Me and sport
May 17th, 2015
When I’m talking to kids in schools, one of the things I always mention is that when I was their age I was astonishingly bad at sport. I’m not sure if they believe me, but it’s true.
So this morning I was looking through some old computer files, from the days when I was doing a bit of freelance journalism, and came across the article below. It was never published.
It’s our local school sports day, and an enthusiastic teacher is trying to round up kids for the 100 m. The eager ones are already at the starting line, but this teacher wants more. “It’s going in it that’s important,” she says to a reluctant child, “not how well you do.”
But she’s wrong. It’s not going in it that counts, not when you’re a kid.
I grew up without sporting skills of any kind. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t throw a ball, I couldn’t catch. By what seemed to me to be a magical process, every other girl in my class acquired a working competency at softball. I never did, but, under the unforgiving eye of our sports teacher, I still had to play at least once a week. Every one of those games is scorched into my memory. They go like this …
As soon we hit the oval, I place myself as far from the line of fire as I can get. But, at some inevitable stage of the game – despite my teammates’ best efforts – there’s a stray ball that flies straight for me. As soon as I see it, I freeze, hoping desperately that someone else will run for it. But they’re all miles away. I’m on my own and the ball’s hurtling towards me with what looks like enough force to break every bone in my hands.
To screams of “Catch it! Catch it!” I fumble vaguely in the air and watch the ball fly past. Loud groans from the rest of my team. I turn and run after it, knowing that the worst is yet to come. A couple more fumbles and it’s in my hands. More screams. “Throw it! Throw it!” So I throw it with all my might. The ball flies in a pathetic arc and thuds to the ground a few metres in front of me. More groans. I chase after the ball, pick it up and throw it again. Another pathetic arc. I chase, pick up and throw. Another pathetic arc …
Looked at from the safety of middle age, the softball games were hilarious. But at the time they were deeply humiliating. So were the swimming carnivals, the netball games and the school sports days. In retrospect, I know I can’t have been the only hopeless one, but all I could see at the time was my own awfulness.
The teachers who forced me to go in these things believed that they were good for me. And, in a way, they were right. Without them pushing me, I would have stayed permanently curled up on the sidelines with a book. I would have been less active than I was. But I would also have been happier. As it was, my fragile self-esteem was dragged several notches lower every week in the name of that sacred beast, participation.
In my final years of school, I grew more cunning. Faced with a teacher determined to enter me in a swimming carnival, and knowing that “I can’t swim” was not sufficient excuse, I learned to lie. “My mother won’t let me go up the deep end,” I would say without blushing. It was a great line (especially coming from a tall 17 year old) and saved me a lot of unnecessary pain.
Once I left school, I avoided anything to do with balls, running or swimming until I was in my thirties. Then, at last, sick of my chronic lack of hand-eye coordination, I set out to teach myself to juggle – no audience, no competition, no pressure except for my own desire to succeed. To my surprise, it was fun; so much so, that I kept practising until I was good at it. As a result, something else surprising happened. Out of the blue one day, someone threw a ball at me – and I reached up and plucked it out of the air. For the first time in my life I could catch. No exaggeration, it was like suddenly joining the human race.
Shortly after that, I taught myself to swim. That was fun too. I still can’t throw, but some day soon I intend to learn to kick a soccer ball around. [Note: this was written in 2000. I never did learn to kick.]
As a society, we recognize that sport and exercise are basic to our well-being. These days, we also know that for some kids the skills don’t come easily. They need to be taught. But, given the workloads that most teachers have to deal with, I suspect that kids like me still fall through the gaps.
If I was that age again – with a dose of middle-aged wisdom thrown in – I’d walk across broken glass to find someone who’d teach me whatever I needed to know to make sport the pleasure it’s supposed to be.
But if that wasn’t possible, if the only choice was between, on the one hand, compulsory sport plus failure and humiliation and, on the other, no sport plus no humiliation, I’d choose the latter. Which is why I find myself wanting to grab the arm of that enthusiastic teacher – of all those enthusiastic teachers.
“Participation isn’t a sacred duty,” I want to say. “So put up or shut up.” In other words, if you can’t offer kids like me the coaching that will make a serious difference, the best thing you can do for them might be to leave them alone.