PE starts at home

Judy Murray tells Audrey Ward of the tricks parents can use to introduce kids to sport — as tested on her tennis-star sons

26 August 2012
Education; News Review

Long before the London Olympics, where she was seen fist-pumping the air as her son Andy won gold in the men’s tennis singles, Judy Murray was cheering him on as he played a far more basic version of the game.

In their kitchen in Dunblane, Stirling, Murray recalls, the family would “make a net with the cereal boxes across the kitchen table and use a couple of biscuit tin lids as rackets and a ping-pong ball”.

“If the table was set for dinner,” says Murray, “Andy and Jamie [his older brother] would play on the lino floor.”

What the three of them didn’t realise back then, of course, was that Andy and Jamie, now also a professional tennis player, were taking part in an impromptu coaching session.

World-class tennis players in the making, they weren’t just working on their agility and hand-eye co-ordination; the boys were also cultivating their competitive streaks. Nowadays when they join each other on the golf course or the tennis court, tempers still flare.

“It’s like going back to them being eight years old again. They’re always trying to find a way to get one up on each other. Jamie is a much better golfer than Andy, which, of course, kills Andy,” says Murray.

Having a mother who was also a tennis coach — she is currently Great Britain’s Federation Cup captain — gave the boys a sporting advantage when growing up. But, according to Murray, parents don’t have to be experts to help their children improve their sporting abilities.

“The Olympics has created a huge buzz,” she says. “The bottom line is that we need more kids taking part in sport — that for me is what the legacy of the Olympics should be. It starts at home with the parents and it continues in schools.”

Murray has pressed for more PE in primary schools. On classroom visits she says she has seen too many overweight children who lacked the co-ordination and skills even to catch and throw a ball.

Parents, she says, can help by practising simple sporting activities at home. To help co-ordination, she suggests starting out with throwing soft toys or cushions for children to catch, rather than a ball, which is harder to grasp.

Once children grow more confident, they can play with balloons filled with rice and be taught to throw at different angles rather than just forwards, or to balance objects such as a bean bag on their head before moving on to tougher challenges.

“If a child wants to take up a sport like hockey or tennis and they have never been used to having something in their hands before, it takes them a long while just to get used to handling equipment, never mind when the ball bounces and they’ve got to track it and then try and hit it,” says Murray.

“Jumping the river” is one of the games she played with Andy and Jamie to help them develop balance. All that is needed are two pieces of rope set some distance apart. The child stands on either edge of the “river” and jumps or hops over it. You can record the distance jumped with a tape measure and gradually increase the width of the “river” as their leg strength develops. To inject extra fun, she recommends putting toy sharks inside the ropes.

“Andy and Jamie used to love jumping over shark-infested waters,” she says.

Although cautious about entering into political debate, Murray says the sale of school playing fields should never happen without good reason. Last week it was revealed the government had approved the sale of 31 since May 2010 — 10 more than it had previously acknowledged.

“If schools are selling off playing fields, there needs to be a reason for it,” says Murray. “These sites need to be used. The thing that I would most like to see is more opening up of school facilities to local communities after hours and at weekends. Children and adults need places to play. Kids don’t go out and play football in the streets any more and park spaces often have signs which say, ‘No ball games’.”

So will Andy be taking his gold and silver Olympic medals into schools (he won the silver medal in the mixed doubles) to inspire children to take up tennis? Sadly, Britain’s best tennis player doesn’t have much time for school visits, his mother reveals.

“The tennis circuit is unbelievably demanding and he is hardly ever at home. Finding the time to do that will be difficult,” she says.

A return to the family’s home town of Dunblane with the medals around his neck, however, is a given. “I have no doubt he will go back to show his medals at some stage. It’s a chance for the town to be remembered for something happy,” says Murray, alluding to what she has previously described as the worst day of her life.

In 1996 Jamie and Andy were both in class at Dunblane primary school when Thomas Hamilton burst into the building and shot dead 16 children and a teacher before killing himself.

“Andy was eight when it happened and I think he was too young to understand. He watched a documentary on it a couple of years ago and he said that was the first time he had really grasped what happened. He then asked a lot of questions about it, which he had never done before.”

She says the town has recovered “unbelievably well” and the locals have been enthusiastic supporters of her boys.

“The pubs are open all day long when they play; there are big screens everywhere.Everyone is so proud of them,” says Murray, smiling.

“We have a gold postbox now and people have been queuing up to have their pictures taken with it.”