In her mother’s foot­steps

Sport in the genes – star­ring So­nia and So­phie O’Sul­li­van

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Claire Gor­man

There are many things we might at­tribute to our ge­net­ics – a fiery tem­per­a­ment, bald­ness, high choles­terol – but, some are lucky to in­herit a par­ent’s “sports gene”.

So­nia O’Sul­li­van’s youngest daugh­ter, So­phie O’Sul­li­van, hit the head­lines in July when she was crowned the un­der-17 1,500m na­tional cham­pion – the same ti­tle her mother won 32 years ear­lier.

Hav­ing an Olympic medal­list as a mother could seem like an enor­mous amount of pres­sure to have as a 15-year-old fol­low­ing in her foot­steps, but So­phie takes it all in her stride.

“It was just some­thing fun to do while in Ire­land dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days. This was my sec­ond time at the Irish Na­tional Cham­pi­onships rep­re­sent­ing Bal­ly­more Cobh AC. In 2012, I won the high jump un­der 12,” So­phie says of the race.

O’Sul­li­van ex­plains that So­phie, who hopes to run in the Olympics some day, doesn’t con­sider her mother’s achieve­ments at all when it comes to her own run­ning. “She goes around run­ning and she never once con­sid­ers any­thing I’ve done in re­la­tion to her run­ning. Be­ing in Aus­tralia, it’s not so much in her face as it would be in Ire­land. Even when she is there, she’s just kind of obliv­i­ous to it all,” she says. “It doesn’t seem to faze her or bother her, which is great. She just gets on with things and she’s just do­ing what she’s do­ing. In her mind it bears no re­la­tion to me.


“I might make a com­ment on a race or some­thing like that or I might make a sug­ges­tion of some­thing she might do and she acts like she’s not lis­ten­ing to me. She’s got it all worked out in her own mind, nearly to the ex­tent that she’s ask­ing, ‘What do you know?’ I just take it and I don’t ever get in any ar­gu­ments about what I think or what she thinks. I just let her off and I kind of think, ‘Well if you don’t want to lis­ten to me, you’ll work it out for your­self,’ and I think that’s the best way be­cause you can’t al­ways be there to tell them what to do. It’s good to let them make mis­takes and fig­ure things out, what works for them.”

The fam­ily hadn’t re­alised that So­phie had won the same na­tional ti­tle un­til it was pointed out to them, O’Sul­li­van re­calls.

“I didn’t even know un­til I got a mes­sage from a friend of mine who’s pretty big on ath­let­ics statis­tics. He asked me some ques­tion about it and then he came back to me with the race and the time. I think the age group­ings were slightly dif­fer­ent back then, but it cor­re­lated to be­ing the same thing,” she says. “It was an in­ter­est­ing thing that would hap­pen but, I’m a bit like So­phie, I never even thought about it un­til some­one brought it to my at­ten­tion.”

O’Sul­li­van adds that she doesn’t make com­par­isons be­tween their achieve­ments and things have changed a lot since she was So­phie’s age.

“At this age I think it’s ir­rel­e­vant re­ally. It’s such a dif­fer­ent time, the way that kids look at ath­let­ics. When I was grow­ing up, you ran to win and you didn’t re­ally think too much about what time you were run­ning whereas from a young age now, peo­ple are fo­cused on time,” she ex­plains.

“They have stop­watches from a much younger age than I ever had. It’s quite dif­fer­ent. It’s gives them in­cen­tive to try and beat their time but it’s also im­por­tant that that’s not the only fo­cus be­cause they need to learn how to race when they’re grow­ing up.

“That’s one thing I do no­tice a lot with So­phie is that she doesn’t try hard in ev­ery race. There’ll be some races where she’ll try much harder than oth­ers. Some races would be much more im­por­tant to her and that’s re­ally good be­cause if you’re out there and you’re killing your­self ev­ery race then you’re go­ing to run out of en­ergy pretty quickly.”

De­spite So­phie’s suc­cess, O’Sul­li­van, who led out the Great Pink Run ear­lier this month, is keen to en­sure that ath­let­ics is some­thing that she wants to do and that she con­tin­ues to en­joy it as a so­cial out­let.

Train­ing group

“I started cross-coun­try in pri­mary school and also played soc­cer and basketball. I now train with my school, Wes­ley Col­lege, and we have a re­ally nice train­ing group and also meet with an­other group of girls on a Thurs­day with my school coach, Tim O’Shaugh­nessy,” So­phie says.

