Category Archives: skills

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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Out-sourced parenting

fishingThere is an ideal amongst fathers and budding fathers. The ideal is that, as fathers, they will teach their children the ways of the world. They will apply their experience to guiding their off-spring in how to cope with the challenges of life. They will share adventures and achievements.

In days gone by when an agricultural or craft economy predominated that was probably the reality of life in many families. Children would learn their family’s trade; knowledge and technique passed down the generations.

Industrialisation and urbanisation interrupted the pattern and that’s maybe when the idea of the father as primary guide became less of a reality and more of an ideal. It was no longer strictly necessary to the family’s subsistence or prosperity, but was the distinctive contribution of the Dad. And the skills subject to this idealised transfer were anachronistic: hunting, camping, fishing, building, making. Leisure was devoted to one generation helping the other come of age.

Meanwhile, the role of specialists from outside the family expanded. School education became a societal requirement for children up the the age of 10..14..15..16.

And now we’re in the condition of outsourced parenting. As I survey the impressive range of skills my children possess, I see a battery of professionals paid directly, or indirectly through my taxes, who have been their guide, teacher, example. Numeracy, literacy, modern languages and critical thinking at school. Football, tennis and gymnastics at clubs, holiday clubs and development centres staffed by paid and volunteer coaches. Piano, recorder and choir at school and private tuition. Drawing, painting and collage at school and art class. If they had wanted to camp, trek or build bridges across rivers there were cubs, scouts and guides.

I am left as the commissioning agent – sourcing tutors and coaches, checking their performance, paying the subs (or taxes). I do have a crucial role as chauffeur; and a very enjoyable part to play as spectator. But this is far from the ideal of interventionist, child-shaping fatherhood.

I anticipate a challenge from readers: values – I’m ignoring the contribution I make to my children’s upbringing with the values I support and encourage them to adopt.  Maybe – but don’t underestimate the impact of peers on how children view the world. Anyway, that’s not what the ideal of fatherhood is about. It’s practical stuff.

I’ve been mulling over this experience of parenthood as a blog topic for some months, but not really known where it leads me. Then, a couple of weeks ago no.1 son asked if I could show him how to set up a website. I did and we worked together on the appearance and name. He has written his first blog post and we’ve talked about the sort of topics he might cover.

One of the things I’ll be trying to get across to him is that while a blog post needs a beginning and a middle, it sometimes takes a little bit longer to find the right ending.

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Finding his own feet in football

footie boots

Two years ago this week, no.1 son sat on his bed and refused to go to football practice. He wasn’t as skilful, he said, as the other players and he wasn’t enjoying it. He wanted to change teams and play with his friends.

No.1 son started at his club aged four and two-thirds. He was sharp and smart and quickly became, not exactly a favourite, but appreciated and recognised by the coach. The following year, when the players were streamed and began playing in teams, no.1 son was in the top team. Through the ages six, seven, eight he kept his status as a first teamer and put quite some stall by it.

Other boys were more skilful, faster, stronger and braver, but no.1 son was the first to make passing key to his game. Surprisingly for a club that preaches a ‘total football’ mantra, he was stereotyped early as a defender. I think it was because he was attentive and responsible, he wouldn’t rush up field, abandoning his post. It gave him a role and kept him in the first team.

From age 9, he began competitive football. As the gap in size between him and his teammates grew, so it seemed did a gap open up in terms of ability. He was playing with some seriously talented footballers. He was displaced as first choice defender and would play about a third of a match, usually when the victory was secured. His game stopped developing. He deferred to his teammates, unloaded the ball as soon as he could, rarely left his own half and didn’t score a goal in two seasons.

Before some games he would say he felt ill. He didn’t look at ease with his teammates some of the time and he was on the outside of their socialising. On the field, he didn’t receive many passes from them. It was frustrating to watch and difficult to talk to him about. Being a first teamer had become part of his identity even though he wasn’t fitting in.

And then at the end of his second season of competitive football, one week after a famous cup final victory, in which he had played a solid part, he sat on his bed, refusing to go to training, crying and laid out his need. He wanted to play in the fourth team, with his school friends. I called his coach and to the club’s credit – chaos would ensue if every child wanting to change teams was indulged – they arranged the transfer.

He joined the fourth team in time for two end of season friendlies. Ten minutes into his debut, he picked up the ball outside the opposition penalty area, moved through a gap and shot past the keeper. His first goal in a match for two years. And he smiled and kept smiling, playing with his friends.

His first coach at the club sought me out to find out what had happened. He was concerned that no.1 son would be playing a lower standard of football and wouldn’t develop. It was true that in his first season, when he was player of the year, some of the opposition was poor. But it gave a player, introverted and anxious the year before, the time and space to flourish, to demonstrate skills I had no idea he commanded and repeatedly to show the vision he has for the game and the passing to make it tell. And he was happy.

Starting secondary school last September he had the confidence to try out for the school team. He won a place in the squad, playing alongside lads established in the local professional club set-ups. He was awarded the special socks that mark him as a ‘first teamer’.

And today, things have come full circle. No.1 son’s school team played in the League Final against the area’s strongest school. He came on as a substitute in the second half and stayed on the pitch until the final whistle and two periods of extra time. Still smaller and slighter than the other boys, he played tidily on the left, winning and distributing the ball. He lined up on the same field with two and against another four from the club first team he had left two years ago.

