Monthly Archives: January 2013

Boys’ talk

Outdoor evening practice in the winter for no1 son’s football club means a trip to another town. It’s not a popular duty and so parents band together. I take my turn every fourth week.

While I spend a lot my time around kids, the commute there and back each month is a different kind of exposure. I experience them up close, interacting on their own terms.

Each journey I’m reminded how life amongst peers for boys is a struggle for oneupmanship. At times it’s physical as blows are exchanged and throttling manoeuvres essayed on the back seat. Other times it’s blatant belittling and mocking. In these journeys I’m monitoring for a fair distribution of animosity, to make sure no individual is bearing the brunt.

But it does remind me of my school days, where the safest tactic was pre-emptive mocking. If you weren’t speaking derisively of somebody else, you’d risk being the object of scorn.

This year, my passengers are all grammar school boys. A different group of no1 son’s friends and a big reduction in aggression. But the oneupmanship is still the thread of every conversation. Music, computer games, TV, football, films, even schoolwork are dealt with in a series of position statements, usually escalating in whatever value is deemed important. There’s no exchange or synthesis or growth, but a trade in positions, a jostling for hierarchy. One subject seems to have primacy, appears most capable of defining status: mobile phones. It’s not the phone each lad owns that is the determinant, but what they know about their own, each others’ and their mates’ devices. Knowledge and the convincing articulation of things ‘known’ are their currency.

And if that sounds too precious for a group of boys travelling to and from football training, let it be understood that they are never more than one careless sphincter away from raucous celebration and condemnation of their flatulence.



Filed under social animals

The art of supporting, while not supporting

Cards on the table: I watch my children play sport because I enjoy it and I enjoy the social life that emanates from it. It is not a coincidence, I think, that my children want me to watch them play sport, and even get bad-tempered if I’m not able to. I put that down to practising the art of supporting, while not supporting.

Inside, as I watch the boys on the football field, or the 1&onlyD doing gymnastics, I am yearning for them to do well. I want that rush of pride that comes from these small extensions of yourself performing some athletic task well. I want it for them, but I won’t pretend I don’t also want it for me.

The art of supporting, while not supporting comes down to suppressing the response of the football supporter to something wonderful that the team or player you associate with has done. And it definitely means silencing the frustration when things haven’t gone well.

Presence is the first rule of supporting, while not supporting. But presence without noticing is hollow. I perform a duty for some touchline Mums – letting them know when their son has performed well and providing them some words to describe what they may have seen but not noticed.

I’m quieter than the average touchline parent, but not silent, just selective about my comments audible on the pitch. I never shout at my off-spring. I never give them advice. I don’t call their attention to praise them.

“Shut up, Dad,” I’ve heard players turn from the game to throw back at their father. I’ve seen sons blank their dads and turn away as some significant advice or insight is being tendered from beside the pitch.

I applaud the team or shout general encouragement if they are looking down. But communication with my sons is discrete: a nod if they look in my direction; a thumbs up; always a smile.

I found an articulation of this approach in quite an unlikely place – the twitter account of a man who curses an opponent while on live microphone:

Shane Warne@warne888

From my point of view being involved in sport for 35 years, trust me when I say the best thing a parent can do is say “well done” in private

But I believe Shane’s right – that’s the essence of supporting, while not supporting. Whether I’ll feel the cost of these suppressed emotions in some stress-related illness in the future is unknown.


Filed under parenting

Obsessed Dad

You may be raising an eye-brow: I’m writing a blog about my children’s sporting activities, yet the subject of this post isn’t me. No, I’m not obsessed, not in the way Obsessed Dad is.

Obsessed Dad has a very talented young footballer son, with a sweet left-foot, an array of goal celebrations and general mastery of the drama that is the beautiful game. He trains with two of our big, neighbouring premier league clubs.

Obsessed Dad struggles with the task of not talking about his son. He has a measure of control, away from the touchline, so conversations begin with him asking how no.2 son is getting on. I’ll give a non-committal, we’re only here for the fresh air type of answer, but before I’ve fully conveyed the subtlety of my response, he’s away, initially with some understated view that ‘yes, the boy’s doing OK, alright,’ before detailing how his lad played the week before and the goals he did and didn’t score.

When no.2 son wanted to invite the off-spring of Obsessed Dad to his party, I ensured Mrs TL’s number was on the invitation. Fellow dads on the touchline tell me how Obsessed Dad rings them repeatedly to find out how their sons are getting on and having prised open the telephone line out pours his latest bulletin on his own son.

I floored Obsessed Dad at one training session. I asked what his daughter did at secondary school. That was a subject on which he showed no expertise.

On the touchline, during a competitive game, Obsessed Dad is frantic. He paces. Words erupt out of him, “GO ON SON!” “YOU’RE IN THERE, MAKE THIS ONE COUNT”. Then suddenly self-conscious and looking for reassurance, a muttered, “He did well there, the boy. Didn’t he?”

Recently Obsessed Dad has been coming to training sessions accompanied. There’s a baby. A boy. How will this affect his obsession, I wonder. Maybe if the older son doesn’t make it, Obsessed Dad has a second, no third chance.


