Category Archives: sport gives us..


refNo.1 son stood with head respectfully bowed. But I could tell he was looking at his watch, counting down the seconds before he would have to blow his whistle. His very first task as a trainee referee was to supervise two minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday. A weedy peep, betraying his anxiety, barely audible on a wind-buffeted playing field, signaled the end of the silence and that play could get under way.

The role of the time-keeper is essential to sports. From timing races to determine winners on land and water, to careful marshaling of the playing duration of rugby, hockey, netball and football matches, to clocks that limit breaks in tennis, constrain routines in gymnastics and force attacking play in basketball. Even cricket’s colonisation of whole days is prey to the clock, with lunch, tea and drinks breaks to be timed and enforced.

How well suited would my older son be to the task of time-keeper? All the evidence from home-life is that he would not be playing to a known strength.

The morning of one of his football matches typically involves him having to be woken up. He may even have to be woken a second time. “We need to leave in 45 minutes”, Mother in the Middle or I will specify. A little later, as he takes a leisurely breakfast, irritation ill-concealed, “Can you get dressed now. We’re going in 20 minutes.”

This prompts a move to the shower. The argument that he should wash after, not before, a game was made, won and ignored long ago.

“Five minute warning!” we yell, which may disturb him from his social networking activity.

When we’re kicking our heels at the front door, already swaddled in jumpers and coats, glancing at our time pieces, there will be a flurry of activity. “Where’s my socks? Which kit are we playing in? Who’s had my shin-pads?” Frantic searches, allegations, cross words enliven the house. Whatever’s lost will be found stuffed in a school bag or buried beneath clothes heading to or returning from the washing machine.

“Are we going to be late?” no.1 son will ask urgently, accusingly as he stumbles out of the front door, feet not properly in boots, coat dragging on the ground. Some days I resist the impulse to set out how any degree of organisation or time-awareness could have negated the need for this rushed, bothered exit; and some days I don’t. This, with age appropriate adjustments, has been going on for years. And my contribution truly sits among that list of futile things parents do (and should stop doing, but somehow don’t).

Once, when no.1 son was only nine or ten, I decided not to nag. Having told him the time we would be leaving the house, I left it up to him to get himself ready promptly. Half an hour after we should have left home, he was sat watching TV. We arrived barely before the match started. My stand had achieved nothing but inconvenience his coach and teammates.

Therefore, alongside the referees, umpires, scorers and judges, as time-keepers critical to junior sport, we should recognise the parents. Not equipped with high-tech chronometers, or backed by rule books, it’s mums and dads persuading, chivvying and marching their offspring out of the door that ensure junior sports fixtures start promptly. 

Watching the first half of no.1 son’s first match as referee, I started to become anxious. His nerves before the game were overt as he questioned me about various aspects of under 12 football: the duration, substitutions, off-side, identity of linesmen. With all that uncertainty in his mind, I began to worry that he might have forgotten to time the half. I tried to work out how long the game had been going. An even bigger puzzle was how I was going to gain his attention when, by my estimate, the first half would be over. I paced circuits around the pitch, trying to work out if he seemed aware of the passage of time.

Then suddenly and with impeccable timing, two loud blasts on the whistle, as no.1 son brought the first half of the first game of his refereeing career to an end.




Filed under old head, parenting, sport gives us..

Foul, foul

IMG_0798The picture shows no.2 son’s right leg. He has showered after a game of under 9 football. Five bruises and scrapes are splattered across the top of his shin and knee.

His team lost 3-0 in a tight match to a slightly better side. The opposition played some fluent football and switched decisively from defence to attack when they won the ball in their own half. Another feature of their play was fouling.

When one of no.2 son’s teammates dribbled around or accelerated away from an opponent, they received a kick to their shins or a tap on the ankle. No.2 son’s game features strong and tricky running with the ball. He regularly gets tripped by defenders deceived by his speed of foot. We bought him new shinpads with ankle attachments for added protection as a Christmas present.

