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Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'A pushy parent in sport is not always a bad thing'

Emma Raducanu, tennis dads and why we shouldn't be putting athlete's families under the microscope ahead of Wimbledon

Emma Raducanu and her father, Ian, will be the focus of intense attention at Wimbledon over the next fortnight Credit: DAVID ROSE

I never had a so-called pushy parent to get me into sport. My mum and dad encouraged me to try athletics as a way of burning off energy, but there was no elite sporting career master plan. As a teenager, when I began thinking about wanting to hang out with my friends instead of going to training, my mum would say: “Don’t be a sheep!” But there was never any pressure, my parents were very relaxed.

I do think, though, whether it is your coach or a family member, someone in your set-up needs to provide the nudge to take your sporting interest seriously. As a child, or teenager, you can easily make the wrong decisions – you need someone to give you a mature perspective on what the future might be if you focus on sport.

For me, that person was my grandad, Rod. He is the one who kept all my times from when I started, all my certificates. He was a massive sports fan who played tennis into his 70s, and was genuinely excited by the prospect of what I could do in sport. My grandad would incentivise me with the promise of £5 for a personal best – until he realised I was doing PBs all the time and had to change the bonus structure!

At that point there was no other financial incentive, and I could not take on a part-time job, as some of my friends did, because of training commitments. Growing up we did not have much money, life was hard for my mum when I look back – she was stressed about paying bills and my grandad helped to take the pressure off.

Although athletics is not an expensive sport compared to some, there were outgoings like having to buy spikes and kit, or being able to put petrol in the car to take me to competitions. Grandad helped to take that pressure off and played a pivotal role in me continuing with my sport.

Along the way, I never thought that much about how my family might be perceived. Up until London 2012, my family had never been scrutinised. But in the run-up to the Games I will always remember my friend Shelley Rudman, who won Olympic silver in the skeleton in 2006, saying to me: “Just be careful what you put on Facebook. Everybody’s going to want to know about everything.” And she was right. Journalists began turning up at my parents’ house. Everyone wanted to know what my parents looked like, were they pushy? I was supposed to be the golden girl of the home Olympics, and clearly they were searching for something a little edgy and untoward.

Jessica Ennis-Hill (second right), pictured with her now husband Andy Hill (left), mother Alison (second left) and father Vinny Credit: PA

For Emma Raducanu that dynamic is multiplied tenfold, especially heading into Wimbledon. Parents are front and centre of most tennis players’ lives because the elite pathway starts at a much earlier age than athletics.

While I was just trying out athletics at my local club, aged nine, at the same age Emma was already playing national competitions. Her parents needed to be involved, helping to navigate the national governing body, funding, coaches and medical support for their young daughter.

Once the action starts, her parents will be literally centre stage – sitting in the players’ box alongside the coach while TV cameras pan across, capturing even the most nuanced facial expressions, family dynamics seemingly blown up on our screens. All it takes is one look captured by photographers and it’s, “Gosh, he’s a pushy dad he’ll be furious after that game”. It runs away with itself. I think a lot of people are not really prepared for that level of scrutiny. But we live in a world now where, more than ever, everyone wants to know every little detail of someone’s life.

We have this really small snapshot of an athlete’s life, we judge them on first impressions and the headlines we have read and this preconception that if you are involved as a parent you are toxic.

‘Emma is doing amazing things for women’s sport’

Sometimes, of course, that might be the case. There was one girl who was coached by her dad when I was coming through as a junior. She was tall and strong and trained loads, four times a week, she was already doing weights and way ahead of everyone else. But I just remember her being really miserable and not enjoying being at competitions. You could see the pressure put on her by her dad. It is important to work as a team to get the balance right, so that coach and parent are not both coming as one big force on the athlete. That would be too much for anyone.

I think it takes a really rounded person to be able to be a coach and family member at the same time. You have to wear so many different hats, it is very tough.

But it can work. Jenny Meadows and Trevor Painter are a good example – he was her coach pretty much her whole career, and they are married. They are super successful and feed well off each other.

Returning to Wimbledon next week will be tough for Emma. Her last appearance there was stressful and prompted a national debate about mental health.

She came out of it amazingly, but no doubt she will still have those memories and emotions, and she will want to show how she has developed.

What we do know about Emma is her resilience to deal with pressure – from winning the US Open, to everything that has happened since, with juggling endorsements and the intense spotlight on her. She is doing amazing things for women’s sport, and her profile is great for women everywhere.


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