Monthly Archives: December 2013

Respect – walk the walk

respectThis blog is about the pleasure I get watching my children play sport. It also addresses some of the odd and obsessive behaviours of the parents and coaches I come across. In recent weeks, nasty and unpleasant behaviour has emerged. So, reluctantly, I come to write about my first experience of the sort of obnoxious behaviour that stigmatises junior football, features in local newspapers and was the target of the FA’s Respect campaign.

I dubbed the father of one of no.1 son’s teammates, Moaning Dad. Last month he had sounded off about the decision a boy made not to go in goal. Moaning is his default mode, but that was mean. This morning things got a lot worse.

The under 13 league fixture was very competitive, but edgy. The opponents were egged on by a large group of parents baying at their boys, with a coach calling every move from the opposite touchline. Early on the referee heard one of the opposition swearing at our player. The referee did something I’ve not seen before but longed to see done: he told the boy he had to go off. The boy swore at him and the referee calmly walked him across the field to his coach, whom he told to make a substitution. It was done undemonstratively – so much so I wondered if the boy was injured.

This, I believe, is exactly the sort of officiating junior football needs. The complicating factor was that the designated referee had failed to turn up and one of our coaches had taken the whistle. Added to this unusually assertive action was a penalty decision that set the other side’s parents against the referee.

In the second half, with the match balanced at 1-1 the swearing boy was allowed back on the pitch. He tangled with one of our players and kicks, punches were exchanged. As the referee rushed to separate the boys, Moaning Dad (for it was his son involved) strode onto the field, bellowing at his son to get stuck in, etc. Amidst the shouting, he was followed onto the pitch by I woman I guessed was the other boy’s mother. She screamed at Moaning Dad that he was a disgrace (fair point) and they spent five minutes hollering in each others’ faces.

As things calmed down, the coaches and referee quickly discussed abandoning the match, but decided to carry on. The referee got the boys together in the centre circle and laid down the law. The rest of the game was played, if not in good spirit, then without incident.

The club my sons play for has been a pioneer with the Respect agenda. In 2006, it attracted a lot of attention for adopting a ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach to inappropriate language and referee abuse. Other local clubs were encouraged (shamed?) to sign up. Trevor Brooking made a couple of visits to find out more and to recognise the initiative. The majority of coaches are attentive to the spirit of the commitment, but I have seen exceptions and sensed that the club is too big to keep a grip on the conduct of all of its teams, their players and parents.

Now, with Moaning Dad reported to the club, I wait to see whether it is prepared to back up its pristine policies and PR-friendly talk by walking the walk. If Moaning Dad is allowed to return to matches, it will have failed and I will be spending a lot less of my time on the touchline.

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Flaws and the floor

leotardThe one and only daughter (1&onlyD) swung on the uneven bars, battled for balance on the beam and would soon assault the vault in the annual club championship. Next though, for the 1&onlyD and her cohort of primary school gymnasts, was the floor routine.

The 1&onlyD has been thrilled by each new piece of equipment introduced to her gymnastic life: as a tot, the trampoline; then as play became training, the vault, the beam – first at ground level, then at head-height – and most recently the uneven bars. But it’s the apparatus without equipment – the floor – that has remained her favourite. It might be sheer enjoyment of the space, or simply that it’s less constrained, maybe even safer than the other disciplines.

She selected the music for her routine at the end of the summer: Bear Necessities. Then she began to construct the moves she would perform to accompany the music. A concoction comprising her favourite wheels, rolls, flicks, flips and splits linked by strides, leaps, steps and kicks. The routine grew in length and complexity at the twice weekly training sessions, but it was at home that the 1&onlyD pondered her options and trialled them in the concentrated space of our living room.

She counted down the training sessions until the championships, which fell in the same week as the first public performance of the school orchestra and recorder group. Playing violin and recorder played second fiddle to the gymnastics which was what really made her nervous. The 1&onlyD was anxious about the beam but the build up was really focused on the floor routine.

Her cohort included three girls she trains with regularly and a group of girls who train on another night. One of her peers, a little older, has an energy and elasticity that sets her apart. Finding she would be in the same group made the 1&onlyD sober about her chances of winning trophies. On the first apparatus, the uneven bars, Elastic Girl did swing with a speed, precision and assertion greater than the rest. Moving to the beam, all the girls wobbled and teetered, getting plenty of opportunity to show their graceful remounts. The 1&onlyD brushed off a couple of tumbles attempting simpler moves and completed a backward walkover intact.

And then the floor, where the 1&onlyD was the second gymnast to perform. She flitted all around the mat, forwards, backwards, speedily and slowly, on feet, hands, bum and back. Her pacing and gestures moving in concert with the music. Mrs DG, who had seen practice runs and discussed different moves, beamed. The applause, not just mine, seemed more sustained than for the gymnasts before or after her.