So­nia O’Sul­li­van says that she was of­ten asked if she had con­sid­ered whether her chil­dren would be­come ath­letes, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of her­self and her run­ning coach hus­band, Nic Bideau.

“I never thought what it would be like [if my chil­dren were in­ter­ested in ath­let­ics]. I was asked the ques­tion lots of times by dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It’s some­thing that peo­ple like to do when they’re do­ing in­ter­views,” she re­calls.

“It’s not like the Wil­liams sis­ters when they were play­ing ten­nis. For their fa­ther it was in his mind all the time that he was go­ing to make them into the great­est ten­nis play­ers of all time, whereas I never re­ally thought about that. My feel­ing is that what­ever the kids want to do I’ll help them out and en­cour­age them. It makes life eas­ier for me if they do some­thing that I un­der­stand like ath­let­ics be­cause you un­der­stand it with­out think­ing.”

How­ever she does ad­mit that did en­joy see­ing her daugh­ter So­phie run­ning around the track named in her mother’s hon­our on a re­cent trip to Ire­land this sum­mer.

“I took her up to the track in Cork, the one that’s named af­ter me, and had her run around there so that was a bit of a nov­elty,” she re­calls.

So­nia O’Sul­li­van’s el­dest daugh­ter Ciara (18), is in her fi­nal year of study­ing and more fo­cused on achiev­ing good grades in her ex­ams, some­thing which her mother fully sup­ports.

“Ciara did ath­let­ics in school but never re­ally en­joyed it. They’re just typ­i­cal teenage girls and they be­lieve what they’re do­ing is right. You just try your best to guide them in it as best you can,” she says.

O’Sul­li­van be­lieves that, al­though ge­net­ics play a part, the child needs to be pas­sion­ate about the sport.

“I’m sure ge­net­ics must play some part, but I think you also have to nur­ture the ge­net­ics and the child has to want to do the sport as well. I never cared that Ciara didn’t run. I think for her health, ex­er­cise is of huge ben­e­fit and I would en­cour­age that, but it doesn’t have to be on a com­pet­i­tive level,” she says.

Dr Giles War­ring­ton, a se­nior lec­turer in Sport and Ex­er­cise Phys­i­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, says that while ge­net­ics are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for some dis­ci­plines, the abil­ity needs to be nur­tured.

“The na­ture ver­sus nur­ture de­bate is an on­go­ing one and when we talk about ath­letic per­for­mance it re­ally is a com­bi­na­tion of both – your ge­netic en­dow­ment and also the en­vi­ron­ment in which you’re within,” he ex­plains.

“There’s of­ten a quote made by a fa­mous sports sci­en­tist who once said, ‘If you want to be­come an Olympic cham­pion, you choose your par­ents care­fully.’

Ex­treme events

“In most cases, while ge­net­ics are im­por­tant, I think the en­vi­ron­ment in which some­body is brought up – the train­ing you do and so on – is also im­por­tant. It is a com­bi­na­tion but clearly ge­net­ics plays a very im­por­tant part in the ex­treme events like for the 100m sprinter or the marathon run­ner. Their ge­netic makeup would be very im­por­tant.

“The genes you in­herit from your par­ents are im­por­tant but it’s also im­por­tant how you ex­press those genes in terms of things like the train­ing that you do, your life­style.”

He uses the ex­am­ple of the swim­mer Michael Phelps, who has 28 Olympic medals, 23 of which are gold.

“If you look at his make-up, he’s very tall – he’s about 1.93/1.94m. He has a very long torso and rel­a­tively short legs. He’s got size 14 feet so he’s ef­fec­tively got flip­pers and he has a very, very long arm span. He’s got the arm span of an al­ba­tross. His arm span is prob­a­bly about 1.95/1.97m. He’s got very long arms but also he’s got dou­ble-jointed an­kles and wrists so he’s prob­a­bly ge­net­i­cally as close as you’re go­ing to get to a

‘‘ I might make a com­ment on a race or some­thing like that or I might make a sug­ges­tion of some­thing she might do and she acts like she’s not lis­ten­ing to me

fish,” he ex­plains.

