A Question of Sport. By Keith White

After we had dealt with the dustbins and recycling on a Monday evening, four of us decided to have a friendly game of snooker: two against two.  The youngest member of the group, who is still at junior school chose me as his partner.  Our opponents were both adults.  We knew each other well and as we broke off, there was no needle and much mutual encouragement characterised by friendly banter.

But from the very start it didn’t go well for my partner and me.  I missed a couple of sitters, and my partner even missed the cue ball.  We managed to pot a few balls between us and set up a snooker or two, but the final result was never in doubt.  Inexorably the gap between the two sides grew on the scoreboard. And as the game wore on my young friend grew more and more frustrated, until he said he wanted to quit. He handed over his cue and made for the door. It took quite a lot of gentle persuasion from all of us to keep him engaged until the end.  But when the game was over and the final score announced he left the room in a huff saying that he wasn’t going to play again.

I know how he felt and why, but as far as I can recall, it had never occurred to me however young I was, to quit a game of sport, or any other game for that matter. I write as one who took the playing of sport for granted: I never knowingly turned down an offer to play with other children whatever the game happened to be, and that included games like Chess and Draughts.  Most of the play was friendly with no record kept of the results and nothing tangible to show for a victory.  But in time I became involved in leagues and cups in a number of sports, including football, cricket, table tennis, tennis, athletics, and rugby, with my main sport being badminton. In the process I managed to notch up a few modest medals and trophies. I have always attributed this love of sport in part at least to the fact that I grew up at Mill Grove where there were always enough of us to make up the necessary teams.  But the fact is that both my parents played sport and they modelled it for me, and at senior school and then universities, there was plenty of opportunity to play in excellent facilities.

So my friend’s experience and attitude raised a fundamental question:  what advantages are there in playing competitive sport?  Put another way, how does sport help to shape a person’s character and inner world for good?  He was very young and let’s hope there is plenty ahead of him, but he is not being taught team sport, and neither are his parents introducing him to team games, or modelling together how to cope under stress.  I hope that over the years it will be possible to nurture this in a game or games of his choice.

You can see that I have to distance myself from my own experience to even begin to work out what a person is missing if they never play competitive sport.  As I have reflected on this it turns out that it seems to be a good deal. Sport mirrors life in certain ways, and it is like play in young animals, a way of developing and honing skills that will used later in life.  There are reflexes, and the coordination skills of hand, foot and eye.  There is the discovery of what teamwork entails, including leadership and following.  And there is the need to recognise and assess the qualities, strategies and tactics of the opponents. But a key thing, common to all sport, is that you often find yourself playing in conditions not of your own preference and choosing.  And losing is always part of the experience.

I still recall my very first representative game of sport.  It was a football match against another school. I was ten at the time.  We lost 8-0.  The opponents were older and bigger than us.  The pitch was sloping.  The wind seemed to be against us all the match, and the ball was too heavy to kick more than a few yards.  But there was never a thought of quitting, and after the dispiriting game our coach assured us that this was par for the course.  Within a season the tables would be turned.  And his words were proved right.  The very next year our team consisting of exactly the same players, now considerably more experienced and battle-hardened, won the double in our local area.

A key attitude that develops in the whole process is that of continuing to do your best for yourself and for the team when everything seems to be against you.  Any sportsperson could list dozens of times when things were going badly.  I am not sure if this is what was meant by the saying that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but from what I know of the battle it did not go well for the allies for much of the time, and was a close-run thing. So sticking it out, and not giving up was a necessary condition of winning.

Now we know that life itself, real life, is also like this.  We all operate, by definition, in conditions not of our own making or choosing.  And the question is how we function in adversity.  Are we able to rise above the conditions, not just for our own good, but crucially for the benefit of others in our family and group of friends?

In therapeutic care we are trying to find ways of preparing children and young people for real life, when many if not most in our care, have experienced the traumas associated with real life going so badly that it has already hurt and scarred them deeply.  And there are many ways in which we go about that process.  What I wonder is how much serious attention we give to the question of whether team sport might be one of the keys in the process for at least some of the young people we seek to help  I really don’t know and would be fascinated to find out more.  What I do know is that those alongside young people in difficult urban situations often find sport one of the ways in which they can relate to such people, and with sports such as boxing, basketball, and football, teach them some of the basic physical and emotional skills that equip them for life.  I am not sure if this is equally true of boys and girls and would appreciate any data or reflections on gender differences.

Over recent decades the term resilience has become significant in the assessment and understanding of young people.  Has there been research on resilience and sport, I wonder?  And are there other activities that have a similar effect?  As I write this I realise that music has been used and beneficial in just such a way.  I remember instantly Russell Burgess and the Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir in England, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela, and Daniel Barenboim in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Palestine.  All deliberately chose and used music as a means of developing character, belonging, and teamwork.

We know of play therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, role play and so much more, but have we given sufficient attention to the benefits of team sport?  Isn’t one of the ways we can conceive of sport as a form of role play that abstracts certain features from everyday life and relationships?  And if confidence building is critical in self-esteem and development, then we need to identify those who may have the necessary abilities and skills to build that confidence in games of their choice.

Which reminds me, in closing, of an evening at the Newton Dee Camphill Community in Scotland.  I was staying as a guest, and had offered to help with a session of basketball in a nearby gym.  I found myself responsible for picking one of the teams, with nothing to go on except appearances and kit.  One I chose to be part of our team looked every inch a superb athlete, and he was dressed impeccably.  However when the whistle blew at the start of the game, he retreated immediately to the wall outside the court, and spent the whole game running round it.  Not once did he grace the court with his presence or even encourage his team-mates with a cheer.  Meanwhile on the other team there was small, rotund person with Downs Syndrome.  He was dressed in the same clothes he had used when gardening during the afternoon. He never moved throughout the game, and remained rooted on the spot.  It wasn’t long before I realised it was not a randomly-chosen spot.  It was exactly where penalties are taken from, and whenever the ball was thrown to him, he lobbed it using two hands, and without looking up, got it into the net every time (perhaps my memory has glorified his achievements unduly).  We lost the game, and I was just a little wiser.

I am obviously not arguing that team sport is for everyone, but on the other hand, I think its therapeutic potential may have been underestimated.  It would be really interesting to hear what you think.


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