Support and sacrifices of sports parents

From driving them to training sessions, cheering them on at competitions to boosting their spirits when the going gets tough, parents of up-and-coming sports talent expend much time, energy and money to support their children’s sporting career.

Some of these parents not only inspire or encourage their children to excel in sports, they personally take on the task of coaching and training their potential sports stars.

Globally, Tiger Woods, 35, had his late father and mentor Earl to thank for his strength and mental prowess on the golf course. The 14-time major champion and former world No.1 credited his dad – who passed away in 2006, aged 74, after a long battle with prostate cancer – with helping him develop the drive to succeed.

The star, who suffered a fall from grace and form following his well-documented infidelities and subsequent divorce last year, has said that his dad’s role, as well as his mother’s, was that of support and guidance, and not interference.

Then there are the famous Williams sisters of tennis – Venus, 31, and Serena, 30 – who have been managed and coached by dad Richard from the start of their careers in the 1990s.

Both sisters turned professional when they were 14 and went on to chalk up a slew of Grand Slam singles titles – Venus, seven, and Serena, 13. In addition, they partnered each other to snag a dozen Gland Slam doubles trophies.

Richard, 69, is known to practise unconventional training techniques and to have emphasised to his daughters that God is first, family second, education third, business fourth, and then only tennis.

Closer to home, our own waterskiing darling Aaliyah Yoong, who, at eight, made history last month as the youngest ever SEA Games gold medallist, was mentored by her father Hanifah.

The 63-year-old water-skiing coach and operations director is also instrumental in producing winners in Aaliyah’s half-brother Alex Yoong, 35, also a former F1 driver, and half-sister Philippa, 33.

The siblings clinched a total of eight medals, including four golds, in water-skiing events at the recent Games in Indonesia. Hanifah has also repeatedly said that the family won’t intensify efforts to push the precocious Aaliyah to success. She will instead be guided to develop and grow at her own pace.

What is it like being in the shoes of such parents? Are they fiercely pushy or coolly relaxed in their raising of their sporting kids? How involved are they – personally, emotionally, financially – in nurturing the talented lot?

We find out from a couple of established stars and their aspiring young counterparts.

With daddy in the bowling alley

Having your father as your coach can be daunting, especially if he is also the national coach.

However, Esther Cheah would probably not be a two-time world bowling champion if not for dad Holloway, a former national bowler and 1978 Asian Games champion.

Esther first caught media attention when she became the youngest to bag the gold medal in the Women’s World Championships in Aalborg, Denmark, at the age of 19 in 2005. She was the first Malaysian female bowler to become world champion.

In 2006, she won the female Olympian of the Year after her outing at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, where she won two golds and two silvers. In the 2007 SEA Games in Korat, Thailand, Esther earned three gold medals.

The 25-year-old, who missed the recent SEA Games due to a foot injury sustained after falling from the team bus, used to, as a young child, follow her dad to the bowling centre in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, where he worked as a coach and manager.

Esther with dad Holloway.

She started learning the fundamentals when she was seven, and eventually made it to the national team when she was in Form Four. Holloway remembers consciously trying not to rush his daughter into competitions.

“Other coaches had earlier proposed to put her into the national youth team but I said no. I wanted to develop her basic skills first. In bowling, that’s very important,” says Cheah, 69, when met at the Megalanes Endah Parade bowling centre in Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur.

Hence, Esther only took part in major competitions when she was 16, becoming world champion three years later.

“God gave her the talent, but she also trained very hard and did not neglect her studies at the same time,” adds Holloway with pride. (Esther has a psychology degree from the Nebraska-Lincoln University in the United States.)

Is it tough having this close family connection in the team?

“I draw the line very clearly. Inside the bowling alley, she is just one of my bowlers and there is no issue of favouritism,” asserts the man who currently has 11 female and six male national bowlers under his charge.

Holloway says that, in fact, in the earlier years, he expected Esther to train harder than her peers and produce better results.

“Since I am her coach and father, I had higher expectations of her and I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on her. Many kids quit the sport due to too much pressure,” he admits.

Esther reveals that quitting did indeed cross her mind twice, and she would have done so if not for her mum’s encouragement.

“Her mother is the main force behind her career and should be the one credited for her success. I only provided the technical aspects,” says Cheah of his homemaker wife, Joy. How then is it like for Esther to have her father as coach and national coach?

“The best part is he knows my game, as he has been training me from the start. We also communicate better since I know him so well. However, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt and we do butt heads over the technical aspects of the game,” says the bowler who has three older brothers aged between 26 and 38.

“When I was younger, Dad was very strict with me. And when I got scolded, I would feel like quitting. Mum, who’s my emotional and spiritual support, acted as the mediator between us.”

While urging parents to be involved in their child’s sporting life, Holloway advises them to offer their support but not put undue pressure on the kid, and to leave the training aspects to the coach.

“The National Sports Council provides masseurs, physiotherapists and psychologists now.

“During my time, there was no such support.

“Therefore, all parents need to do these days is to assist in time management, give emotional support, and help neutralise their pressure,” he says.

