Three things happened this week to give me pause. My son scored 3 hat-tricks at football. I had the worst game of golf I have ever had (and believe me, my bar is lower than Hillary Clinton on November 9th 2016). And the same son won a prize for longest drive at his golf class. Combine this with the fact that both my sons now have me for pace over 10 yards (I’m built for distance not speed) and I have realised, like many fathers, that it is probably time to pass on my sporting dreams to the next generation.
And those dreams have always been modest. I’ve only ever wanted to be competent enough to compete. Unfortunately this was not to be. The closest I came to sporting glory was being in a sculling final at school where a commanding lead was turned into total humiliation by an angry swan (I shit you not) causing me to capsize about 50m from the finish. Unlike most blokes I’ve met, I’ve never played ‘semi-pro’, ‘done a trial for Arsenal’, ‘played for the County’ or been remotely close to playing for England in anything.
I’ve never played football (my school was so posh you got Gated for merely suggesting it), was a 3rd XV rugby player at best, a very average rower and once came 3rd in ‘Throw the Cricket Ball’ on Sports Day. I’m not bitter… but I was at a school that put sporting prowess ahead of academia (much more me, that) and didn’t invest in ‘average’ or ‘below average’, instead singling out the most naturally-talented, coaching them to relative excellence and allowing the chaff like myself to rot in the fields.
This, along with a disappointed stepdad who wanted me to be good at rugby, has given me a unique philosophy on Boys and Sport (*I say boys, not because I see any difference in the ability of boys and girls to do sport but because I am a boy myself and only have experience of bringing them up – I’d hope this post is relevant to dads of girls too).
Here’s what I reckon:
1/ It’s Not the Taking Part that Counts – God save us from the ‘Everyone’s a Winner’ brigade. No. They’re. Bloody. Not. My swan-induced failure haunts me (personally) I’m sure as much as Southgate’s penalty miss or Henman’s Wimbledon failure. I know from watching the animal competitiveness of my two boys, whether about who gets down the stairs first or who has the fattest tummy, that winning is an animal instinct (believe me, we don’t nurture it – I don’t go around the house boasting about the size of my stomach). I know from the way my son’s face lights up when he tells me about the goals he’s scored, that winning is the essence of sport (it fuels the joy, his passion). So, regardless of what they encounter at school, I’m going to be doing my best as a Dad to celebrate the art of winning. This will not extend to a) making them stay in the garden in the snow until they’ve scored their daily quota of 100 goals; b) flogging them with birch twigs when they lose; or c) stabbing the ref with a rusty spoon. It will, though, involve extolling the values of teamwork, consoling them constructively when they lose and making sure winning is fun.
2/ Teamwork Makes the Dream Work – this has become a bit of a mantra in our house (instigated by the Irish Pankhurst) and it is something my sport-obsessed stepdad impressed on me from an early age. Sport can teach kids about more than the joy of winning. Amongst other things, it can teach them social skills, the power of camaraderie and how working together is more fun than working alone. It’s also a great conflict-resolver and tool for common understanding (a WHOLE other post). Although my eldest has taken ‘goal hanging’, ‘nose bleeds’ and ‘poaching’ to new heights, I’m sure he’ll learn eventually about the power of passing the ball. And as someone who missed out on a lot of this (the closest I got to a team-mate in sculling was that fucking swan), who’s often looked enviously at friends’ team dynamics and who’s come to appreciate sport later in life, I want to make sure my kids get the full benefit. And I think the way to do this is to make sure they start a sport, where possible, with their friends – a team already formed.
3/ Leave your Dreams at the Door – as I said above, I’ve never harboured realistic sporting dreams myself. But I doubt there’s a Dad who doesn’t (secretly) hope their child will sustain them into old age with the millions made from sport, music, acting or other suitably famous career. And who doesn’t want their kids to be successful? We all do. However, lumbering your kids with your own dreams and ambitions – academic, sporting or otherwise – will only end in tears. As a friend of mine testifies as he watches his (gifted) son perform alongside the (less gifted) son of an England rugby legend on the rugby pitch (can you IMAGINE the bloody pressure). I’ve had to nip in the bud any aspirations to see my eldest making the scoring pass to my youngest in the World Cup Final at Twickenham. So I’m resisting all natural urges to be a Pushy Parent, leaving my dreams on the doorstep and allowing my children to learn through fun – childhood is, after all, for being a child, not professional sport.
4/ Let them Experiment – having been pressured into playing rugby despite not really enjoying it and having tried (and failed) to make my eldest like it (notably on a -4°C December morning), I have finally learnt my lesson. Even the slightest of nudges can have the opposite effect. Not only might it make them actively dislike it, it risks damaging their confidence. So my view is to let them try everything – football, gymnastics, tennis, cricket, even bloody golf. Because, at 3 or 5 at least, life’s about trying stuff out. Because, whilst there might not be a future Jason Robinson or Owen Farrell in there, there might be a future Baryshnikov, a Tiger Woods Justin Rose, a Max Whitlock, a Jo Konta or Ben Stokes a Joe Root. And because you never know what they’re going to take to – and when they take to something, that’s where the magic happens.
5/ Get involved – against my better judgment and despite the fact that a) I have never played in my life and b) I puff like Snoop Dogg every time I try to keep up (in vain) with my 3yo over 10 yards, I have been unwittingly drawn into the world of amateur football coaching. This means getting up early on a Saturday to do a 90m football training session with 20, hyperactive and (sorry parents) pretty feral 5 year olds. This is a step up from the hour’s running up and down the garden trying not to slide tackle my children into the fence. It involves ‘technical carousels’ & sophisticated drills that have come down the pipes from a Championship coach who helps us. I thought it was going to be a nightmare. Surprisingly, despite the obvious challenge of maintaining authority over (and keeping up with) 20 under 6s, it’s pretty fun. And it also fuels my son’s enjoyment – he sees me involved and enjoys it even more. So it’s OK to pick up a whistle and get involved, even if your own sporting ability makes Eddie the Eagle look like Ronaldo.
So there you have it – sporting advice from someone who has absolutely no sporting talent and whose greatest sporting adversary was an angry swan. Just what you needed.