Take What These Two Say Seriously

Today I saw Coach Rhi Jeffrey posted an article from “The Telegraph” newspaper on her Facebook page. The long title tells you most of what it’s about – “Children should not stop playing sport in run up to exams as it has no impact on results, study suggests”.

It is well worth a read and comes at a time when, here in New Zealand, we are about to begin the exam season. Here is the link.


I also saw that Rhi’s post had been supported by Jane Copland. Here is her comment – “100km (swimming) Exam: School Certificate English Grade: 96%. To be fair, I wouldn’t recommend quite that degree of insanity but yeah, I did fine that week. It made college (university) an absolute breeze.”

We should pay attention to what these two say. I know both of them pretty well and they know what they are talking about. Both of them swam for their countries, both held national records and both have brains. Jane swam through four years in a Division One American University program and Rhi won an Olympic Gold Medal. When it comes to matters swimming it’s tough to fault these two.

Coaching Rhi was an exciting challenge. You see she is intelligent and knows the subject very well. You don’t want to make too many coaching mistakes when Rhi is around. She will catch you out every time. Loyal, talented and tough. It is easy to see the qualities that made her an Olympic Champion.

I also remember the week Jane achieved one of New Zealand’s highest marks in the School Certificate English exam and swam 100 km in the same week. In fact I’ve always felt a little guilty about that week. Jane calls it insanity and she is probably right. There are few swimmers around who can swim 100kms a week, let alone get 96% in a national English exam at the same time.

Like Rhi and Jane, the swimmer I’m helping now, Eyad, is as bright as all can be. He is sitting his university engineering exams next week so I’ve reduced training to 40 km – easy street. Rhi and Jane probably think I’m getting soft. But you should see the sort of things those engineering students are asked to do. For example build a horizontal car park for 300 cars built directly out from the face of a cliff. It makes my study of Aristotle and John Stewart Mill look positively junior high school.

But back to the “The Telegraph” article. I agree with the benefit of a balance between study and sport. Over the years I’ve had dozens of parents come to me with the story that their children are having a month off training to prepare and sit school exams. Occasionally I’ve tried to convince them the importance of leading a balanced life, of how some physical activity will benefit their mental preparation. I’ve used the example of athletes I’ve known who have successfully mixed academics and sport – Dr Roger Bannister, Dr Thomas Wessinghager, Dr Jenny Thompson and, of course, Dr Peter Snell. But it never works. These parents seem obsessed with the idea that a couple of hours in the pool would be better spent reading another chapter of their geography text book.

What they simply refuse to acknowledge is that their fanaticism won’t work. It doesn’t work in academics. It doesn’t work in sport either. OAPs (over anxious parents) have never been a benefit to their offspring.

All that pressure must transmit itself to the children. If a horse can detect a frightened rider and swimmers can recognise an emotional wreck of a coach then children must know when their parents are over-the-top pushing too hard. I decided to investigate and went to the American Journal of Psychiatry for help.

Here is what I found.

A study looked at almost 900 families with adult twins to determine the effect of environmental influence on anxiety. Results showed strong support of environmental transmission of anxiety from parent to child, independent of genetics. In essence, this study showed that anxious behaviours can be learned and that a child’s anxious behavior can also increase the anxious behaviour of the parent. The good news from this research is that parents can take an active role in reducing their child’s anxiety by changing their own behaviour and modelling effective coping skills.

 So there you have it. Your behaviour could well be making your child’s academic results and their swimming training worse. With every nervous demand, the success you want most is getting less and less likely. Through this New Zealand exam season, parents need to relax and let their children enjoy the exams and their sport.

Accept the advice of some pretty knowledgeable sportswomen, Rhi and Jane. Study hard and swim well and enjoy both.

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