This story starts back in the Spring. Whilst playing in the park with the other children looked after by our child-minder, Robert began to show a real interest in football. We’d often pick him up in the evening to be greeted with tales of games they’d played, what positions he enjoyed playing in and how many goals he’d scored.
Now at this point I should probably set the scene a little more clearly. As a father, I’ve never pushed Robert towards any particular sport. Whilst I enjoy watching the odd international or club match, I’m not a massive football fan and subsequently don’t spend a lot of time discussing football with Robert.
Having said that, I’ve certainly never discouraged him from developing any sporting interests, and so when he started showing a liking for Football, Sara offered to investigate Football training sessions for him – and Robert was keen.
Fast forward to last month, and we’d finally found a training session which was both local AND fitted in with the timings of our work/home life juggle. The Saturday-morning sessions were held over in Caversham (just a couple of miles away) AND were also attended by one of Robert’s school friends – so we assumed we were in safe hands.
The following week, we found ourselves in a shoe shop, purchasing shoes for both boys for the upcoming term. Having found Robert some school shoes and trainers (he’d gone up another half size, as usual) Sara picked up a pair of shiny football shoes and suggested we add them to the pile.
Now I’m all for getting equipped for the activity you’re doing, and I certainly don’t want to deprive my children of things they want. But it was at this point that I had a flash-back to my own childhood. I remembered a cub scout uniform, abandoned in my wardrobe after only 4 or 5 weeks because I didn’t like the rough boys in cubs; I remembered a karate uniform tossed aside after only 2 sessions; and I remembered at least 2 different musical instruments, both cast aside when I realised I didn’t have much musical talent.
So I suggested that perhaps we should wait until we find out whether he actually enjoys football training before we start investing in kit.
This may have been my first mistake.
Fast forward to this morning – Saturday had finally arrived, and after a week of excitedly looking forward to it, Robert was strapping on his shin pads and football socks (a gift from his aunt for his last birthday) and getting prepared to leave. Realising that we hadn’t really explained what the sessions involved, Sara and I sat him down to explain what went on – and that he’d be wearing his own clothes this week, since we weren’t sure what the boys at these sessions wore. But we assured Robert that we’d get him a uniform this week provided he enjoyed today’s session.
It was at this stage that he started to panic. The tears came, the protests started – Robert no longer wanted to attend, as he didn’t want to “look different” and wasn’t ready for football training after all.
Being the sensible parents we are, we ignored his protests and calmly explained that he’d probably love it, that we’d buy him the uniform next week and that there was no harm in giving it a try – if he didn’t like it, we’d stop there and we wouldn’t be at all upset.
With child placated, we headed off to the sports field. The plan was for me to stay with Robert while Sara and Freddie headed off to the supermarket – no point in all of us staying, and Robert had asked for me to be the one who stuck around and watched his football debut.
As you might have guessed by this point, Robert’s fears returned quickly when we got to the sports field. Upon seeing the size of the gathering (there must have been almost 100 children, and at least 40 adults) he started panicking and refusing to join in.
Unfortunately, as we’d arrived just as things were kicking off (pun intended) most of the children – a lot of whom seemed to already know each other, presumably having attended regularly – were already playing. We found the right age group – and Robert’s school friend – and encouraged Robert to head into the melee and join in.
He flatly refused. As we had predicted, most of the attending children were wearing the same football kit (including those dreaded football boots) and there were dozens of mums and dads cheering on their children from the sidelines.
Whilst I continued to encourage Robert to have a go and join in, I wasn’t that surprised at his reaction. It would take a pretty brave child to run straight into a group of strangers and play a game he wasn’t really sure how to play – all the while surrounded by shouting grown-ups and screaming older children.
Sadly, Robert is more than a little hesitant in the face of new challenges. As a rule, you’ve got to give him a good sized warning before thrusting something new on him – whether it’s a surprise school trip or a new face at home. So I’m not at all surprised that he was nervous.
At this stage, I have to admit I probably didn’t push him as much as Sara might have if she had been the one who stayed at the sports field – but having been in plenty of similar situations myself when I was young, I didn’t want to force him into something which he clearly didn’t want to do yet.
So we decided to sit and watch a game or two and see if they invited him to join in at the next break.
We sat and watched his school friend playing an impressively-skilled game of 5-a-side with his team mates – though I found myself more amused watching the collection of competitive dads on the sidelines, all fulfilling the classic stereotype of fathers keen to ensure their progeny’s followed in their own football-loving footsteps. I didn’t ask, but I’d lay good money on 75% of them having tried out for a “proper” football team in their youth – and 100% of them thinking they could do a better job at teaching it than the coaches were doing.
As the first game came and went, Robert was showing less and less interest – so we decided to take a walk round the sports field, to keep ourselves occupied until Sara came back to collect us both.
Thankfully, his mood improved significantly when we wandered into the woods, where he started collecting sticks and building a small structure from them and a collection of leaves and stones. So I decided to cut our losses and let him keep this up until it was time to leave.
As we sat in the long grass, I asked Robert why he was so averse to joining in? As he nervously explained to me, it turns out he had rather underestimated what football training involved. He’d (apparently) been under the impression that he would be joining his school-friend in the park with a few other children and having a kick-about. He “didn’t realise there would be so many children” there and didn’t actually know any of the rules of football.
I explained that none of this matters, and that he could still enjoy football with his friends whether he went to training or not, and that we wouldn’t mind either way if he decided not to come again. And so it was that he decided football training wasn’t for him, and we went home, both feeling a little sad but relieved.
In the following hours, the mood in our household was tense to say the least. I started to wonder whether I should actually have pushed him to join in more than I did. Am I letting my own preferences affect my son? In which case, am I just as bad as those pushy dads on the sidelines, screaming at their child to “GET THE BLOODY BALL!” and “STOP CRYING AND GET UP!”?
I’ve yet to come to a conclusion on the subject – and I suspect this issue may rear it’s head again many times in Robert’s childhood. It’ll be very interesting to see how Freddie handles a similar situation – Fred is much more of a “dive in first, think second” kind of child, and certainly isn’t as apprehensive as his brother in new situations. Will he prove me wrong and turn out to be the sporting progeny our family is missing?
I honestly don’t know – and I’d like to think I don’t mind either way.
After all, the only thing I really care about when it comes to what my children like or dislike is that it makes them happy.
Did I give up too easily? Should I try to force my children to overcome the fears that I myself may have had? Or should I accept their genetic predispositions and just let them figure it out for themselves? Let me know in the comments – I’m all ears!