It was a proud moment this week, watching my eight-year-old son tog out as captain of his school football team. He looked smart in his kit and even had an easy authority, as he casually directed his teammates, as he walked up to take the kick off.
It seemed only yesterday that I was kicking the ball around with him, as a bumbling toddler, in the back garden. Of course, I used to always let him win every game – by just one goal, to keep the drama in it right until the end.
In the last year or so, all that has changed. His speed, agility and skill levels are such that it’s hard to keep pace with him. And, of course, while every year makes him stronger and more able, time is having somewhat the opposite effect on my increasingly creaky joints. They days of letting him win easily are over, which is fun. Now our ritual evening games to 10 goals are a something of a genuine competition.
It brilliant to see that the kids’ football teams were mixed too, with some really skillful girls entering the fray on behalf of their school. Sport gives kids a lot: better health, a happier mood and consequently the ability to learn more and sleep better. They build character too. There’s a greater emphasis on sportsmanship, and shaking hands after a foul, than when I was a boy. As I recall, in inter-parish hurling at least, fouls were generally ignored unless blood was drawn.
Working with others as a team is a vital skill for life. So is facing up with dignity to challenges, and people who oppose you. As well as learning to graciously win, kids learn to take defeat on the chin, as a spur to improve, while taking pride in their efforts nonetheless. In this case, dealing with defeat was the post-match emotional lesson for my lad and his teammates.
Yet when I went over to him after the match, his mood was buoyant. He had given all he had, sprinting from end to end of the pitch. The excitement of having played a game, and of having tried so hard for his school, was such that having lost didn’t seem to matter. Not only that, but he had very nearly scored a goal, a nifty chip that just grazed wide. Sometimes nearly is a victory.
Field sports are fantastic, but I was always more drawn to adventure sports – ones that take you out into the elements.
My kids have taken from me that same urge to engage with the wild, as if by osmosis. They are already mountain biking, climbing, boogie boarding and hill walking.
However, my main sport as a younger man was sailing. I even made a living sailing boats, and it took me around the world. I competed at events, and raced for my university.
The next big step will be for me to begin teaching my kids how to sail. I’ve been poring over the classified ads, in secret, when my wife cannot see.
The time has come to find a boat and show them the feeling of hauling in a sail, causing the boat to come alive under your feet and surge forward, and the heart lifts.
For joy must be at the heart of true sport. It must be a thing we do for the love of it.