Analysis: the supportive role of parents and siblings goes far beyond the provision of finance, travel and food

The role of family is acknowledged as an essential ingredient in the development of many athletes. You only have to rewind to last summer's Tokyo Olympics, and Irish cyclist Mark Downey, to see the potential impact of family. However, family involvement in sport is complex, the reasons for involvement vast and its impact varied, so we must tread carefully when assessing and declaring its value.

As the Downey example suggests, having a 'sporty family' has advantages. Aside from genetic influence, sporty parents can provide athletes with more knowledge of and easier access to sport. They’ve probably created pro-sport environments at home and participated with their children. Sporty siblings provide an organic laboratory for athletes to succeed, fail, experiment and ultimately learn. All of this provides athletes with a rich environment through which to pursue performance.

But this could also lead to negative consequences where athletes feel pressure to perform through parental expectation or sibling competition, and therefore lose interest or even drop out of sport. Importantly, there is no silver bullet to raising an athlete. As Judy Murray shows, two talented siblings took very different pathways, requiring very different upbringings to succeed. As such, one size does not fit all.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Olympic gold medallist Kellie Harrington's brother and Norwegian soccer coach Christopher Harrington on life in the Harrington household

The supportive role of parents goes far beyond the considerations of finance, travel and food. A review identified behaviours that can positively support the development of psychological and social skills in athletes. Parents can help athletes to interpret sporting experiences (good/poor performance), evaluate their performance, develop self-awareness and set goals to improve.

Parents can also be role models when it comes to appropriate behaviours, providing athletes with examples of how to deal with certain scenarios (such as the response to failure). Crucially, parents must also recognise when their role changes and adapt accordingly. Even the most high-profile sporting parents knew when they needed to adapt. Richard Williams brought in support as Venus and Serena advanced, and Earl Woods regularly didn't attend Tiger's tournaments. All of these behaviours can contribute to an athlete’s motivation, feelings of competence and enjoyment of the sport.

However, parents should be cautious of overemphasising winning, excessively criticising performance, providing too much feedback, being too involved at the wrong time and coaching from the sideline. Consequently, athletes may develop a fear of failure, competitive anxiety and a reduced enthusiasm and competence, which could lead to potential dropout. However, it is important to recognise the nuances here, as these behaviours might be needed at certain points (such as criticising performance if the athlete demonstrated a lack of effort).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, interview with the parents of some of Ireland's representatives at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

From a sibling perspective, there is potential to harness the unique characteristics of the relationship to support the development of an athlete s physical, psychological, social, technical and tactical skillsets. These characteristics include interaction in competitive, practice and play environments; closeness, empathy and support; rivalry due to competitiveness and performance outcomes; conflict such as arguments, frustration and criticism; developing sport-specific skills through mentoring, co-operation, observation and challenge; instruction and discussion around tactics and skill development; and developing and testing resilience

The most appropriate and effective of these characteristics for the development of an athlete depends on the specific sibling relationship. For example, the Kilcoo's footballing Branagan brothers are highly competitive, therefore engaging in a mentally and physically demanding practice where they challenged each other was highly influential on their development. However, for siblings who are caring, encouraging one to support the other after a poor performance through empathy, discussion and mentoring could be just as effective. It is not advisable to assume all siblings are competitive!

Family clearly have the potential to support athlete development. Yet, when an athlete progresses into a talent space, it might feel like a parent is handing their child over to the set-up. However, if the environment is intent on creating the most effective space for their athletes, the role of the family should be considered, both in and around the environment. In fact, a key characteristic of effective environments is the long-term use of support networks.

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From RTÉ Archives, Brendan Wright reports for RTÉ News on the return home of 11 year old Cavan golfers Lisa and Leona Maguire from the 2006 World Junior Golf Championships

There is a need for coaches and parents to work together to create complimentary relationships, based on the parent’s knowledge and understanding of the environment and the requirements of individual athletes. Structurally, it could start with a ‘parent meeting’ where key logistics and philosophies are shared, with opportunities for parents and coaches to engage in one-to-one (acknowledging the individualised needs of parents) and group interactions (to share information relevant to all parents).

Coaches should also consider how they work with athletes to engage with parents as part of their support network - which is not always easy with adolescences! Finally, coaches require support and space from their club or organisation to engage with parents.

The clear messages here are that family can be crucial to the development of athletes in sport. They can provide more than just logistical and practical support by being useful aids in the development of all skills required to be successful. However, the value and impact of family members on an athlete depends on the type of relationships that exist or can be developed through this space.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