Double the effort

With two fledgling sports stars in the family, Amy Wong had her hands full with juggling her kids’ gruelling schedules.

The lady is mother to Olympian swimmer Daniel Bego and triathlete and former national swimmer Kimbeley Yap.

“When they were younger, my daily routine started with breakfast at 4.30am, pool training at 5am, a quick shower using bottles of mineral water at 6.30am, followed by a second breakfast in the car, and then off to school by 7.30am,” shares the 61-year-old who has four other children, two of whom were state athletes in their native Sarawak.

“Their schools were co-operative and with the help of home tuition and their siblings, they managed to balance studies with sports,” adds Wong, who used to run cross-country races while her husband Henry Bego, 60, was a state footballer.

Later on, when Daniel joined the elite squad and trained at Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur, and Kimbeley enrolled at a private school in Cheras, KL, life for Wong got even more hectic. Her day typically ended way past midnight as she’d reach home at 11pm and do housework later.

“I had a ‘room’ organised in my little van with proper bedding, foodstuff and newspapers. I even brought along the kids’ puppy because they missed their pet,” says the former staff nurse who dutifully went to all their competitions.

With Henry, an offshore dive technician who was only home four months in a year, Wong almost single-handedly took charge of the children’s affairs.

Amy Wong with the swimming aces in the family, Daniel Bego and Kimbeley Yap, at their home in Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur.

Thankfully, the kids have done the family and the country proud.

Daniel, 22, who took part in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, splashed to a resounding five-gold haul at the SEA Games in Laos the following year, shattering four SEA Games records and named best athlete.

His half-sister Kimbeley, 26, is a two-time SEA Games triathlon gold medallist. She became the first Malaysian to take part in three different sports in last month’s SEA Games – swimming, triathlon and cycling – though she did not win any medals. (Daniel, unfortunately, did not participate in this year’s SEA Games following a shoulder surgery earlier this year.)

“From day one when I started swimming and competing, my mother has been there for me financially and emotionally. Her support means everything to me,” says Daniel.

This year has been most challenging for Wong a s Kimbeley was treated for a slipped disc and Daniel had to undergo a correction of bone spurs in both shoulders.

“Emotionally, I was drained, going through the surgeries with them and feeling their frustrations of going from very active to suddenly temporarily disabled.”

Otherwise, these days, Wong’s schedule is considerably less hectic as she attends only major competitions and no longer needs to ferry her children about.

Looking back, Wong is grateful that the family, which now resides in Sri Petaling, KL, was able to finance Daniel and Kimbeley in their sporting endeavours, and maintain their ties.

“My husband and I wholly support them because it’s what they love to do. Along the way there are many other parties, like the National Sports Council and National Sports Institute, that help in cultivating their talent.

“I hope both of them are also learning as they grow and progress. When they fall, they need to get up and try harder. Only hard work gets anybody anywhere,” Wong says.

(Last month, at the Women and Sports Awards organised by the Olympic Council of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Amy Wong and Henry Bego received a trophy in recognition of their effort towards their children.)

Parental do's and don'ts

Frederick Tan, a sports psychologist formerly with the National Sports Institute, has seen it all – overzealous parents and critical or negative ones to the downright competitive.

Hence he can’t emphasise enough the importance of supportive parents and family members in a sportsperson’s life.

“The most common mistake parents make is putting a lot of competitive pressure on young athletes. We have seen so many athletes who were doing well and winning gold medals but all of a sudden, they retired from their sport because either mum or dad kept stepping up the pressure on them to win!” Tan reveals.

He adds that many parents are too controlling of their child’s life, leaving the young athletes no time for themselves or to socialise with schoolmates.

“I’ve counselled many athletes who call or knock on my door in the middle of the night, some ending up in tears when they talk about their lives.”

Tan: 'The most common mistake parents make is put a lot of pressure on young athletes.'

Tan, 55, now a director with the Penang State Sports Council, stresses that at the end of the day, the athletes themselves have to know how to handle pressure.

“They need to carry the fighting warrior spirit with them into the battlefield, and to believe in themselves that they can be champions. Parents need to keep encouraging, supporting, caring for and loving their kid even in defeat.”

Tan, who used to be a sports psychologist to Datuk Lee Chong Wei, applauds the badminton star’s family for giving him space to find joy and success on the court.

“I salute Chong Wei’s parents for bringing him up to be who he is today. They did not put any pressure on him when he was growing up. They let him enjoy and have fun playing badminton.

“His parents and siblings continued to give him all the support when he did not do well. That should be the way. ”

Shot at perfection

Sylvester San and Mary Anne Tiong are in an enviable position: They do not need to push their junior golfer son Paul to practise his game; instead, they are always having to ask the boy if he is done training for the day!

“He has always been a self-driven sportsman,” San, 48, says of his 15-year-old at an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Paul’s biggest achievements to date are being placed third at the Optimist International Junior Golf Championship, and second at the US Kids Golf Teen World Championship, both in the United States last year. He also won the 13th Sarawak International Junior Championship (boys category) last month. The lad, not surprisingly, calls himself a perfectionist.

