Are a mother’s genes a blessing?
Sophie O’Sullivan is following in her mother’s running shoes – we find out if the genes we inherit really matter in sport
Former Olympian Sonia O’Sullivan with her daughter Sophie at Malahide Castle Parkrun in April 2014. Photograph: Tomas Greally
There are many things we might attribute to our genetics – a fiery temperament, baldness, high cholesterol – however, 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 girl 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.
“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.’
“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 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.
“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 O’Sullivan and husband Nic keep the parenting and coaching separate, trusting Sophie’s trainer at school to lead her in the right direction, something Dr 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.”
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.”