When my son started school, it’s fair to say that sport was not his thing. I’d dutifully trot along to football matches and cross country runs and watch as my boy lurked on the half-way line or jogged along at the back, chatting to his friends. There were a whole bunch of reasons why competitive sport was not for the boy in my life but all that changed on 8th August 2012.
Like just about everyone in the country, we LOVED the London 2012 Olympics and on the evening of 7th August, I’d bagged some hockey tickets on the returns website. We weren’t huge hockey fans (understatement!) but we wanted to get in on the Olympic experience. So, after a hideously early start, along we went and everything changed.
Now if this was a novel, Son would have turned to me during the match, with huge, earnest, shining eyes and said ‘I’m going to be an Olympian’. He would have chosen a sport and headed off down that one path with the kind of dedication that makes everyone shake their heads in wonder.
Well, this isn’t a novel and that’s not quite what happened.
The following summer, Son took cricket more seriously at school. He got pretty good. His school friends saw him a different light and he joined a local club. Nothing serious, nothing major but all steps forward.
The next spring, he picked up a hockey stick at school. That worked well. He was finding himself. Next season, he joined our local hockey club and played right through two seasons.
When he went to his senior school in September 2015, they picked up on his hockey skills. He went on the school hockey tour to Amsterdam, even though he was years younger than everyone else. He was playing and training at school and playing and training with his club and he loved it.
Then, in April 2016, he got in a rowing boat. Son’s school is most definitely a rowing school and, even though he had planned to just keep playing cricket, one of his best friends said that Son should just give rowing a go. Just one term. If he hated it, he’d never have to do it again but at least he would have tried. So he tried.
And that’s what your child gets from competitive sport. The ability to try.
Sport makes them try new things, things that they never would have or even imagined that they could have. It gives them a reason to be something or someone different. It allows them to try on a new version of themselves and see if they like it.
Sport lets them try out new kinds of company at matches and at training. Kids get to socialise with whole new crowds of people when they get involved with sport. They mix with others their own age group who might be from different schools and different backgrounds and yet they’ve all got something in common. Chat is easy to start with and it gets easier from then on in. Having a sporting outlet that’s not linked to school also means that when school gets tricky or times there get a bit rocky, they’ve got somewhere else to go and be themselves.
Competitive sport allows children to try out winning and losing. They might find that it feels better to lose a match with their mates having played really well than it does to win and not be so happy with their performance. They can try out losing and get used to learning from the experience. All of us lose at some point in our lives and it’s better that it happens in a safe environment when we’re young. Then those older-life losses aren’t so tough – we know how to bounce back and we know that however it might feel at the time, defeat isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it’s very very rarely the end of anything at all.
Playing competitive sport, at any level, allows children to try out new styles of learning. Do they learn better when someone shows them what to do or is trial-and-error more their style? Do they pick things up quickly and then practice on their own or do they like someone by their side until they’re really got the hang of it? This all carries over into the classroom and things can really improve when children understand themselves more. Add in the fact that a good, heart-rate-raising, endorphin-releasing run around makes those sit-still-and-concentrate mental workouts that much easier too.
Sport also lets children try out different ways of relating to adults. Coaches (and I’m one myself!) aren’t always teachers, they’re not family and they’re not friends. Everyone has to work out how to relate to each other and yes, sometimes your child might get it wrong. But they’re learning all the same and they’re learning around people who are good role models.
Competitive sport for children has come a long way since the school PE lessons of our childhood where you feared being the last to be chosen for the team and were shouted at for doing anything wrong
Competitive sport teaches children what it is to want to try and shows them that it works when they do. We can make them go to school, we can extoll the virtues of good exam grades and we can even take them along to sports clubs and book them in for classes but ultimately, they’ll decide for themselves if they want to try. They’ll then learn about working hard, working towards a goal and balancing that work with schoolwork too. They’ll develop their interest in their own way and they’ll want to try to make it work.
Sport can give children skills, friends, health, happiness, contentment, self-worth, a real-life social network and much more. Sport can make them get out of bed when on any other day, screeching alarms and all kinds of parental encouragement make no difference at all.
Sport can give your child all sorts of brilliant things. From experiences and laughter to ensuring there’s an outlet for their stresses and woes. It sets them up for a life where exercise is an everyday thing, not a resented or worryingly infrequent activity. We all know how great exercise and sport can be for our mental health and competitive sport adds another dimension to this. Wanting to be part of a team, wanting to try for others, wanting to try to get better so that the rest of the team benefits – now that’s a good lesson for life right there.
Of course, I know that sometimes competitive sport gets a bad rep. We’ve all heard the stories of kids being pushed too hard too quickly and we’ve also heard about (or maybe even seen) other parents shouting at umpires and referees or berating their young ones for not doing better.
But those things are not the fault of the child or the fault of sport. Those should be the things that are easy to manage and easy to fix. So perhaps there’s a lesson there about trying for us adults too. Trying to be more compassionate, more understanding and more like the kind of people we’d like our kids to become.
Competitive sport for children has come a long way since the school PE lessons of our childhood where you feared being the last to be chosen for the team and were shouted at for doing anything wrong. Coaches really recognise and reward endeavour and effort, praise good sportsmanship and, most importantly, have a lot of fun. We understand that, for some children, turning up to a training session where they don’t know anyone is a massive achievement. We’re trying to make sport something that your children will love. Let us have a chance to do just that.
Coaches, parents, teachers – we’re trying to add something great to children’s lives. We share the good bits, the not-so-good bits and the bits that are so brilliant, hilarious or downright unrepeatable that we’ll all remember them forever. There are memories made in the trying.
As for my sport-hating, standing-on-the-half-way line, accidentally-forgetting-his-kit, child, he took his friend’s advice. He tried rowing.
He was not great at rowing to be honest. He’s a bit lacking in the muscle department, a bit too short and a bit too (and I say this in a loving way) scrawny. Not a natural rower by any stretch of the imagination.
But he tried what his fantastic coach suggested. He tried coxing. He tried everything he could to learn more about it, he tried to get better to do the best for the boys in his boat, he tried to encourage them and motivate them, he tried different styles of racing and different things. He tried his best at competitions and he learned to win and lose.
In June 2017, he tried going to GB trials and a few weeks later, he tried on his GB Rowing kit for the first time.
Everyone in his boat tried their absolute best in their competition, for themselves, for each other and for the team and, when they won, I tried not to cry.