No.1 son’s school won today on penalties. He earned the right to be on the field with so many fine young footballers, which makes me proud. And I’m prouder still, that he did it his way – choosing when and where he wanted to move team and becoming a better and happier footballer because of it.

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Competition time

From my position in the audience, sprawled on a mat, there are gymnasts spinning, jumping and soaring across my whole field of vision. To my right the floor routines; beyond which is the beam; straight ahead the vault run-way to the vaulting horse, which stands in the background of the uneven bars which I turn to my left to see. All in the same image, I see someone swinging through the air, another gymnast bounding along and a third wheeling away. Well-ordered as it is, the sheer movement of bodies makes it feel like I’m at an acrobatics display at the circus.

In amongst these twirling bodies, the slightest and most fragile looking of them all, is the one & only daughter (1&onlyD). The event is her gymnastic club’s annual competition. It’s a closed event, taking only members of the club – in fact the boys and girls who practise alongside each other twice each week, forty weeks a year, for two hours of conditioning, and technical practice. 160 hours of practice and barely two hours of competition.

At the same age – nine – no. 1 son was playing a football match each Saturday morning and training one evening each week. A ratio of one hour competition to one hour training. Eighty times more competition, relative to practice, than his sister.

What is the right amount of competition for juniors? It depends on factors such as age, competence and the sport itself. Gymnastics is a technical discipline where the performance is the execution of a tightly planned series of moves. Practice edges the performer closer towards perfection. Football is a fluid activity, where players respond to and seek to influence the flow of play. At all levels of these sports, gymnastics will have a higher proportion of training than football.

The right amount of competition also depends on the individual child. Some kids shrink in the face of the ordering and ranking that competition implies. Children of that nature should be spared that discomfort or they may never happily engage in sport.

My kids, perhaps led by no.1 son’s example, revel in competition. Games only engage them if a winner is to be found. Mundane activities such as eating tea with good (ha!) manners come alive if there are scores to be awarded. Conversations may loop in all directions, but eventually swoop back towards establishing who’s better, what’s bigger, faster or more popular.

I wonder how the 1&onlyD continues to motivate herself without the regular challenge of competition. The answer isn’t hard to find. She’s gradually mastering more and more moves; in recent weeks: backward walkover on the beam, back flick on the floor and soul circle into upstart on the uneven bars. Golfers compete with the course. The 1&onlyD is continuously taking on the apparatus and challenging her own body to greater contortion, exertion and courage.

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Development Centre

6.30 on a Friday evening. Usually the time I am coaxing the kids, tired and grumpy from the week’s exertions or dizzy at their weekend liberation, towards the bath. This winter, it’s been the time that no.2 son and I strike out to the pro-club development centre, for which he was scouted.

“Off to [pro-club town name]”, we say with a carefree disregard for geography. Our actual destination is a municipal leisure complex 30 minutes drive across town from us and 40 miles distant from the pro-club’s home.

No.2 son is proud to have been selected for this centre. It has, I fear, become part of his identity. At school and at his junior club he keeps company with lads playing at five other local pro-club set-ups and this gives him an equality of arms in the race to footballing respect.

He has enjoyed attending the sessions. At first he was nervous about which kit to wear, but quickly reassured himself that he looked the part. He has tried hard every week, tiring himself so as to almost fall asleep on the car journey home. He recognises the training is different to that at his junior club, explaining that, there, all the players are good.

My impression of the development centre is mixed. I was surprised at its informality – no registration, declaration of medical condition or emergency contact number records (until the new head coach took over last month). Between being chatted up by the scout and a car park lecture from the new head coach, there’s been no communication with parents about what to expect or what the aims of the sessions are.

The coaching drills have not always been well-adapted for the age group. One pass and move drill was never successfully fulfilled as the boys couldn’t follow the movement instructions and their passes were too wayward and control too sketchy for a complete cycle of passes to be completed. One week, in the small sided game, the coach kept exhorting the boys to ‘relax’. I could understand what he meant, but couldn’t think of anything six and seven year olds playing football were less likely to do.

I have been a little more anxious on the touchline than normal. I want no.2 son to do himself justice and have always been aware that sooner or later selection decisions will be made. I’ve found myself turning from the play to the coach to check whether any good contribution from no.2 son has been noted. Time and again, it seems to me, the coach has turned away at the moment my lad performs.

Generally, though, the training has not been much of a spectacle. The weather has been close to freezing every night, so if I’m accompanied by no.1 son we retreat to a distant corner of the AstroTurf pitch and have our own kick about.

I have not seen any evidence yet that the training has benefited no.2 son’s game. There has been a focus on passing, which is at odds with the philosophy of his junior club where parents are warned against the sin of shouting ‘pass’ at boys who are being coached to be confident on the ball. It’s also at odds with no.2 son’s own particular marauding style of play. The passing drills could have been and may still be a perfect complement to his natural approach, but I feel the experience has come a little too early for no.2 son to make the most of.

In the small sided games, more structure is expected of the players than no.2 son is used to. In one match, he was told seven times by the coach to play on the right, not to gravitate to his preferred central position.

Despite my ambivalence, it’s been a positive experience for no.2 son as he has  held his own in more challenging company. It won’t be long until we know if he will be invited to carry on. I am worried that no.2 son will take badly a decision to stand him down. If it happens that way we will do our best to salve his injured pride and I’ll be back on Friday bath time duty.

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Filed under coach says.., individual development, scouted, skills

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.

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