Filed under parenting, touchline zoo

Scouted and booted

Young H was the pick of the crop in no.1 son’s cohort of starter footballers (aged 5). He ran with the fluency of an older boy when most of his peers still had some infant malcoordination. And he was skilful on the ball and brave in the tackle. H was the player all the boys wanted on their team. On occasions, he was traded up a year to stiffen one of our club’s older teams.

When H was aged 6, a scout from a local premiership club approached the coach, who chatted to H’s Dad. Burying his animosity towards the premiership club – rivals to the team he and H supported – his Dad excitedly accepted the opportunity to train with the pro club’s academy. For seven or eight months, H attended this extra coaching and his game progressed.

One Saturday morning, H’s Dad confided that, although the affiliation with the pro club was going well, he feared it would soon end. H was a very quiet lad, without any of the bravado of many as talented as he. The club had told the parents that in the New Year they would select the boys they would continue to coach. The decision would not be based upon talent, as that was a given, but on attitude. H’s Dad was right, as his son’s diffidence told against him and he was cut.

Parenting other people’s children is (hypothetically) easy – it’s your own that are problematic. H’s Dad made the decision not to tell his son outright what had happened, but let him come to understand by no longer going to training on Friday nights.

H came to understand and the effect was upsetting. Not only was his confidence burst, but any joy he had taken from football disappeared. The diffidence of his personality became the way he played. At the stage the team was starting regular competitive matches he slipped out of the starting line-up. He moped and looked uncomfortable and unwilling. His play went backwards more rapidly than it had developed when expertly coached.

His Dad offered him the chance to stop playing. H said he still wanted to come and for months after being booted from the premiership training squad, watching him beside his Dad could be excruciating – although his Dad contained his own disappointment, which was genuinely at watching his son seem so unhappy at play. Away from football, he became passionate about skateboarding and this, his Dad reported, helped him regain some confidence.

One day in a match, maybe two years after the booting, H collected the ball close to the half-way line. Like Michael Owen against Argentina, he glided past three defenders and shot cleanly past the keeper. It was a breath-taking goal. Daft as it may sound when writing of a boy still so young, but the spirit of the five year-old had returned.

H’s Dad wasn’t at that game. It would be a cheap psychological point to link the two, which I sincerely believe would be false.

H is still a first team player at the club. He’s really very good, but like so many kids, the outstanding ability he showed when very young hasn’t persisted. What’s sad is that there is such a clear cause to that uneven development. Expectations raised at a young age, then quickly dashed. And what do professional clubs want with six year olds anyway?


Filed under individual development, scouted

Favourite things

Revelling in the kids’ sporting achievements is a bit of a guilty secret. But, with the protection of anonymity, I’ll be candid. Many of each week’s highlights are things I have seen my kids do on the field or crash-mat of sport.

Each of my kids has a signature activity, which makes me sigh, then breathe a little deeper to savour the moment.

No.1 son has developed into a creative midfielder. In the hurly-burly of under 12s football, he has the presence to collect a ball, stun it, push it to his right and, sometimes without looking up, deliver a clipped pass into a space through or behind defenders. The way he changes the pace and direction of the game looks so much like grown-up football that whatever the outcome of the pass, it draws calls of praise from the Dads. As with each of these favourite things, I love to see it and just don’t know where that confidence on the ball has come from – which can only mean, it’s his.

The one & only D enjoys beam and bars but her best discipline is the floor. Say ‘diminutive’ in a squeaky voice and you begin to imagine the precious sight of the 1&onlyD venturing out onto the mat to perform a routine. Pale, wobbly like a foal on skinny legs and looking terribly vulnerable she finds her starting position and then the music starts and she’s away, tumbling and wheeling, posing and stretching. Where does that courage come from? From the delight she feels from challenging her body.

The football no.2 son plays is still untrammeled by roles and positions. But he has a favoured place: the ball in front of him. Quick and strong, he swoops on the untidy breakdowns that litter under 7s football and powers through or around opponents and team-mates into the unpopulated parts of the field, arcing towards the goal. There’s a force and anticipation to his play that has no obvious genetic source.


Filed under skills

Inside Touchline Dad

Here are a couple of rational, sensible and fairly unexceptional conclusions (in the right company) that I have reached about children’s sport:

  • Children should take part in sport to get exercise, develop physical skills, make friends and to have fun. They are doing it for themselves, not for the parents or the coaches, the club or the school.
  • Parents and coaches who bellow from the sidelines, criticise poor performance, place an emphasis on success and push kids towards specialising in a sport or a position in a team risk hindering their charges’ development.

And here’s what I feel in my heart, but you will read less often:

  • I take vast pleasure and pride in watching my children play and do well at sports. It’s a visceral feeling only very slightly removed from the pleasure I get from playing myself.
  • I know how competitive my children are, without any prompting from me, and that from a young age they have known that winning feels better than losing.

With three children, each heavily involved in one or more sports, my life is infused with the tension between my rational beliefs and my emotional responses. I also have plenty of opportunity to observe other parents and coaches as they navigate their way through junior sport.

Touchline Dad is where I write about my experiences and observations. I would be very interested to hear other parents’ and coaches’ views.


Filed under coach says.., parenting, sport gives us.., winning and losing