“To say that you can dumb it down though and it’s all due to ge­net­ics would be wrong. It’s re­ported that when he was in peak train­ing he was train­ing for up to six hours a day. It’s how those genes are be­ing ex­pressed and other things like nu­tri­tion and life­style.”

Dr War­ring­ton says So­phie’s home life of­fers the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for her tal­ent to thrive.

“So­phie has a fam­ily that are pas­sion­ate about ath­let­ics and that’s go­ing to have a pos­i­tive ef­fect be­cause ob­vi­ously she would’ve in­her­ited some of So­nia’s genes as well which will ben­e­fit her. A key part is go­ing to be a sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment that’s go­ing to help nur­ture that po­ten­tial ge­netic en­dow­ment,” he adds.

Dr Ciara Losty, a lec­turer in ap­plied sport and ex­er­cise psy­chol­ogy at Water­ford In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, adds that it’s help­ful that So­phie isn’t con­cerned about her mother’s suc­cess.

Sen­si­ble prac­tice

“It’s re­ally pos­i­tive that So­phie doesn’t re­ally con­sider what her mother achieved, this is So­phie’s ath­letic jour­ney and “do­ing her own thing” sounds like re­ally sen­si­ble prac­tice from a 16-year-old ath­lete,” she says.

So­nia and Nic keep the par­ent­ing and coach­ing sep­a­rate, trust­ing So­phie’s trainer at school to lead her in the right di­rec­tion, some­thing Losty advises for other sport­ing par­ents.

“One key sug­ges­tion for sen­si­ble suc­cess­ful sport­ing par­ents is to re­mem­ber that they are a par­ent first, not a coach. When a par­ent – suc­cess­ful in sports or not – starts dol­ing out coach­ing ad­vice, they are blur­ring the lines, de­priv­ing the child of a par­ent and adding one too many coaches to the pool,” she says.

“From my ex­pe­ri­ence elite ath­letes will of­ten talk about hard work, graft and the com­mit­ment they had to put into their sport to sep­a­rate them­selves from other ath­letes like them.

“It’s of­ten other par­ents, coaches and jour­nal­ists who seek out com­par­isons and add pres­sure on the suc­cess­ful child ath­lete.

“As a par­ent, it’s part of your role to keep things in bal­ance and things in per­spec­tive for your child, and when ap­pro­pri­ate maybe share ex­pe­ri­ences when they found it tough in their sport or failed in their sport. Par­ents can fur­ther as­sist skill de­vel­op­ment by en­cour­ag­ing their chil­dren to think about what skills they are gain­ing from sport and not em­pha­sis­ing win­ning and los­ing, but chat­ting about their child’s ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Emo­tional sup­port

Dr Losty adds that par­ents should re­as­sure their child that their sup­port, emo­tional and tan­gi­ble, will be there for them when they need it. She also warns against us­ing la­bels.

“As a par­ent be care­ful about us­ing de­scrip­tors and la­bels like, ‘There goes our lit­tle win­ner’, that em­pha­sise only part of your child’s iden­tity. They are not al­ways win­ners, and they cer­tainly don’t al­ways lose,” she says.

“Your chil­dren are only ath­letes some of the time. How­ever, they can still com­pete in ev­ery­thing they do. They can com­pete in aca­demics, pay­ing at­ten­tion, mu­sic prac­tice and play­ing sports. Em­pha­sise that com­pet­ing means com­pet­ing against your­self, not any­one else.

“Sports are about win­ning, but they’re also about los­ing, learn­ing and get­ting bet­ter. No one likes los­ing, but it isn’t fa­tal. We help build our chil­dren’s men­tal tough­ness by al­low­ing them to ex­pe­ri­ence set­backs and deal with ad­ver­sity. Too of­ten, as par­ents, we try to make it bet­ter. If we try to re­move their own­er­ship by blam­ing any­one else, we give an out, an ex­cuse.”


Above: For­mer Olympian So­nia O’Sul­li­van with her daugh­ter So­phie at Malahide Cas­tle Park run in April 2014; above right: So­phie O’Sul­li­van (pink shorts), on her way to win­ning the IMC Women’s 800 B race this year.

Michael Phelps: “If you look at his make up, he’s very tall – he’s about 1.93/1.94m. He has a very long torso and rel­a­tively short legs. He’s got size 14 feet so he’s ef­fec­tively got flip­pers and he has a very, very long arm span.”


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