Parenting elite athletes

Parenting elite athletes

Behind every remarkable athlete lies a devoted parent, tirelessly supporting their child’s pursuit of greatness. From the early morning practices to the nerve-wracking competitions, this journey is an exhilarating rollercoaster of emotions, sacrifices, and immense pride.

We recently spoke to Norm and Lynn Bekker, parents of Wolsey Hall Oxford student and elite athlete, Phebe Bekker, to find out more about their experience.

Young elite tennis player

Wolsey Hall Oxford supports a large number of homeschooling elite athletes from a variety of sports.

Phebe Bekker

When did you first realise that ice skating / ice dancing might be more than just a hobby for Phebe?

It was evident right from the beginning that Phebe had a huge talent for moving on ice. Her ability to move gracefully and to interpret music and her confidence in performing put Phebe ahead of the game and was demonstrated in the many podium places that followed. Phebe trained and competed in two disciplines, Free Skating and Solo Ice Dance. It wasn’t long before it became evident that Ice Dance and twice winning the title of British Champion, was the area that Phebe needed to focus on.

We found the feedback from iceskating coaches as well as ballet and dance teachers, massively complimentary. This together with our own belief in Phebe, encouraged us to support her as one step led to the next. Phebe started trying out for Ice Dance partnerships and we both knew that we were witnessing something very special. Phebe subsequently joined up with her first Ice Dance partner, and it was probably at this point that we knew Ice Dance was more of a vocation than a hobby.

What challenges, if any, did you face when Phebe began training as an elite athlete?

It wasn’t just the ice dancing but all the logistics that comes with it. We were new to the sport ourselves with little knowledge of the detail that sits behind it all. Learning the rules and ethics of the sport, understanding the scoring, the learning paths, finding and editing music for programmes, finding costumes, submissions to competitions, getting her to and from the ice rink in the early mornings ahead of school time.

We soon realised that for Phebe to progress, we had to make it our own hobby and fully immerse ourselves in it, which we did.

The first and most important consideration was how to juggle sport training with school work. On talking to Phebe’s teachers, we realised that it wasn’t possible for her to continue with mainstream education. Homeschooling was discussed but we had little knowledge of how this worked.

Schooling for elite athletes

Was the decision to homeschool Phebe a difficult one? What if any were your concerns?

Going the homeschooling route is the opposite of going the well trodden path of the traditional schooling. It takes a level of courage to make that decision to deviate from the path. We were asking ourselves all sort of questions:

  • Are we responsible parents?
  • Is this decision irreversible?
  • What if she gets injured and can no longer skate?
  • What is the impact on her social life and skills development?

The decision sort of became natural. As we watched Phebe progress we realised this wasn’t just a ‘phase’, we realised that we needed to be ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ for her to get the most out this sport. It is either full-time education and choose the traditional way through life, or choose the elite athlete career path. The homeschooling option gave us that half-way house. When we started to look into it and by speaking to some fellow parents with children being homeschooled, that negative connotation around homeschooling soon disappeared. It became clear the curriculum and the resources that are available online. We are not alone / unique, there are many other parents out there facing similar difficult decisions which gave us some sort of reassurance.

After the pandemic, it can be argued that schooling could well become a hybrid model like the modern workplace is in today’s world. We might just be early adopters with many still to follow. Time will tell.

What are the benefits of homeschooling for elite athletes?

The greatest benefit is the freedom to plan and prioritise the efforts required to get the most out of the sport and education. Homeschooling can be arranged around training, rather than training around education, at times that fit in with the training schedule and doesn’t necessarily need to be taken in the traditional school age year. We feel it is similar to the way we watch / consume television with binge watching, I believe, now a new entry into the Oxford dictionary.

Parents of elite athletes

What is the hardest part of being a parent of an elite athlete?

For us, we missed some of her childhood from the age of 15 when Phebe moved to the US. Being at a distance, it is difficult to be the parent who can ‘fix’ things. We miss being the ‘taxi service’ that allowed us to stay in tune with what is in the music charts and catch up adhoc. We miss the shoulder to cry on, in times of need, Phebe is on her own. We miss the stuff that a lot of parents laugh and complain about.

What do you love most about being the parent of an athlete?

Often we are told, ‘you must be so immensely proud’ – in particular when video footage appears on social media of a performance. It is certainly true. Just as we are proud of the personal accomplishments of all three of our children, we are proud of Phebe and James’ ability as a partnership of bringing joy and happiness with their performances.

As we have made it our hobby – we get deeper and deeper into this sport – watching the competitions, seeing the progress that Phebe and James are making, learning and applying permissible interpretation to dancing to music on ice, together with the excitement of new programmes and new costumes all adds to the experience.

I guess we are part of a small number of parents that have the privilege of having an elite athlete in the family. It certainly gets an airing when it comes up in conversation.