Defence! Defence! Get it on the rebound! Who’s marking number seven?
I’m sitting on a bottom-numbing wooden bench in a cavernous sports hall somewhere off the M50, watching my son’s basketball team. There are two matches going on simultaneously, and the combined noise of the crowd, whistles, hooters, bouncing balls and even the squeak of basketball boots on the shiny wooden floor, is ear-splitting. All around me there are other parents, team managers and coaches shouting encouragement at the boys and enthusiastically analysing every move and every decision by the referee.
The bafflement comes partly from having only a rudimentary knowledge of the rules of the game, but mainly from my complete failure to understand what everyone is getting so worked up about. I can manage some enthusiastic clapping when the team scores, but that’s about the height of it. I’m fairly detached from the whole business.
I always bring a book or the weekend papers for the inevitable hanging around before and between matches, but I am alone in this. Other parents spend the time in yet more dissection of team tactics, pre and post match analysis and critiques of the referee and the team coach. I know any sports fanatic reading will hate me for this, but all I can think while all this is going on is ‘Come ON, they’re eleven years old, and after all (I think we all know what’s coming next) it’s only a game’.
My ambivalence probably stems from my own childhood experience of sports. I was the quintessential non-sporty kid: skinny, uncoordinated, slow. The last one picked for the teams in gym class. Thanks to undiagnosed asthma, a wheezing mess after each enforced run round the convent grounds. I tried a few different sports – tennis, badminton and, unforgettably, camogie. I was rubbish at them all.
My inglorious camogie career came to an end on a lonely UCD pitch when I was about ten. I was representing Na Fianna and we were playing our sworn enemies, Marino, who always beat us. I was in goal, where it was felt I could do the least damage. The golden rule of goalkeeping had been drilled into me – block, block, block the ball first, and only then clear it. We were doing pretty well and I was having an unusually quiet game. Then a Marino forward took an optimistic swing from a long way out. There wasn’t much power behind the shot, and the sliotar rolled sedately towards me. No problem, I thought to myself, instantly forgetting everything I had been taught. As the ball reached me it had lost almost all momentum, so I took a wild swipe at it. And missed. It trickled on, and came to a stop about six inches over the goal line, to the delighted amazement of the Marino team.
Unsurprisingly, my teammates and coach were less than impressed with this display and expressed their displeasure fairly vocally. It was one of the most humiliating moments of my life.
These memories are what have me on edge when I watch my son play basketball. His dad’s athletic accomplishments were, if anything, even less impressive than my own, and it’s fair to say that when it comes to sporting prowess, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.
Our boy is capable of scoring baskets, but is too hesitant to fight for the ball or to dribble up the court with it. He gets into good positions and relies on others to pass it to him, but he is prone to occasionally fluffing the catch. Though not actually watching through my fingers, I do worry that some day he will make an error which will be viewed by his teammates and their parents as catastrophic. I dread the potential fallout.
When he first joined the basketball club, he was very sensitive to the usual slagging and dressing room joking that went on, and there were a few tears shed after training sessions. He found it hard to identify with some of his teammates, many of whom take basketball very seriously indeed. Thanks to a sympathetic coach, he’s fitting in better now and goes to training willingly enough, but if he were to give it up tomorrow he wouldn’t miss it too much.
However, that would leave him playing no sport at all. Here in sports-mad Ireland, a boy who doesn’t play sport is almost viewed as an aberration. He has little interest in football, although he nominally ‘supports’ Liverpool so he can belong to a mini-tribe at school. We tried GAA when he was a lot younger, and I loved the inclusive, family atmosphere at our local club, where everyone got a game, regardless of ability. However, as the years went on and he watched other boys develop those incredible hurling skills, he increasingly lost heart. It became ever more difficult to persuade him to go to training so I let him give it up.
He showed no interest in taking up another sport. But, with the words of teachers and other parents ringing in my ears (“team sport is so character-building!” “they need an outlet for all that energy!”), I cast around for an alternative. Unimaginatively, I chose basketball because he’s very tall for his age.
Sometimes I feel guilty that I have railroaded him into playing sport. But nor do I want him to turn into a lardy, couch-dwelling gamer. I view it simply as a way for him to get some exercise and mix with other boys his own age from a variety of backgrounds. I don’t care about matches and the whole winning and losing thing. But I’ll be there to support him if he has a ‘Marino moment’ and to reassure him that life will, in fact, go on.