At this weekend’s match, the trips weren’t from defenders trying to take the ball from him. They came from players he had already taken the ball past, whose aim was to stop him. The bruises shown on the photo came from something else: knee-high challenges as no.2 son ran at their defence.

Driving home after a match, it’s fairly common for the boys to complain that the other side were ‘foulers’. I might nod, or point out that his side plays physically, too. And the point of this piece is not to brand this other team as thugs (they come from a club with a good reputation and I find it very unlikely that this approach was inculcated by the coaches).

But today I agreed when no.2 son said the other team were ‘foulers’. And I think the referee would have done so too. He whistled for almost every foul, giving a string of free kicks, as players were helped up and limped away from the challenges.

Despite the referee’s diligence, the fouls kept coming. The question I pose is what could be done to stem the flow, not just punctuate it.

Understandably, referees are not expected to punish a junior footballer for a foul, in the way an adult would be: first offence – name taken and shown the yellow card; second time – dismissal. The bureaucracy of name taking and cards isn’t appropriate for a game children play for exercise, development and fun. But the fun needs to be there for both teams.

Readers who spend time around junior sport, here are some questions about how persistent foul play by children should be handled.

How would you expect this situation to be handled? A quiet word to the boys doing the kicking of opponents’ ankles? A conversation in one of the breaks of play with the coach? A request that a particular player is given a ‘time out’? An after-match report to club or league officials?

What do you do if you see one of your players repeatedly fouling the opposition? Do you bring the youngster off and have a quiet word? Do you address the issue with the whole team after the game or at the next training session? Do you raise it with the parents as a conduct issue?

If your players are on the receiving end, would you communicate your concern to the other coach during the match? Would you leave it until after the game and approach the other coach, or refer it to club or league officials?

It’s not our place to intervene during a match, but what would you expect of the referee and of your coach?

Junior footballers
Would you want something done during the game or afterwards? Do you accept it as part of the game or does it make you less likely to want to play?

Please share your answers and opinions.


Filed under injury, sport gives us..

Penalty pants points

gym judgesSitting on mats beside the trampoline at the gymnastics club championships, we had a clear view of the floor exercise. Girls took turns flipping, skipping and rolling to music. Seated across the floor from us was the judge, clipboard balanced on knee, pen in hand. She gave a slight nod as each girl saluted her at the start of the routine. Her eyes followed the movements, flicking down to her clipboard as she made brief notes, then back up to take in the performance. And a final gentle nod as the girl turned her way and bowed before leaving the floor. The judge’s face expressing earnestness and concentration.

It was the turn of the daughter of the mother sitting in front of us. In her first year of gymnastics, but with eight years of dancing experience, her routine was simple but graceful. As the girl completed a cartwheel in the middle of the floor, from our vantage, she stood for a moment with the judge directly in the background. The judge’s serious mien snapped suddenly into a look of Frankie Howerd-style camp outrage. We had seen the expression and laughed. We had also seen what had elicited the abrupt loss of the judge’s calm, objective visage.

frankie howerdThe gymnast had tugged the bottom of her leotard down over the top of her legs. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, she had incurred a penalty pants point.

The average person carries out a minor adjustment to their undergarments, at least four times each hour* – more often if active. But in the world of gymnastics, any such gesture of self-consciousness means a points deduction. It’s not just the pants: flicking of the hair is cracked down on just as hard. But it’s the penalty pants point that is so at odds with the need to get girls involved in physical activity – currently popularised by Sport England’s, This Girl Can campaign.

At the annual club competition, the girls are instructed to wear their leotards bare-legged. I understand the need for the outlines of the gymnast’s body to be clearly visible as maintaining the correct the angle of limbs to trunk is part of the control they seek to achieve. Loose clothing could also impede the gymnast and potentially endanger her. I just don’t understand why so much flesh should have to be shown. Leggings would enable the competitor’s form to be assessed, without them feeling self-conscious about their bare lower half, which causes the nervous tugging at leotards. Male gymnasts, it’s worth noting, wear shorts or even long trousers.

