Tennis star Laura Robson remembers her best teacher

The one-time Great Britain No 1 and Olympic silver medallist remembers how this Mrs Pepperpot-like nun helped keep her tennis training on track with kindness and understanding

Kate Bohdanowicz

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Sister Sheila was an Irish nun who taught at St Catherine’s, a Catholic school in Twickenham, south-west London. She was a kindly, friendly, Mrs Pepperpot-type character who was there for me between the ages of 6 and 13, after which the tennis became more serious and I left to be homeschooled.

Sister Sheila was in charge of the assemblies and she also taught religion. She didn’t wear a nun’s habit but I remember she always wore the same blue shoes and a dark blue blazer. She must have been in her late-sixties and her grey hair was pinned to the top of her head in little ringlets. She was very short: by the age of 10, I was taller than her.

Although Sister Sheila was clearly not sporty herself, she understood that I was and was very helpful in those early years. I started playing tennis at about five years old. As I got older, I would train for an hour and a half from 6am, so most days I would come to school half an hour late. She understood. Equally, when I had to miss a class to go to a tournament on a Friday, she’d help me catch up out-of-hours. She made life a lot easier for me.

I know Sister Sheila saw me play a couple of times in the morning. At that stage it was all quite jokey. Teachers would say, “You’ll be playing Wimbledon one day.” We’d laugh as you never expect to get there but it became a reality.

Aside from tennis, my other love was ballet and I was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London. However, when I was about 12 and everyone my age was starting to wear pointe shoes, I found it hurt so much that I never touched ballet again. You would get blood blisters on the top of your toes. Everyone complains about tennis blisters but this was a different level.

The following year, I started taking tennis more seriously. I did make sacrifices, but I enjoyed playing so much it didn’t feel as though I was missing out. I sacrificed lessons in art and music but I was never good at either of those, so it was probably for the best.

The only downside to playing tennis was that I trained on the other side of London from school. This meant I was travelling back and forth every day and eating three meals a day in the car. There were six or seven other kids of the same age in the same position, so we made the decision to be homeschooled.

A teacher would come in to where we were training between 10am and 2pm, and sometimes she’d come to my house, too.

I left St Catherine’s at about the same time as Sister Sheila retired, but sadly she died a week later. It’s a shame that she never saw me make a success of my tennis as she had always been so encouraging. She was there to help me out when I needed it and I appreciated that. I have fond memories of her.

Laura Robson is an ambassador for Nike and was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. Nike has collaborated with sport and education experts to create a guide for school leaders on how to bring activity into the school day. Download it from TES Resources

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Kate Bohdanowicz

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