Schools, parents must teach balance between decency and victory
By Rohit Brijnath
SPORTING classiness arrived abruptly in a corridor last month. Roger Federer is walking to the dressing room in London when he collides with Rafael Nadal's family. They greet him, hug him, kiss him. It is a fine moment, for he has just beaten their boy in the ATP World Tour Finals.
If you're a coach in Singapore, a PE teacher, a parent, an old boy, find this 30-odd second video, mail it to your kid.
Send them a clip of a footballer extending a hand to a prostrate opponent. Or Manny Pacquiao refusing to further pummel an already battered opponent. Paste in their dressing rooms this quote from Nadal's coach, Toni, who said: 'If you ever throw a racket, we're finished.'
Do all this because the battle for fair play, for decency on a pitch, for a cessation of on-field violence born of overcompetitiveness, is an unending struggle. Do all this because the subliminal messages school kids get from television are constant and often dark.
Swearing at referees. Two-footed tackles. Punch-throwing teammates. Deliberate hits in American football that leave rivals concussed. Drug-taking. Brawling dads at a recent junior tennis match in Australia, where a line-call fracas led to a call for paramedics. Kids see, they learn.
In the recent report by the Committee on Safety in School Sports, fair play wasn't forgotten. Its focus was safety, its call to schools, coaches, parents to respect rules, its inference that to go too far competitively is to lose sight of sport itself and endanger self and rival.
We've all, as kids, limped off with torn muscle, bruised ankle, cut lip - the inevitable wounds of combat - but they can come from a natural process of play or from an unhealthy, calculated want to gain advantage.
For sport to retain its value for kids, if its virtues of health, teamwork, sacrifice, nobility, discipline are to stay relevant, then they must be constantly addressed. In living room and dressing room. Not solely as a safety issue, but as an encompassing, admirable philosophy.
Fair play comes partially from parent, for the son mimics the father. If he sees him casually reposition a golf ball on a Sunday round, or absolve chicanery like a Thierry Henry handball, an osmosis has already begun.
No one need underplay competition, nor discount the allure of inter-school rivalry, for this is a fun-soaked, passion-kissed, lung-busting business, not an over-65 embroidery contest. It is just that sport exists in a framework, bound by chalk lines and also codes. Parents cannot be oblivious to this, while careful to maintain, in this amateur world, the distinction between involved and pushy.
Are they proud only in victory, or also in effort? Do they advocate hardiness or recklessness? Do they shout 'Kill the bitch', as tennis player Mary Pierce's father did, or point to the quaint, enduring customs of rugby players lining up to shake hands after bruising encounters?
But not every parent watches sport, and fair play essentially is the school coach's domain. He is the only one who is privy to the team as a whole, his word is their collective law, his locker room a classroom. He either teaches the idea of journeys or only of destinations. He has a choice to let fair play, like provocative sledging, be some vague unwritten law, or write them down on posters.
He can either be US coach Gary Frederick, who was thrilled when his college softball team incredibly carried a rival player around the bases when she hit a home run but tore a ligament in her knee while trying to run. As he said: 'You're proud to be associated with these kids.'
Or he can be the Haitian coach, at the Youth Olympic Games, who looked on mute as his team time-wasted against Singapore in a fashion too cynical for that age.
School coaches require their own education to become adequate preachers. They must know safety, the laws of the game, how to build winners and also character. But the coach is an employee, not some freelance evangelist, he takes his cues from a higher authority - the school.
Schools are rightly proud of sport, so are any of us who tugged on a school team shirt and got a first taste of tribalism. Part of the joy of old boy gatherings are strolls down hallways past familiar cabinets full of trophies we had a hand in.
In time, schools forge sporting traditions, their prowess a means of attracting both interested parents and funding. We like this, the all-round school; we are not always sure if we like the school that imports foreign talent.
It is not necessarily unfair, but when winning becomes a school's only stilted anthem, perspective is abandoned. Injured kids are played. Rough-housing is smiled at. Needling ignored. Cheating shrugged at. The very idea of why we want our children to run free gets confused.
The lazy misconception is that fair play somehow precludes victory. It is nonsense, a fundamentalist view. It is not one or the other, it is not a choice, these are not opposing ideas but in fact complementary ones.
Like perfection in sport, fair play is not easy to find, but we are compelled to pursue it, especially in these youthful harbours in a results-driven land.
So we must learn, must hold seminars, institute fair play awards, paint slogans in dressing rooms, send pamphlets home. Our success lies in the filtering down of the idea that schoolboy excellence is possible with dignity, that girlish warriors can be decent folk. And that safe, honourable, fun, passionate play is worth striving for.
Certainly Rafael Nadal must have learnt this balance at school, and at home, to say once with a telling beauty: 'Before the match, you are who you are, and after the match, you have to know who you are, too. You are the same, no?'
[Beautiful quote. Meaningful too.]