This Girl Can has a genuinely laudable aim: “it is here to inspire women to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.” Gymnasts in a competition are, of course, offering themselves up to judgement. I don’t feel any great respect for a judgement that places such an onus on a pre-teen or teenage girl’s ability to resist the temptation to pull her leotard down over her bare legs.

* Made up statistic.



Filed under sport gives us..

Taking the field together

cricket gameAs I stand in the garden, goalkeeper and guardian to two football mad boys, I often think forward to a time when the brothers can play alongside each other. I imagine a one-two that cuts through a defence, or some other combination of their different strengths.

They have, of course, played together in ad hoc, occasional matches. There was the Euro-holiday game that could have ended grimly for no.2 son. And, three years ago, at home for once for New Year, we were invited to play a dads v lads game in our local park. We left home with no.2 son sobbing – his brother had told him he was too young and couldn’t play. Good sense – or not – prevailed and both boys lined up. The ground was frosty and the cold felt by all. No.2 son had cheered up. One of the dads, forced into defence, unsteady on the slippery ground, took a swing and sliced a ball hard straight into no.2 son’s face. He was knocked off his feet, but the tears that flowed when told earlier that he couldn’t play didn’t reappear. With jutting chin and stinging face, he played on.

Junior football operates strict age group delineation. So my two boys, five school years apart, won’t get to play together in competitive fixtures for maybe ten years. I can wait and will continue to imagine how they may play together – exchanging passes, creating chances, celebrating each other’s success.

Then, all of a sudden, this summer, it has happened. Two of my children have taken the field together, in partnership. It wasn’t the game I had so often watched two of my children compete and combine at. The pairing wasn’t even the one I had often conjured with.

It was no.2 son and his sister (the 1&onlyD), representing our cricket club’s under 9 team – the Squirrels.

Several weeks before the cricket season started, the club ran indoor practice sessions for its girls squad. Knowing that numbers would be low, I mentioned to the 1&onlyD that she might want to try out cricket. She surprised me and agreed. She surprised me again and enjoyed herself and continued to go to practices when they moved outside.

Junior cricket has hit on an excellent way of encouraging girl cricketers, which doesn’t rely on clubs finding a whole team of players in the same age group (which continues to be tricky). Girls are allowed to play for boys teams two age groups younger than their own. It was through that dispensation that the 1&onlyD made her competitive cricket debut alongside her younger brother.

The Squirrels Coach was alert to the importance of the situation. He invited the 1&onlyD to captain the side – taking part in the ceremonial coin toss – and when the Squirrels were invited to bat first, he selected the siblings as the opening pair. And that’s them in the middle distance in the photo at the top of the page (my daughter’s leggings and pink Converse are easier to admire below).

E bowlerThey returned to the boundary, smiling, having run some singles hard and shown solid batting technique. Later, in the field, they took their turn at bowling. No.2 son, more self-confident, bustled about and completed four run outs. The 1&onlyD stuck to her fielding position, stopping and returning the ball, and when the action dulled, turned a few cartwheels.

That this minor milestone in my children’s sporting lives (and my spectating existence) should have been shared by the younger two of the three, now feels fitting. They have been playmates and conspirators since infancy, inventing games and immersed in each other’s company. Neither has put age and gender difference up as a barrier, at home or, more notably, at school. It’s a very special relationship, albeit one that I’m reconciled to seeing change and maybe become less intense, as their interests diverge. On this evening, brother-sister, teammates, opening partners, continued their happy kinship, taking the field together.


Filed under social animals, sport gives us..

Going Dutch

departureNo.1 son has had a taste of European football. And it wasn’t the usual first round elimination on away goals suffered by so many English teams on their initial venture onto the Continent. He has spent six nights with his club side in Utrecht, playing four matches against local junior sides.

