My three children are all sporty. They run which means cross-country in the Winter and athletics in the Summer. My daughter plays netball, volleyball, hockey and rugby. My sons play rugby and football. They are all competitive in their various sports which spills over into other aspects of life. Last weekend I was on a rugby tour with the youngest, he plays in the U11s for a local Cheshire club. On Saturday, it was rainy, snowy with a side helping of sleet. As a spectator, I was cold and wet (even wearing my duvet-with-sleeves coat) I found the conditions miserable. He had an absolute blast.
I try not to be one of those shouty types of parents. I'm not the one who's pretending that it's a World Cup for 10 year olds, I leave that to my husband. Given my limited knowledge of the rules I only really shout to the ref when a tackle is so high as to threaten decapitation. Usually I shout vaguely positive things to my son like "Good try, cutie pie!" or "Lovely!", sometimes I yell his nickname which would be embarrassing if he could hear me. Last weekend seeing my boy at the bottom of a pile of assorted bodies, I may even have roared "Get off my baby!" but I didn't run on to the pitch and physically remove them (even though every maternal instinct was screaming at me to do just that).
The boys that come together to form the club team come from approximately twelve different schools. It's obvious that the majority of these children are the sports stars of their class or year at school, and here they find themselves thrown in with a bunch of other boys who are all as keen and just as committed as they are. Some have already turned 11, most are 10. There's still a tendency to play for themselves, to hog the ball, to have a go for that try when perhaps it would make more sense to pass. But last weekend when they were in a huddle with their coach after the final game, freezing cold, thick with mud I saw one of the boys pat my son on the back a few times. And I finally got it. (This has taken quite a while, he's been playing since he was 4). They had each other's backs, literally. They were a team. This physical experience of playing a team sport is teaching the boys to be resilient, it's showing them that they are stronger together. It's letting them know that someone will have your back, and that when you give 100% it's reasonable to expect those around you to do the same. These are pretty important life lessons for young kids to be learning.
Back to school on Monday and it's House Games for my older son. They've been playing rugby since September so even those that didn't play at junior school have a rudimentary understanding of the game by now. Some of the boys weren't keen on playing, it's cold, it's a rough sport and there's always the risk of injury. The PE teacher explained that participating in this tournament and representing your House is just another part of being at school. Whether the kid likes or dislikes rugby is somewhat irrelevant. You wouldn't expect a child to start crying because they don't want to do geography, with the underlying assumption that their tears would get them out of studying those annoying volcanos. Those other boys out on the pitch need their team-mate. They are going to have to work so much harder without him. If one of them gets injured the remaining players are going to be annihilated and all because little Jimmy doesn't fancy playing in the cold. It seems obvious, but the only way that our children will enjoy the immense benefits of team sports is by playing team sports.
As a former county athlete, I've always recognised the value of sport to the individual. But for children the feeling of being part of a team regardless of whether it's winning or losing cannot be underestimated. It can only be a good thing to know that somebody else, in addition to your mum (or dad), has your back and is looking out for you. Actually it's not just one other person, there's a whole team of them. They want you to be successful and will support you because that, in turn, makes them successful too. Team sports are a beautiful thing.