Unsung heroes: the pivotal role parents play in sports

Parents and carers play a pivotal role in encouraging and supporting their children’s participation in competitive sport. For anyone who participated in athletics as a youngster, they’ll know only too well that mums and dads are the unsung heroes of their child’s success. From early alarm calls and driving countless motorway miles to fulfilling the roles of financier, coach, and counsellor, parents as volunteers and inspirational role models keep the sport alive. We caught up with three parents of talented young athletes to find out a little more.

Jenny McAndrew, mum of Abigail Stratton, who is on the England Athletics Junior Talent Programme, spoke about what being the parent of a young athlete entails.

“Every night, virtually, we are training,” she said. “Strength and conditioning on Monday, track on Tuesday and Thursday. We go to the physio for massage on Wednesday and then Saturday or Sunday is a race, and a long run the other day so you’ve got to be committed,” she said.

“We travel all over the country, we’ve spent a fortune in Premier Inns! Every other weekend we are at an event. Absolutely it’s worth all the sacrifice. When you have a daughter who is nearly 18 and all they want to do is run.”

Jenny spoke also of the support provided by their local athletics club Blackburn Harriers and its volunteers to help her 17-year-old daughter, who recently attended a warm weather training camp as part of the England Athletics’ athlete support programme.

Natasha Brown, another parent of a promising young athlete, Thea, was full of pride and emotion as she watched her daughter become the new British record holder in the under-17 women’s 60m hurdles in Sheffield earlier this year.

The 15-year-old Sale Harriers Manchester multi-eventer, who has her sights set on representing Team England at the Commonwealth Youth Games in Trinidad and Tobago later this year, ran 8.39 seconds, 0.02 faster than the previous mark, to claim the title at the England Athletics age-group championships.

Thea Brown competing in the U17 women's hurdles in Sheffield

For mum, it was a moment to savour, and a reminder of all the hard work and dedication that is required from parent and daughter, who trains out of Manchester’s Sportcity complex.

“We’ve got training four times a week, but it’s the other bits isn’t it, making sure she’s eating the right things, the stress, the exams, the transport,” explained Natasha.

“They’re at the age, 15, where they’ve got to want to do it now, but we’re quite lucky where we’ve never had to fight for her to keep going (to training). She makes that easy (for us) and she enjoys the training, so you don’t mind taking her because she enjoys it and that’s because of the coaches.”

“The athlete and coach relationship is so important because without that she wouldn’t do what she does. As a multi-eventer, her coaches are all very different so she takes different elements from each coach that will make a really good network for her.”

Another parent who highlighted the crucial role that coaches play in support of both the athlete and their family was Diane Barrett, mother of sprint hurdler Alicia Barrett, 2022 England Champion and 2022 British bronze medallist, and sister Ella Barrett, a former 200m and 400m runner.  

The pressure of chasing times, heights and distances can be demoralizing for a young athlete when they don’t achieve what they’d set out to do. That is when, according to the Barrett family, the role of parents and wider volunteer support network including personal coaches become so important.

Diane said:

“I reflect now (on bringing up two track and field athletes), and I think it’s been up and down, but it’s been a great journey and I think that’s because athletics provides so much. It’s so deep and so wide and can provide so much for our children.

“As a parent you want the best for your kids, so you find a way of making it happen,” she added. “And that’s what we did, collectively. We are a family that liked athletics, but they had an amazing coach who knew the different pathways, and that matters.

“We knew other children who’d got real talent, but their coaches did not know the potential pathways and they were stumbling along finding their own way. Our club is brilliant, and they’d even tell us when you could access funding, what you’d need to do and when you’d need to do it. So, we had a lot of guidance. I think we were very fortunate, and the kids just responded to that.”

One thing that shines through when you speak to parents of young athletes is how they are quick to praise the influence of others but rarely, if ever, take credit for the fundamental role they play in inspiring their own children.

To the parents who help make this sport what it is – we thank you all!

Featured image: Alicia Barrett competing in the 2018 Commonwealth Youth Games.

Celebrating the outstanding contribution of volunteers to athletics and running