The club has run this trip for its under 13 cohort for a decade. It was with that experience behind it that us parents were told in December to get fund raising. Thirteen boys signed up and (sort of) got busy packing bags in local supermarkets, helping the car parking at the club on Saturday mornings, while the parents ran some other money-making ventures – always conscious that our kids having a trip to Holland was not a cause for charity.

No.1 son had initially said he wasn’t interested. A fear of flying was the deterrent. On being asked a second time, with most of his close friends on board, he expressed a desire to go. The dislike of travel by plane jabbed away at him – and therefore, at us – all the way until the departure. The only thing to deflect him from this obsession – by irritating him – came the week before leaving when the team gathered to be fitted for the tour tracksuit. His had been ordered two sizes too big, which he took as some form of conspiracy to make him look daft.

Sunday morning, a minibus came to take the team and its four adult coaches/support staff to the airport. Some mums cried. Dads were shaking their heads at failing to use this as an excuse for their own trip to Holland. And then there was, apart from a couple of Facebook updates each day, silence.

The story of the tour, told to us by no.1 son, is still quite fragmentary. The first game was won. No.1 son was awarded man of the match. He conceded he could barely keep his eyes open by the end of that game, due to some high jinks that kept most of the team awake through the first night in their hostel.

As news reached us on the evening of day 2 that the second match had also been won, I quickly made the equation that if no.1 son’s team could beat two Dutch teams on their own soil, Roy Hodgson’s task in Brazil would be far from impossible. More down to earth, I also realised how much I missed not seeing my older boy play in this new environment.

Games three and four went more like an England appearance at an international tournament, as they were lost to two “good footballing” sides. But, Won 2 – Lost 2, was a decent return from the trip.

What we find worthy of remark about another country says as much about ourselves as it does about where we have visited. I treasured most no.1 son’s surprise in finding that Dutch children all have showers after their games. What this really pointed to wasn’t so much our poor hygiene but that Dutch junior clubs have facilities that include changing rooms, club houses with kitchens (they all ate together after the games) and 3G pitches. Think about the changing rooms, if any, at your local junior football club and you get a sense of the investment the Dutch make in their youngsters’ sport. A hot shower at the ground is quite a good image to hold and compare with the muddy knees and sweaty heads that return home from games in England.

Four games in five days left the team just enough time for trips to FC Utrecht’s stadium, a theme park and an indoor water park. These events were the source of as many stories as the football matches and were important to the success of the trip.

Mother in the Middle and I asked no.1 son cautiously about how he had got on with the team-mates. We were intrigued (and pleased) to hear that one lad whom he has played alongside for three years, but never really considered a close friend, was his favourite company away. That sort of recognition is one of the fringe benefits of spending so much time away from family. Another spin-off, he tells me, is that he can now identify the smell of marijuana being smoked – “it was everywhere”.

I kept my Dad up to date with the trip. Not for the first time, his grandson’s sporting activities sparked a memory of his own youth. Shortly after the second world war, my Dad was part of a school group who went on a cycling holiday in Holland. While the country’s flat landscape made it the perfect location for cycle-touring, my Dad remembers most strongly cycling up a hill that due to an optical illusion appeared to be downhill. Known as ‘magnetic’ or ‘gravity hills’ there are records of hundreds of them across the world. Unfortunately, none of the lists on the web mentions one in Holland.

The Dutch welcome was as warm in 1947 as it was for my son’s team this year. My Dad remembers, wherever they stayed, being filled up on real dairy milk and eggs – products that England’s post-war austerity meant remained scarce and never something to gorge on.

No.1 son also crowned his account of the trip with a story of eating. It shows how much has changed in 67 years. This story didn’t concern the unexpected abundance of basic agricultural products, but of vegimite, KP sauce, cinnamon, and the other oddments which made up the team’s ‘Bush-tucker trial’.


I cannot finish without an (anonymous) acknowledgement and thank you to the two Dads/Coaches who chose to end their eight month season by taking the rest of our kids with them, as well as to the two club officials who also subjected themselves to our boys for a week. You are very kind, patient and brave.