“If I did not do well in a competition, I would stay back right after the game to practise perfecting my shots,” the jovial fella divulges.

Interestingly, the tanned teenager had been attracted to golf even before his parents started playing the game.

According to Tiong, Paul was still a diaper-wearing tot at two-and-a-half years old when he caught Tiger Woods playing in the US Masters on television.

“He was curious and asked me who Tiger Woods was, and why the camera was following him. After I explained to him, Paul told me that he was going to be like him,” the 44-year-old recalls.

On his fourth birthday, a relative gave him a toy golf set, and his parents discovered that Paul could hit very well with it.

Junior golfer Paul San (centre) is fortunate to have the solid backing of his parents, Sylvester and Mary Anne Tiong.

Paul, who is home-schooled and follows a self-paced US learning programme, began golf lessons when he was four-and-a-half. At nine, he started playing competitively.

The child is also lucky in the sense that his parents are able to allocate time and money in support of his passion.

Last year’s trip to the east and west coasts of the United States for competitions cost the family RM80,000. Annually, the couple spend at least RM50,000 for entry fees, flights and accommodation for local and regional tournaments.

San, a senior executive with an IT company, says that it’s easier to budget for a regular child’s four-year degree course.

“With golf involved, it’s a bottomless pit. You can go for as many tournaments as there are, and keep spending because he is an amateur now and needs all the experience,” says San, who caddies for his only child.

“However, golf is a game of life. Through it he has matured very fast and become a pretty astute and confident young man. We feel that whatever we spend is worth every cent, and is a life investment.”

Besides monetary commitment, the Sans are deeply dedicated to their son’s golfing ventures.

“We have no life,” laments Tiong. “In fact, I ask him all the time when he is going to quit golf!”

“The US trip may sound like fun, but we basically went from hotel to golf course, and back to hotel, most of the time. Can you imagine if I did not play golf? It’d be even worse,” quips Tiong, a homemaker who picked up the game along with her husband after Paul started playing it.

All things aside, Paul’s parents say they will leave it to the boy to decide how long he wants to be in competitive golf.

“We always tell him that we really don’t need him to play golf, but if he wants to continue, we will support him to the best of our ability. I always tell my son that if he wants to do something, do it well. My hope for Paul is very simple – that he becomes a good, useful citizen, whether he continues to play golf or not,” says the dad philosophically.

Pillar of strength

Her rigorous training regime sometimes worries her mum but 14-year-old national rhythmic gymnast Fatin Zakirah Jalany Zain is clear about her goals, and her concerned mother will just have to quietly offer her support and encouragement.

“Sometimes I feel heavy-hearted looking at her tight schedule and long hours of training,” admits Faridah Hamzah, 40, in Bahasa Malaysia during our chat at the National Sports Council gymnasium in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.

“But her performance keeps improving and she’s passionate about gymnastics. She is also a self-disciplined student, so I actually don’t have to do much but give her emotional and moral support,” the proud mum says, adding that Zakirah scored 5As in her UPSR examination.

The girl is currently ranked No.1 in the country under the junior category. At the Asean School Games held in Singapore in July, she took home an impressive two golds and two silvers. She also bagged three golds in the National Open Championships 2011.

Her focus is on the next Commonwealth Games in 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.

The strain of training and competition may get to her at times but Fatin Zakirah remains single-minded in her mission, with her mother Faridah Hamzah (pic below) standing by her.


The soft-spoken lass first took up gymnastics at age seven at SK Convent (1) Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur, making it to state level soon after. “I chose the sport because it is interesting and fun; and gymnasts look pretty with leotards and make-up,” shares the girl whose idol is Russian rhythmic gymnast Evgenia Kanaeva.

The teenager’s sporting journey is anything but a walk in the park. Currently a student of the Bukit Jalil Sports School in KL, she follows a strict weekday schedule that begins with ballet classes at 7am before school from 9.30am to 2.40pm. From 3.30pm to 7.30pm, it’s training and then a two-hour night class that ends at 10pm. The petite girl also has to adhere to a strict diet to keep her weight at an ideal level for the sport.

“Sometimes I am tired and feel the pressure. But I still look forward to going for competitions,” says Zakirah.

Her devoted mum visits Zakirah almost every day during her afternoon training, and stays until 8pm before driving her child back to her hostel.

Needless to say, Faridah, a former advertising executive, is present at every competition. Occasionally, she accompanies Zakirah to go jogging on Saturday mornings at Bukit Commonwealth, Bukit Jalil. But on Sundays, she makes it a point to take her daughter out with the family to help her chill and take her mind off gymnastics.

Faridah, whose husband is an IT executive, admits that due to Zakirah’s active involvement in the sport, she has less time to spend with her younger daughter, Fatin Julaita, 10.

“I feel guilty about it but it’s something I have to do for Zakirah.”

When the pressure of training and competition intensifies, Faridah will calmly encourage the youngster to continue on.

“I always advise her to stay on because she has already spent so many years training and competing, and set her sights on the Commonwealth Games. After that, she can decide what she wants to do,” says the mother-of-two.