4am alarms, no family holidays... for the parents and siblings of our most talented young athletes, there are sacrifices as well as celebrations. Chrissie Russell reports
Every morning at 5am, 12-year-old John William Burke gets up, makes himself breakfast and does his stretches. At 6.10am he wakes his dad and the pair of them head out to hit golf balls, then there’s strength and conditioning training, before heading off to school at 8.30am.
From playing his first golf competition at the age of six the schoolboy has now represented Ballyhaunis Golf club in 87 events, amassing 29 first places. His dad, John, can reel off a host of titles: US kids champion, Irish Junior Golfer of the Year ‘Gary Player Trophy’, Irish Kids Golf Tour Order of Merit...
But interestingly, when it comes to stand-out moments, it’s not a win or an impressive putt that first springs to mind for John. “I remember when John William was seven, he was playing against a man in his 40s, and seeing him walking down the fairway with him laughing and chatting away — that was a proud moment,” he smiles.
Many parents might dream of having a child with a sporting flair, but the reality of supporting that talent can often bring with it practical and emotional challenges as well as rewards.
When John William first showed promise as a sportsman, John — a keen golfer himself — admits he was quick to dream about what the future might hold. “That first year my head was gone, Googling ‘how to get him to the top’ because I could see the potential, but I just had to say to myself ‘John, sit down and relax, what will be, will be. Give him the clubs and let him try his best and we’ll just see’.”
When it comes to parenting a talented child, this is something Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist and author of Love in, love out: A compassionate approach to parenting your anxious child, says parents need to be ever mindful of. “Vicarious Success Syndrome is when it’s your dream, not your child’s,” she explains. “You need to ask yourself the question ‘is this about the child or is this about me?’ and you’ll know the answer from how emotionally invested you are: do you get very upset when there’s a decision on the sideline you don’t agree with? If they don’t want to practice? When they lose?”
John says it’s watching his son trying — not winning — that he loves, and the fact that, when John William’s on the course, he’s always smiling. “The chances of him making it are next to nil,” says his dad frankly, “so what I’ve always said to him is it has to be about the enjoyment in the moment. If we’re not enjoying it now, we forget about it.”
But he admits his son fully believes he will become a professional golfer. “In his mind he’s going to be World Number One,” says John.
This can be tricky to navigate says Dr Coyne. “You don’t want to put your child’s dream down if they have a particular talent — you want to encourage that — but at the same time promoting balance is important. You’re not their coach, you’re their parent and your role is to make sure they have balance and time to rest and recover.”
It is, says Dr Coyne, essential that it’s the child who drives the commitment to their sport and for parents to keep checking in that the enjoyment is still there. “You want to teach them to have a good work ethic but it’s important not to lose sight of the enjoyment side,” she explains. “And just because they’ve made the decision that this is what they want to do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll still feel that way a week or a month later.”
It’s something Greystones mum Tania Hodgins is mindful of doing with her 16-year-old daughter, Grace. The teenager, who first started swimming competitively at the age of six when the family were based in California, has an intense weekly schedule that can include up to nine two-hour swims as well as several strength and conditioning sessions. Days start at 3.45am and, with evening training after school, might not end until 8pm.
“A conversation we have a lot is ‘do you feel like you miss out?’,” says Tania. “But her answer is always that she feels she has different opportunities. Yes, her life might look different to a lot of other teenagers’ but, even if it might seem like a sacrifice to us, it doesn’t to her.”
At age 10, Grace decided to pause her swim training for six weeks to trial soccer and ballet as sports. “I held my breath for those six weeks, wishing her to get back in the pool, where I saw her thrive, but knowing it had to be her decision alone,” says Tania.
Interestingly the benefits her mum cites are, like John’s proud memory, nothing to do with the child’s successes in the sport, but how it’s impacted them as a person — the confidence, maturity and dedication swimming has promoted in Grace.
“I think she’s also learned an important skill of being very honest with people and saying ‘no, I can’t do that’,” she adds. But she’s uncomfortable with the word ‘gifted’. “It’s a word that I have trouble with,” says Tania. “I think where Grace has got herself to is from nothing but hard work, grit and resilience. ‘Gifted’ kind of implies that it just happened.”
It’s a word that Dublin mum Feena Corcoran is also keen to distance herself from when talking about her identical twin girls Riona and Caragh (12) who play U13 soccer for Bohemians Football Club and the Metropolitan Girls League (as well as camogie and Gaelic football for CLG Na Fianna in Glasnevin). “They’re strong players but the word ‘gifted’ wouldn’t sit well with us,” she says. “We’re modest people and, even though they’re really good, we’re not people who would boast about our children.”
It’s also a label that can come with expectations and with that, pressure. “Yes, they’re good at 12 but who is to say they’ll be good at 16?” says Feena. She reckons the girls had a natural engagement with sport from being pitchside in their buggy while older siblings played. Today navigating their training schedule, along with that of sporty siblings Keelin (16) and Conn (14), is a logistical effort, with the twins in training four nights a week and playing two matches at the weekend. “It’s a big undertaking and we couldn’t do it without car-pooling!” laughs Feena.
Since sport is a family affair she feels confident that no child feels left out, nor are they missing out on other childhood experiences. “They still get to meet their friends, have friends over, movie nights and play,” says Feena. “To them sport is as much about the social engagement as anything else and they love it. If they didn’t we’d be calling a halt to it.”
John is less convinced by a sense of equilibrium in his family’s life. John William plays other sports, does well in school work and socialises (all aspects Dr Coyne stresses as being important to promote for balance). “But it’s not balanced by any means,” says John honestly. “I take John William everywhere and Paula, my wife, looks after our other two children,” he pauses. “I live my life around our 12-year-old son’s diary. It’s not balanced and it’s not fair but it’s the way it is.”
The young golfer’s schedule leaves little opportunity or money for things like family beach holidays. It’s a huge financial commitment to support the sport at this level. “That’s very, very challenging,” says John. “We’ve a simulator room built for him that must have been €40,000 and he’s five different competitions he’ll play at €300 a shot.” That’s on top of clubs, memberships, travel and with no prize money offered at this level. “People might say it’s mind boggling or stupid,” says John. “But the way I look at it is, he’s enjoying himself and we’re giving him every opportunity we can.”