Filed under social animals, sport gives us.., young shoulders

Wouldn’t miss it for the world

cup final 14

Any plans for the weekend?

It’s the theme of so many Friday conversations at work. I always have an answer and, not invariably, it tends towards the same thing: taking the kids to play sport; watching the kids playing sport; getting cold and wet while the kids play sport; entertaining a kid or two while another plays sport.

Junior sport can be as unremitting as a treadmill, but as rewarding as any hobby. Commitment is one of the lessons it teaches – to parents and children – so there’s an acceptance that if you are in town, you should be there, on the touchline. At the level my children compete, there’s no obligation to show up every week, no ranking or progress at stake if the odd game is missed for a birthday party. But regular participation and attendance are their own imperative. It becomes a habit. It’s the default status.

Weekends away do happen, but they are planned. We don’t take off on Friday evening for the coast when we see a sunny forecast for the weekend. Day trips aren’t much easier, with no.2 son playing Saturday morning and his brother the same time on Sunday. What work and school do to structure the week, so junior sports manage for weekends.

I like to think we have kept a sense of perspective. We don’t plan holidays around fixtures and we have never declined an invitation from a dear friend or family on account of a crunch match. We wouldn’t need to – they’ve learned not to ask.

But there can be weekends when there is a family event that we wouldn’t miss for the world and a match of unusual importance. The first of these was three years ago. My sister-in-law had an exhibition of her paintings in a gallery in Stokesley, North Yorkshire. Family and friends travelled from the north-west and from Fife for the Friday night opening. The cottages were booked months in advance and a weekend together planned. A cup run (a two round sprint, in fact) threw something else into the mix for that weekend: a cup final for no.1 son at 9.30 on Sunday morning.

The family travelled to Stokesley in separate cars, enabling no.1 son and I to head west at 6am for a three hour journey to the ground situated 15 minutes from home. Defective packing for the weekend meant we had to add a trip home to pick up football boots on our way there. The game was won and a very full weekend completed by 11am on Sunday morning.

Over a year ago, my Dad announced plans for celebrating his and my Mum’s diamond wedding anniversary. Bookings were made in their Cotswold village of a restaurant and B&Bs for the guests. Arrangements were so advanced that I had even got around to sorting an anniversary present or two, when last Tuesday, with five days notice, no.1 son’s coach sent a text informing us that the Cup Final was on Sunday morning. Apologies were given to my parents and accepted for us missing the third leg of the anniversary weekend. Once again we rose early on a Sunday for a long drive to a local ground.

On the Friday and Saturday I had been quietly admiring no.1 son as he told his grandparents and others how much he was looking forward to the final. In his position, I would have been debilitated by nerves three or four days ahead. Eventually, on the Sunday morning drive, things caught up with him. Perhaps anxiety, certainly two days of a rich diet and late nights, left him grumpy and upset in the back of the car, complaining of pains and unreadiness to play.

We arrived in good time at the non-league ground hosting the final. No.1 son must have shaken off his worries, as he was in the starting team. He was lively and more combative than usual in the first half, at the end of which his team were a little unlucky to trail 1-0. He played the whole of the second-half, and began to make use of the space that opened up on the large pitch as players tired. One run, beginning with a sharp one-two in his own half, saw him carry the ball to the edge of the opposition’s penalty area and lay off a pass which won the corner from which his team equalised. Extra-time – ten minutes each way – followed.

In the first period of extra-time, no.1 son ran on to a loose ball at the edge of the penalty area and struck it well and away to the keeper’s right. It deflected off a defender and onto the post. It was as close as his team came to a winning goal. The opponents scored twice in the second period to win 3-1.

The previous night, my parents had sat happily in the restaurant, accompanied by their children, grandchildren and a great granddaughter, listening to their Best Man speak about their friendship of 65 years.  The next day I watched my older son, playing well, but more importantly, smile and revel in the atmosphere and challenge of a big match on a grown-up football ground. Two things, in one weekend, that I wouldn’t miss for the world.


