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Spectating from Afar

As many of you will have seen in the press, the decision has finally been made around spectators at this summer's postponed Olympics, and it's a 'no' for foreign spectators. This was not unexpected, but will still be hugely disappointing for many athletes and their families, as well as any die hard sports fans who were planning the trip to Tokyo.

As well as being huge fans of sport, we also have a vested interest, in that barring any disasters my stepson will be racing at his second Olympics. We are very lucky in the sport of rowing in that we have a very well organised supporters group that maintains close ties to the governing body, and offers group bookings for flights and accommodation for the Olympics. We had booked both for 2020, and re-arranged for 2021, luckily with great cancellation policies meaning we won't lose out financially. However, the disappointment at not being able to share something so monumental with his son, is a big deal for my husband.

For those of you that don't know us, my husband Peter is also an Olympian. He competed at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 in the men's rowing eight event, placing 4th, a difficult result to handle being so close the the medals. Couple this with the fact that his mother, who had not travelled out to spectate, died very suddenly of a heart attack before the final. The decision was made not to tell him before the competition was over, but it meant that after all the emotional turmoil of an Olympic final and a 4th place finish, the awful news had to be broken to him and he had to travel home immediately without his team mates. As you can imagine, aside from the hugely emotive experience of watching his son follow in his footsteps and compete at an Olympics, there is an enormous amount of emotion tied up in the event for our family, and being there in person was a really big deal for Peter.

So, what next? How do we deliver meaningful support to Jack in a way that also gets the most out of the experience for Peter too? If you have children involved in sport, much as we love to support them and watch them on the field of play, it's sometimes not possible or practical to see every competition they attend, life (or Covid) has a habit of getting in the way. So what would be the best way to navigate this and make it work for are some ideas:

  • Prepare a thoughtful, heartfelt message, maybe a video, a card, or a letter that can be given to your child so that they can dip into it on their terms. Emotions can run high around big sporting events and this means they can choose when they want to look at something that might make them homesick, or feel emotional.

  • Make sure you are on top of any time difference and you don't send them messages in the middle of their night and disrupt their preparation.

  • Have a frank conversation with them before they go about what they need from you and what you can do to support them. It's something that I encourage all sporting parents and athletes to do, and it usually throws up a few surprises. It's also an opportunity for parents to explain to children what you would really like from THEM in terms of contact, kids tend forget that we worry like mad about them. Having a set of agreed contact 'rules' will help everyone to manage the situation in a way that supports your young athlete, but gives the rest of the family some involvement in the competition from afar.

  • Be mindful of the bubble. What's the bubble I hear you say? As coaches, we work really hard to create a team or a competition bubble where as the day of competition approaches the athlete / team is more and more focused on the job in hand and less and less distracted by anything outside of this bubble. But as parents we have a hotline to our kids in the form of a smart phone, and we can burst that bubble in an instant. I once had an athlete receive a call from her parents telling her the family dog had died, on the way to her World Championship Final – you get the idea, what we say can really matter.

  • Find out well before the event how you can access any live streaming, results or live competition reporting. This is SO important, I can think of endless examples of parents leaving it to the last minute and then not being able to find the right link / platform / channel and missing the whole thing.

  • Be mindful of what you are posting on social media, even if you think it's only your friends seeing it, social media is basically a public forum, so assume anyone will read it – your child, their team mates, their opposition, their coach, the NGB etc. etc. So get your facts right, be positive, credit the whole team and first and foremost ask yourself if your child would want you to post it. Emotions run VERY HIGH around big competitions and I can think of many a parent who wished they had slept on the ANGRY / CRITICAL / NEGATIVE emotions that surfaced rather than venting on the socials!

  • Also, be ready for any journalists who may approach you for comment. I know not all our children are competing at an international level, but this applies to local press as well. If you are not at the competition and have spectated from home, it's probably relatively easy for them to track your contact details down. It also means you are slightly out of the loop so you won't necessarily have the full picture of what's gone on at the competition. So, again, make sure your comments are factual, positive, credit the whole team and would be something your child would like to see in print. If you don't know the answers to any questions 'I don't know' is the appropriate response.

  • Manage your expectations. Try to find out what your child's realistic chances are of winning, medalling, making a final etc. so that you can prepare yourself and think beforehand of how this might make you feel, and how you would best like to react to this.

  • And lastly, be patient. Depending on the nature of the competition your child might have very little spare time running into and directly after competition. The coach is likely to be managing your child's time running into the event and carefully staying on top of preparation, nutrition and recovery routines. And after the event there may be medal ceremonies, drugs tests, media commitments and just all round team excitement, which might mean you get pushed down the priority list. But this is their moment and they WILL call you eventually!

I hope your child is lucky enough to enjoy some competition this summer and hopefully you will be allowed to go and watch. If not, this will give you some ideas on how you can effectively stay involved and support from afar.

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