – always on the go on the weekends,” she says. “Having this lifestyle has definitely had a big impact on me.”
When Rutherford was growing up, his father “worked long hours as a builder, but he always played football with me – it was our chance to connect”. Former British tennis number 1 Johanna Konta has fond memories of going for a morning run with her father. “We would run to the top of this golf course on the edge of a cliff in time for sunrise. It left a big impression.
Roberts points out that both parents are involved: “Unfortunately, in normative heterosexual family units, it is usually the male who will be the role model for sport and exercise. It is really important that both parents do this equally.
Make it a treat, not a task
As adults, it’s easy to think that we have for exercise, but flip the tongue and make a bike ride or 10-minute interview a treat. “The sport was a reward,” Hoy says. “If my grades were good, I could go to the BMX track. If a child doesn’t find the sport fun, keep trying; just walk, bike or jump on a trampoline – you never see anyone frowning on a trampoline.
Roberts suggests integrating the activity into daily life: “Don’t make it an isolated task; it’s a treat, a way to get somewhere or a way to socialize.
Find their passion, not yours
“Parents often use their children as outlets for dreams they haven’t realized,” Roberts says. “But the child’s voice must be heard.” Rutherford agrees: “If my kids want to try athletics in the future, I’ll encourage them, but I’m not going to force them just because I liked it. Adlington ended up breaking world records in a sport that didn’t interest his parents.
Hoy advises talking to your kids about what they like “and then pointing them in that direction because they’ll get more excitement out of it.” He remembers “kids being dragged across the country to race and quitting as soon as they were old enough to make their own decisions. The main reason I keep riding is that I never lost my love for this bike.
Help them overcome disappointments
The sport often becomes more competitive for this age group, and a bad experience can turn a child off. For Roberts, the idea is to identify the positives, focusing on effort and improvement.
For Hoy, coming home used to turn things around. “If a competition hadn’t gone well I would be quiet and grumpy, but Dad never forced the issue, he waited for me to start talking and said ‘Why do you think this happened?’ … I never really felt down after a little chat with my dad. Adlington’s parents took a similar approach: “I would get angry or shut up, but my parents would give me space and talk about it. with me when I was ready.”
Roberts says “encourage children to reflect and explain that everyone experiences disappointments – including the most successful athletes”. Rutherford agrees: “I’ve had a lot more bad days than good ones.”
A study by the charity Women in Sport found that 43% of girls who once considered themselves athletic disengaged from sport by secondary school age. Body changes, hormonal surges and periods remain a major problem for girls.
Adlington remembers being embarrassed as a teenager: “I was much heavier than the other girls. I also suffered from pimples, so it wasn’t always easy. She overcame this by focusing on what her body could do, rather than how it looked: “Swimming gave me confidence because I was good at it.”
Konta recommends normalizing the discomfort and even feeling “disgusted with yourself – everyone goes through this – but it’s important to explain that it’s not permanent.”
When it comes to periods, Roberts recommends talking about them. Konta says she used to wear black shorts when she was on her period, but in her mid-twenties she changed her mindset: “I thought if I bleed when I wore white, so be it.”
For boys, a common problem is different rates of development. Hoy recalls playing rugby at the age of 14 against a kid “who was 6ft 2in tall with a moustache, so physically I was getting hammered”. The experience taught him a lesson: “Everyone develops at different rates. You can feel like you’re going backwards, but that levels off by the time everyone hits 18 or 19.”
let them be teenagers
Being a teenager is tough, so give them some slack. “By not letting them go to parties because of training, we’re doing them a disservice,” Roberts says. Houghton agrees: “It’s important to have normal teenage experiences.” But, she says, “if you really want to do something right, you have to make sacrifices. My parents saw that I needed a spell where I grew up and learned who I was but if there was practice Sunday morning there was no way my dad would let me out Saturday night! If I had tried to make these decisions without them, I probably wouldn’t have been as successful as I have been. It’s about having a balance.
Let them quit if they want
“At this age, their growing autonomy is really important,” Roberts says, so accept if your child wants to quit a certain sport. At 14, Hoy told his father that he no longer liked BMX: “He said it was fine. I told him I wanted to try mountain biking, so we rented bikes together. He could have pushed me and that could have been enough to make me never ride a bike again.
Houghton was also allowed to quit a sport: “I didn’t have the same motivation for taekwondo, so I told my mum and dad that I wanted to focus on football. I had given him everything I could and they respected that.