Filed under sport gives us.., young shoulders

A tense spectator

agueroSport’s grip on us is its uncertainty. You may hope, beg and (many) pray that your team will do well, but you don’t know. The essence of following sport is that heightened moment when the match is in the balance and you can barely breathe for fear of setting off some butterfly effect that will blow away your side’s chances. As a match progresses, you admire the skill and tenacity, but also calculate and recalculate your team’s prospects and what they must do to forge ahead, maintain a lead or claw themselves back into contention.

At least, that’s what I think. Watching sport is supposed to be thrilling and the real thrills come from what you don’t expect. From his early years, I’ve suspected that is not no.1 son’s source of enjoyment.

At around six years old, we began to watch the Sunday morning repeat of Match of the Day. As each match’s highlights began, he would ask, “What was the score?”

“Watch and you’ll find out,” I would reply, calmly at first, but with irritation mounting as the question was repeated, multiple times for each set of highlights. It was easier just to supply the result, which led to:

“Who scored?”

“Watch and you’ll find out.” And around we would go.

The questioning during live matches took a different tack – but with the same objective: to drive out the uncertainty inherent in the object of our gaze – sport.

“Who’s going to win? Who’ll score first? Who’s playing well? They’ll never win now, will they?”

No.1 son was two and a half when we moved to the north-west. Our first friends were Manchester City fans. The club then had a new stadium and a hapless, under-achieving team. I was happy for no.1 son to be influenced by our new friends and become a blue. Soon, though, wealthy owner sold up to ridiculously wealth owner and a squad of the world’s elite players was assembled. City had become contenders and in 2011/12 were at the top of the Premiership for much of the season and the chance of a first title in ages was real. A dramatic last few weeks left them needing to defeat QPR at home in their final game, with United ready to capitalise on any slip-up. The stakes could not have been higher for a young City fan.

Spending that Sunday afternoon with no.1 son and the 1&onlyD, I struck a compromise that would (I hoped) entertain them both. We would play monopoly, while watching the match on my iPad. Things began well. City were ahead at half-time.

20 minutes into the second half and the game was turned upside down – City fell behind. “Turn it off,” no.1 son insisted. “Are you sure?” I queried, mindful that the chance to watch his team win the league might not happen again soon – although that meant having to risk watching them not win. With some spirits low, we continued our game of monopoly, the iPad off. I was surreptitiously monitoring the match on my phone, while checking whether he would like the match switched back on. “No,” was the reply each time.

When City equalised in the 90th minute, I broke the news. Still he wouldn’t let me turn the match back on. But I couldn’t resist when a confusing newsflash appeared on my phone. I switched the iPad back on to see City players celebrating and their fans crying. No.1 son had missed his team triumph in the most dramatic end to a football season.

I remembered this on Friday after an evening of junior indoor cricket involving a team I run. The matches were for under 12s and half-term holidays meant most of the squad members were unavailable. I was faced with playing one short. No.1 son was too old to play. So, the day before the matches I asked no.2 son (8) if he would like to play. He would have the comfort of knowing half the team from school and sports club. He agreed, but was anxious about playing with boys three or four years his senior.

Come the day, I took the two boys with me to the matches; no.1 son to spectate. The younger boy acquitted himself very well, but that isn’t the point of the story. Afterwards, no.1 son told me that he had been so nervous that when his younger brother was about to bat he had left the hall, pretending he needed the toilet. When he came back, his sibling was still at the crease and so he sat with a bat held in front of his face so he couldn’t see what was happening.

The sheer uncertainty, the risk of his brother playing poorly and all that might entail for no.1 son’s feelings, forced him to leave and then to look away. It’s touching that his brother’s performance matters so much to him. That’s a feeling tinged with sadness for me, though: that a game of kids’ indoor cricket could ever matter that much; and that he cannot risk experiencing disappointment for the possibility of gaining joy.


Filed under sport gives us.., young shoulders