This is my daughter, aged 10, and this is the moment she made the team. She wasn’t going to be playing her first game until a week later; but even so the whole kit had to be tried on there and then, shin pads and all. Her sense of pride is evident; that smile speaks volumes. It was the Spring following our move from the UK to Canada; and the first time in her life she had seen herself as someone who could do sports. Up until that point she had always classed herself as one of the ‘unsporty’ kids, who never got picked. I say always. It followed numerous experiences in school of trying and falling short. It’s a feeling all too familiar to many, her own mother included. Just a quick poll on twitter has indicated that out of over 1300 people who responded, 40% would refer to themselves as ‘not sporty’ at school, rather than seeing themselves as ‘sporty’ (35%) or ‘somewhere in between’ (25%). Given our growing concerns about obesity, alongside how we know physical activity is good for emotional well-being, cognitive development and concentration; that is a huge percentage of children who potentially write themselves off. Those feelings don’t go away, often impacting on our relationship to physical activity throughout our lives.
The soccer league in Toronto was different to anything I had come across in the UK, despite years of searching. I had been determined that, unlike me, my children should have sport in their life. However, given that it didn’t come easily to them, finding a club or setting that wasn’t highly competitive had been impossible; especially after the age of about 6. This league was huge, with about eighteen teams all randomly allocated. Each team was sponsored by a shop on the high street – hence the Yogurty’s logo on her shirt. Every Tuesday evening the teams comprising of children from all different schools, would congregate on a large field with 9 soccer pitches marked out, playing each other throughout the season. The teams were made up of mixed abilities; including some children with learning disabilities.
It was local, relaxed and most importantly, fun. Each week my daughter got a really good work out – coming off the pitch hot and sweaty and with a sense of accomplishment that is hard to beat, regardless of the outcome of the game. Sometimes they would win, sometimes they would lose, sometimes she would score, often she would not. The random nature of the teams kept it open. Of course, she would be delighted if they beat the other side, but either way she still had a great time. Over the course of the season, everybody’s game improved. Team members took it in turn to supply half time refreshments – cut-up melon or oranges; and new friends were made by us both. The dog came too, of course. It helped that we were usually bathed in evening sunshine.
I don’t underestimate the organisation that went into setting up and running that league, and associated leagues on different days, but it seemed to be a shared endeavour. The coaches and assistant coaches were also randomly allocated to their teams, and tended to be parents or local teachers and youth workers. It was very laid back, and encouragement and enthusiasm seemed as important as any technical knowledge of the game, although some solid coaching with a focus on team work was evident. More experienced coaches were paired with less experienced assistants, and many had been doing it for years. The referees tended to be 16 and 17 year olds, all trained and doing it as part of their volunteering for high school. No-one can graduate in Canada without accruing a set number of volunteer hours, and, as such, it is considered as important as the academic aspect of school. What a great way to give back to your community.
The fee for the league was nominal, and the kit was supplied by the high street sponsors. At the start of the season there was a table of boots laid out according to size and you could help yourself if you didn’t have any, or swap a pair each season as your child’s feet grew. The sponsors got a good deal in local advertising – especially Yogurtys, as their team frequented the frozen yogurt joint as part of their social meet ups. The team photo was displayed in pride of place in the shop, and other teams could be spotted in the butchers, the opticians, the fish mongers and just about every other business on the high street. It really was a community affair; and something most kids seemed to be involved in. On the final Sunday of the season there were play offs, with first, second and third placings, but that really did seem incidental. My daughter played in the soccer league for all three summers we spent in the country. It was hard moving from Yogurty’s as a sponsor, but finding out who you had next and going to see your picture in the shop was all part of the fun.
There were, of course, more competitive leagues too and competition in sport is alive and well in Canada. Indeed, I have read some pretty terrifying articles about the world of kid’s hockey and what it takes to make it to the top. The point is that there is also lots of team sports that aren’t competitive to the same extent, and that pretty much every child has the opportunity to be part of. After a year or so my daughter also took up Ultimate Frisbee in a similar set up, which she really loved. She had tried it at school first, had been encouraged by her teacher, and felt positively enough about it to go along to a club. There were lots of other options including baseball, basketball and hockey, of course. In the winter there were over 50 ice rinks to skate on, all free, and exchanges to swap your skates as you outgrew them each year. In the summer the outdoor pools were free, as was public transport. It all felt easy, accessible and something that was open to everyone.
On our return to the UK my daughter went into year 8 of high school. Very quickly she was ‘streamed’ in PE and put in bottom set. Like a switch I saw her confidence in her sporting abilities disappear over night. When I ask now how PE is going she groans. At the regular cross country race she tells me she walks at the back to keep her friends who also dislike sport company. She is still part of a team, only now it’s the ‘don’t do sport’ team. Fortunately she loves dance, and is part of an intensive class outside of school. She is a great dancer but flexibility is something that she finds tough. She perseveres because she enjoys it, and she loves meeting up with her friends of course. It is not cheap, and many families would simply not be able to afford it. Without dance I am not sure what she would do for physical activity; and it is something that really saddens me – especially as I know it can be so different.
It also makes me think about the role of sport for the more vulnerable children in our communities. Without any doubt for some it is a lifeline, but my guess is they happen to be the ‘sporty’ ones already. Going back to the poll it really does seem to be a clear dividing line here in the UK – either you are or you aren’t sporty with only 25% seeing themselves as somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t have to be that way, and if we want to tackle major issues facing our society like obesity, isolation, screen addiction as well as providing lifelines for our most vulnerable young people then we need to take action. The pay offs for children, their futures, ourselves, our communities and even our high streets is worth it.
My starter for ten would be to start in school by not grading sport; and certainly not streaming kids into sets. Instead I would ask them do they want to do fitness for fun or for competition, and group them accordingly. They could always swap if they changed their mind, or showed real potential that needed to be nurtured. If the purpose of the lesson became enjoyment with fitness as a by product what a gift for the rest of their lives that would be.