February 01, 2023
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
Who or what can influence and inspire our children as they grow and develop? Who can inspire us as adults and why? How can we support our children to reach their physical potential when there are so many digital temptations to stay inside and on the sofa? What difference can one person make in shaping our children’s decisions about their futures? These were some of the questions I was mulling over last week, before a series of interviews with elite athletes.
My first interview guest was Floyd Steadman, Saracens’ Rugby Team’s first Black captain at 23 years old, at a time when racism in sports like rugby was rife. He played as scrum-half, a pivotal, leadership role on the pitch previously unoccupied by a man of colour. He went on to achieve much more beyond sport; becoming the first Black Headmaster of an independent Prep school, a father to three boys, enjoyed a 40 year marriage and recently received an OBE.
All of these accomplishments are even more astonishing when you consider the childhood traumas he endured. He lived with his mother, father and sister but left home at ten years old (having had enough of being beaten by his father). He survived on London’s streets, alone, for weeks. During this time, he slept in a cabin at the top of a playground slide and managed to get himself a job with a passing milkman! Once the authorities caught up with him, he was brought home, at which point his father rejected him on the doorstep and insisted that social services take him in. That small turning point meant a childhood in care and never seeing his mother again.
Floyd’s book reads like a movie script, because readers, you will be pleased to know that his first care placement was with two warm and loving adults; Betty and Bill (who fed him, nurtured him and even introduced him to Scouts!). He thrived academically, passing the 11+ and then found himself in front of a sports’ teacher one day, who looked him over before declaring he would play rugby. The rest is history.
Someone taking an interest in him was literally life-changing. Sport was a vehicle through which he had access to adults who cared and who were attuned to spotting and nurturing talent. In the book, he recalls how a teacher’s comment from the sideline ignited his self-belief: “Mr Jones saw me tackle the larger boy and shouted ‘Steadman, that’s the way!’, and almost instantly I felt happy about the game and about me as a person, about life, about the world”. Sport gave Floyd an identity, a purpose, a passion and a family.
Autobiographies and reading of others’ lived experiences are one way to introduce children to inspirational figures. This is the sort of book you could read together or read out to young teens. Everyone will take something different away from a book like this. The one thing that stood out for me when reading Floyd’s book was his extraordinary mental toughness. At every point when things got difficult, he repeated a mantra to himself, “What can I control here?”. I also loved being reminded about the powerful influence teachers can have in children’s lives; one word of encouragement, one motivating look or a validating smile can change everything. Floyd didn’t need tough talk from those teachers, it was their kindness that fuelled his physical prowess on the pitch.
In terms of sport, 2022 was a real treasure trove of amazing achievements, particularly for women. At Tooled Up, we felt so in awe of the talent, skill, determination and resilience on display that we decided to dig a little deeper, and find out more about the characters behind some of these seemingly superhuman feats for one of our resources.
Unsurprisingly, we discovered numerous unique and interesting stories from all around the world. For example, neuroscience student, guitar player and British para swimmer, Alice Tai, won Commonwealth gold only months after having her right leg amputated at the knee, following years of worsening pain caused by bilateral talipes (clubfoot). Teen cricketing sensation Alice Capsey not only completed her A levels, she also became England’s top run-scorer at the Commonwealth Games, all whilst sporting a black eye caused by an errant ball in training. We discovered Reema Juffali who, despite growing up in Saudi Arabia when women were still banned from driving, has become a successful racing driver, even founding her own racing team last year with the aim of improving access to motor sport in her home country. We found out about the extraordinary talent of Yulimar Rojas, Venezuelan triple jump world record holder and LGBTQ rights activist. We watched 23-year-old Ethiopian distance runner, Yalemzerf Yehualaw, pick herself up from the floor after a stumble 10km from the end of the London Marathon left her trailing the leaders by 25 metres. Astonishingly, she clawed her way back to win, the youngest woman ever to do so.
There’s certainly no shortage of incredible role models out there to inspire our offspring. As Floyd mentioned in our interview, children can only aspire to be what they can see, which of course means we have a duty to ensure that they have access to as many diverse and inspirational people as possible. Role models don’t have to be famous; they might be working in our own communities, schools or living around the corner. Where they can’t see role models in everyday life, they might read about them or watch them on the television.
As well as Floyd Steadman, over the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to chat to several more inspirational sporting stars from various disciplines, including rugby star, Sonia ‘Sonic’ Green, England women’s lacrosse captain, Laura Merrifield, former hockey player, Holly Cram, and elite rowers, James Ball and Caoimhe Dempsey. All have provided pearls of wisdom about how parents can help to nurture children’s athletic talent, whilst also looking after their emotional resilience, mental health and physical wellbeing. Notably, every single one of these athletes described the power of sport in building good communication skills, the ability to think on one’s feet, a growth mindset, perseverance, tenacity and resilience in the face of defeat, mistakes, injury or being left out of the team – attributes that, as parents, we all hope to help our children to cultivate.
