Recently, The Huffington Post Australia reported on the worried words of prominent football coach Graham Arnold, who bemoaned that this traditionally fiercely proud sporting nation, with its "modern" or "namby-pamby" policies about children, was breeding a generation of uncompetitive Australians.
It brought to mind the experiences of this sideline-dad and football-lover regarding his two daughters and their, shall we say, slowly developing love of the world game, as well as the attitudes discovered when you make your second coming to junior playing fields as a parent.
The background is that I was helping my girls with their soccer skills the other day, to try to help them in the mixed league they play in on Saturdays. They say they enjoy it, but I had become worried they were starting to hang back a little. Or a lot. In fact, the ball had become an object of about as much desire to them as a Brussels sprout.
As a sports nut, this was a very disorienting thing -- to be watching someone play football and realise they don't have "get the ball" as their primary objective (this obviously excludes bitter-old professionals who want a transfer to another club, and Fernando Torres in his Chelsea days).
If you're used to seeing pros slide in, two-footed, in a ball-getting effort which may or may not break the legs of anyone in the way, it's bizarre to see another, smaller person stand still and watch, nonplussed, as the name of the game simply rolls past. Imagine a potter at her wheel, blithely carrying on despite an absence of clay.
I wanted my sweet little girls to tear in. I wanted my sweet little girls to have more mongrel in them. As enlightened parents of close-in-age siblings know, the best way is to pit them against each other. So I ramped up midweek training. I'd kick the ball away and the girls, nine and eight, would chase it -- suddenly desperately. One would win possession, fiercely, and bring it back, proudly.
I was encouraged, on the score of sporting pride, that the first time we did this our eldest insisted that, however inappropriate and possibly quite life-threatening, she would wear the sports medal she'd been presented that week at school around her neck.
Soon the youngest showed more zeal to usurp her big sister, whose motivation then sagged. Like an old coach I urged the elder to "reach deep inside and lift". Without a moment's hesitation, she looked into the middle distance and said she couldn't be bothered.
It's also hard for a sports nut to react to such a non-reaction. In all my hearings of pep talks from junior coaches imploring us to try harder, I'd never once seen a player look up and go: "Why?"
Sport is nice and straightforward. That's why it's easier to watch than most movies. You never have to ponder a character's motivations. He's running that way because the goal is there.
"Come on," I ratcheted. "I bet you showed more commitment when you won that medal."
"Daddy," she said patiently. "I didn't win anything to get this medal. I got it for taking part."
"Aaah -- now we've got to the root of the problem," said this crusty old dad/coach, adding for good measure that we'd also got to "the unraveling of society as a whole".
No I didn't. That's far too Dark Ages. But I was in the ball park. Team sport -- a great teacher -- should be user-friendly for all. We should strive to ensure it does not disenfranchise disillusioned, crestfallen kids who are always last-picked, as it was in the Darwinian days of my childhood.
But care must also be taken to ensure it instills -- apart from sociality, fitness and perhaps teamwork -- at least some competitive spirit, which helps ingrain a bit of drive. You should gain rewards for striving hard, not just for turning up. Otherwise, do we not breed a sense of entitlement? The rot all started when some bleeding heart decided there should be prizes for all in pass-the-parcel...
In the late 1980s, as England was racing towards its sporting nadir, some British schools decided to ban competitive sport. Then government schools decided to award ribbons to everyone, prompting the despairing (but fabulous) Daily Mail headline "Winning banned in two thirds of schools".
The decision-makers didn't like the fact that sport exposed certain sides of human nature. But out with the bath water went the baby. Sport shines a light on all aspects of human nature -- some less savoury, some magnificent and inspiring. Or, as former no-nonsense Greece centre-half Plato once said: "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."
As for the fear of children feeling both ends of life's emotional spectrum, in an age where disappointment has apparently been outlawed, see the General George S. Patton quote, much loved by AFL coaching and playing great, Leigh Matthews: "Accept the challenge without reservation or doubt, and risk the depression of losing, so you may experience the exhilaration of victory."
And we all know what they say about sport keeping people off the streets...
"When sport was banned at our school," says my English friend Mickey, "we had to find another outlet. We took to competitive dope smoking. We were very good at it, but the chess nerds weren't. They did two things: One was play chess. The other was get bullied mercilessly for playing chess."
Everything changed, however, when the school's chess team went to the British under-16 national championships -- and won the thing.
"Starved as we were of any form of competitive sport, these guys were cheered to the rafters, transformed into heroes. There was even a rumour one of them got laid."
Still, there's a balance when you're a sideline dad. One I knew used to yell reminders to his eight-year-old that he was on $10 per goal scored. That dad had crossed one kind of boundary.
My sideline gang are all dads of daughters. We walk a line, wanting our girls to enjoy and succeed, not wanting to "encourage" too loudly, not wanting to tear our remaining hair out when they commit a sin like watching a ball roll by, or having a chat in the backline.
You wonder how much is nature. When our eldest was three, I bought her a collection of various balls. She promptly set them out and treated them to a tea party.
One of my sideline mates was thrilled when his daughter wore her soccer kit for two days after her first match. That was until she chirped: "Daddy! I love love lo-o-ove my football costume!"
That's not such a bad thing. Neither is a reasonable dose of competitiveness.