Several practice vaults, then one for real and the competition was over. The girls gathered on the mat in front of a foam rostrum and a table of trophies and medals. The 1&onlyD made it to the lower steps of the rostrum for bars and beam, with Elastic Girl winning gold. The medallists for the floor were announced: not bronze, then sighs of surprise – silver for Elastic Girl – could the 1&onlyD.. Before the thought was complete, a Monday night girl was up and taking the prize. A simple case of mistaken identity no.1 son quickly reasoned. Overall bronze was the reward for the 1&onlyD’s consistency, but it wasn’t savoured.

A few days later and the judges’ scores were posted on the gymnasium wall. How close had she been to a medal for her floor routine? Not close, but last.

All sports have scoring systems that exist a little askew from the aesthetic excellence of the most eye-pleasing performances. We’re familiar with the flowing passing move in football that slices apart a defence, but earning nothing if the final shot is angled a degree too tight or wide. The most sumptuous off-drive in cricket scores zero if intercepted by a fielder. Something similar operates in gymnastics, too.

The 1&onlyD’s routine was longer than that of her peers. It contained, with one exception, a greater diversity of movement and degree of difficulty than that of her peers. It turns out that slight misalignments of her limbs, repeated in the many tumbles, turns and twists, led to multiple deductions. There can be no complaint – the apparatus is there to test specific skills which the scoring system measures.

But the 1&onlyD is disappointed and I wonder what lesson she should learn. Clearly, as with any junior sport, the aim must not be to win at all cost. I would not want her to conclude, though, that there’s no return, no reward for boldness. Maybe a technical sport, like gymnastics, demands attention to detail ahead of risk-taking.

What I hope, when the disquiet passes, is that she can reflect on the satisfaction and joy she felt devising her routine, practising its intricacies and contortions, but not dwell on how it was received in competition.

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Filed under skills, winning and losing, young shoulders

In net

goal & goalieIt’s one of the curious facts of junior sport that approximately one in twelve children who wants to play football likes to be, in the vernacular of my region, in net. The replication of this statistic throughout the country keeps the game in balance: ten outfielders (give or take the odd substitute) and one goalkeeper. And on those occasions when the ratio is disturbed, the simmering emotions of the touchy touchline parents tend to boil over.

A couple of summers ago, no.2 son was playing a friendly end of season competition. With boys aged five or six, the club discourages specialisation and each player is rotated through the various positions – actually the two positions: not in net and in net.

No.2 son was part of a strong team, playing with several boys now part of the academy structure of local premier league clubs. The team won all their games. The coach was giving equal playing time to all and, notionally, asking the boys to play in different positions. All got to play in goal.

(There was actually one exception: no.2 son. In one of my greatest touchline faux pas, I had taken him to get a hot-dog, misreading the start time of the next match, missing his match in goal.)

Throughout the day there was a low but irritating buzz from a couple of parents – ObsessedDad and High-flyerDad – muttering about the coach and his tactics. But harmony beckoned in the form of a trophy for the winning team of a short knock-out between the best teams. How could we lose?

So, into the semi-finals our lads progressed, to meet a team featuring some boys familiar to those of our players attending pro-club academies. Then, as the boys lined up, there were gasps of disbelief. High-flyerDad’s lad, an uber-talent at six, had thrust his oversize hands into some infant goal-keeping gloves and stood between the sticks. The match resolved itself as a battle between him – every bit as outstanding in goal as anywhere else on the field – and the opposition. The rest of our team was swept away and out of the final.

The dads that had buzzed irritatingly all day, burst into condemnation of the coach and the club that had ‘wasted their whole day’ with this bizarre selection decision that had neutered our team. The coach tried to explain that High-FlyerDad’s son had volunteered to go in goal, but this was met with ridicule – what was he doing allowing the boy to decide?

And now roll forward to this morning. Another boy made a decision about being the goalkeeper. No.1 son’s team arrived at their under-13 league fixture without their regular keeper. The squad has another experienced goalkeeper and this was the lad who made the decision – not to play in goal.

The background seems to be that he played a game in net earlier this season and became very upset. He was on the verge of tears today when asked to play there again. Quite reasonably, the coaches did not force the issue and another volunteer stepped forward for the role at the back.

On the touchline, matters were not left to lie. The refusenik’s mother put up a defence of her son, which wasn’t based on him getting upset, but not getting enough game time as an outfielder. She was challenged on this and soon, then repeatedly, MoaningDad had shifted the focus from the mum to the boy: “If that was my son, I’d be across that pitch to sort him out. There’s no ‘I’ in team. Letting everyone down”, etc.

The boy making his very first appearance in goal was applauded loudly. Understandably he made a few errors – three in fact, but who’s counting? Each led directly to a goal, the third the decider in the last minute of a game heading for a 2-2 draw.

No.1 son reported that as the players and some of the parents gathered together immediately after the match, MoaningDad repeated bitterly his favourite adage, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”

A strongly worded email has arrived tonight from the coaches about an incident and parents’ behaviour.

From all this, we can conclude: parents have a very easy job at matches, but some do it very badly; coaches have a very difficult job at matches and won’t necessarily be appreciated if they do it well; and a lad (or lass) that likes to play in net is essential to the harmony, if not the success, of any team.

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