I learned that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential emotional impact of inevitable sporting setbacks. Sonia Green described the feelings experienced by athletes going through a major injury as akin to grief. It’s therefore vital that we help any sporty young people to find some balance in their lives. Sport shouldn’t form their entire identity. Having other non-connected interests and access to different things that bring them joy, a sense of accomplishment and belonging is vital and will help to protect their wellbeing when they are out of action or dropped from their team. Returning from injury can be an anxiety-inducing experience in itself. Sonia, no stranger to injuries, suggests reminding children of their abilities when fully fit, by watching old videos or looking at photos from when they were performing at their best. Having small, achievable goals is also likely to aid recovery.
Parents play a pivotal role in the lives of sporty children. They frequently provide an unpaid (and potentially undervalued) taxi service, ferrying their offspring back and forth to training, competitions and matches, often multiple times a week. They are also there to provide emotional support and encouragement to both their own children and their teammates, whether that’s at the side of the chilly pitch, a hot and stuffy pool, a freezing cold car park (I’m writing from experience), or on the journey home. The sportsmen and women who I’ve chatted to all advise these parents to leave coaching to the coach. Mixed messages during training can hinder performance and goal-orientated post-match/competition questioning might add unnecessary pressure. Instead, they advise allowing children to talk about their performance when they feel ready, noticing the things they did well (this might be really listening to their coach or comforting a friend rather than scoring a goal) and encouraging them to reflect on their achievements and progress.
Whilst it can be challenging for young people who spend a lot of time playing sport to balance the demands of training with their academic work, as well as making time for rest and relaxation, their sporting experiences can also help them to recognise the rewards that can be reaped through hard work and necessitate the development of good time management skills. During exam periods, sport can help to provide balance. With good preparation, young athletes can still train during periods of revision. In fact, it’s likely to have a positive impact on their mood, brain function and capacity for learning and provide some valuable ‘switch off’ time.
Throughout my conversations with these exceptional men and women, I also found it interesting that, despite excelling at one sport, they all suggested that we shouldn’t encourage our children to specialise in one area too early. They all played a variety of sports as kids and even into their teens. Many sports share skills and participation in different disciplines will help to develop general sporting ability, coordination, physical and social skills. Food for thought?
Talking of food, we parents shouldn’t underestimate the importance of our role in refuelling! Children who train a lot also need to eat a lot; a lot of healthy, varied and nutritious foods that they enjoy, at optimal times around their sporting schedule.
Plenty of fruit and vegetables, as well as a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, will provide their growing bodies with the correct nutrients, vitamins and minerals to aid recovery. Performance nutritionist Dan Richardson advises snacking on fruit and vegetables, switching up the fruit and vegetables you use in main meals or adding a smoothie into their daily diet.
As someone who has to feed their children ‘on the go’ multiple times a week (post-training bolognese in the car is pretty standard), I’m well aware that this can be tricky. A hearty breakfast is a must, even if it means getting up that little bit earlier to organise it. It’s vital that young athletes don’t expend more energy than they take on board in food. Too little energy will lead to fatigue and they will be unable to keep up with training demands. We can help by nudging them to recognise their individual energy intake and expenditure balance and keep it in check by snacking appropriately. Milk can be an excellent post-training recovery drink which provides plenty of protein, as does yoghurt or chicken bites. Dan advises sticking to the 80/20 rule (used by most professional athletes). Young athletes should aim to eat healthy, high quality foods 80% of the time. The other 20% of their diet can include other foods that they enjoy, including a few treats and snacks. Don’t be tempted to track food or nutrient intake. This can make eating seem like a chore, something we definitely want to avoid.
Remember that we all need to rest. Burnout is relatively common amongst young athletes. Having a day off to recharge (in the same way that professional athletes do) will help them in the long run. As parents, sometimes we might need to learn to say no. Whilst children might be adamant that they must attend every training session, if they are tired, consider telling them to miss it. The high standards required of them in competition can’t always be maintained day in, day out. In fact, elite athletes peak for an event. So, it’s just as important to factor in time for them to relax and not to fill every day during the holidays or weekends with activities.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Tooled Up parents in Tooled Up schools can listen back to the interviews mentioned above through our digital platform now. Check out our conversations with Holly Cram, Laura Merrifield, Sonia Green and Floyd Steadman and watch out for our rowing webinar that will be added to the library this week. You can also hear more from performance nutritionist, Dan Richardson and get his top tips on ensuring that sporty children are well fuelled. Read his 10 top sports nutrition myths or watch our webinar now to make sure you are armed with the facts.
We’re really pleased to have published our round up of 50 Fantastic Female Sporting Role Models this week. It’s packed full of amazing stories which are sure to inspire all children. If all this talk of sporting brilliance has left you raring to try something new, check out our list of 100 sports for the whole family to try, complete with details of where to find further information.
If there is a sporting resource or a webinar related to sport that you would like to request, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, a note for Tooled Up school staff: on 22nd March 2023 we are hosting a webinar on how schools can optimally support the needs of looked after/adopted children with Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, Alison Roy. We were inspired to create this webinar after reading Floyd’s story and when a Tooled Up school got in touch wanting to learn more! Please book your place now.