I’m so glad I didn’t have to play football this weekend.
Look, there was never any risk of that happening, but as I watched my nine year old play football for his local team, I was extremely grateful that I wasn’t one of those kids out there under all of that pressure.
I love sport for my kids for many reasons, but I do hate the crazy competitive pressure that comes with sport for children at such a young age. To be clear I’m not talking about support in the form of cheering along calmly, or clapping or general nice support. In fact I’m a very vocal supporter, usually for both teams. Sometimes my husband tells me to calm down when I get too excited. But my cheers are filled with positive support, as are most of the other vocal supporters out there. I’m talking about the aggressive, angry side type of “support”.
Both of my older boys are playing rugby league this year, a game I’d hope to avoid for all of my boys just because I’m terrified they’ll snap with all that tackling and pushing and shoving. But after lots of begging and because after living with so many boys it became apparent that they need to tackle everyone in their life, I surrendered and gave in. I reluctantly went from a soccer mum to a footy mum with a big old bag of nerves dragging along beside me.
The youngest of the two was born for footy. He’s a chunk of a kid, goes a million miles an hour and is a bit of a boofhead who looks like a natural on the field, and he’s not afraid to get in there amongst it. He’s very competitive but uses that to strive to be better. He’s pretty tough and just thrives out there in all that the sport provides.
He’s the kid who got up at 5:30am for months before his Cross Country to train without any encouragement from anyone else (because why would you?). I was out there at the letter box watching as he did laps to improve his times, but I didn’t ever have to push him. He keeps his eye on the prize and he puts in the work to reach his goals.
His older brother is far more competitive, he wants to be the best but doesn’t want to put in the hard work. He’s an incredibly bad loser, the absolute worst. This is a kid who needs all the benefits of playing a team sport. He needs to learn about teamwork, about losing and to work hard to get the results. He’s a work in progress.
I dread the drive home with him after a game, blaming the referee for being dodgy, the other team for being rough/cheats/sneaky, or the sun for being too bright. But he loves it, and he’s out there getting involved, so I’m happy. I’m hoping all the teamwork and learning to lose skills will start paying off shortly. This is the the kid who would ask me why I’d bother running in fun runs if I wasn’t going to win, in fact he didn’t even want to cheer me on.
Yesterday as we drove into our son’s game, there was a big sign that couldn’t be missed outlining the rules for spectators. Apparently some of the supporters missed it.
A group of adults, very loud adults, spent the whole game bellowing across the field. Their words weren’t technically bad, but they were so aggressive. I felt intimidated as a spectator. I have no doubt that they were there to support another 9 year old as I was, but they were far too invested in a game for kids of such a young age. “Get him! Smash him!” are probably terms that could be left out when they are screaming with such passion. They were so fired up, you would think they were in the grand final of a first grade game. It was just a bit too much.
I remember when my other son played one of his first games as a six year old last year, and as we wandered off we heard another mother yell at her very tiny six year old, “you wait til your father hears about this! I’m not bringing you again if you’re going to tackle like a girl.” She was a girl. And judging by her aggression and the way she was holding herself, looked as if she could throw someone down to the ground in a second. I wanted to cry for him, he looked devastated. I don’t even know if he wanted to play, his face sure didn’t look like he’d had fun.
Fun. That’s the thing that divides parents in sport. As a teacher I’ve met many very dedicated parents who would argue with me that sport wasn’t about fun, and I respect their opinion but absolutely disagree.
The parent who screamed his head off in “support” as his kid lapped other less experienced kids in the pool at last year’s swimming carnival probably didn’t motivate his own kid a whole heap. His desperate attempts to screech for his child to “dig deep”, even when he didn’t really have any competition, may not have been the answer in what should have been a very fun environment filled with first time competitors who had been encouraged to “have a go”. What he did do was absolutely terrify a whole bunch of kids who’d never experienced a carnival before.
Should sport for kids be competitive? Absolutely.
Sport is one of the best ways for kids to experience some of the lessons life will offer them in a supported, structured environment. I absolutely think that kids who are skilled, or who put in the hard yards should be rewarded for their efforts. Dedication isn’t always dressed in balloons and met with smiles, but if there’s absolutely no fun involved, it’s only a matter of time before kids get fed up. I’ve seen it plenty of times, where the desire to win at all costs overrides all the benefits that could be gained, and then it ends up being a stress filled experience filled with resentment and anger. No one wins then, not even sport.
So what’s the answer?
For me, it’s all about perspective. Cheer away, but if you are telling your kid to knock the head off another kid it might be time for a reality check. Not every kid out there will make it to representative status. But they all have the potential to walk away from there having burned some energy with some friends in a fun way.
Children can be encouraged and even challenged without threatening words or behaviour. They can be proud when they win and bummed out when they lose. Feelings and sport are okay. Reacting badly when you aren’t even playing is not.
There will be plenty of time for kids to get serious with their sport, while they are young just let them get out there and have a go at doing their best. And if you are so passionate about it, get yourself into a team and have a go yourself, because from where I sit some of the most vocal parents really don’t appear to be the most skilled sportspeople, choosing to live out their own dreams through their poor children.
At the end of the day, as long as they’re out there interacting with other kids, I’m happy.
But let me leave you with a pic of my bad sport caught out on TV yelling at the referee. When we showed him this, he just tried to justify his actions. There may be no hope there.