Sport is so much more than a game. It is so much more than just entertainment. It teaches us so many lessons about life.
It was the French writer Albert Camus who played in goal who said “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.”
Nelson Mandela, a boxer in his youth, famously said when he became president of South Africa after 27 years in prison, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.”
When I was six years old I came home from primary school and told my parents we had a sports carnival coming up. I remember my grandfather and my mother telling me if I wanted to do well I needed to train for it. Every day after school I used to go to the top of our garden and one of them would be the starter and the other the finish line. I would run as fast as my six year old legs could carry me between the two of them and our rose beds. Come the Carnival, I won the sprint. So ecstatic was I as soon as I broke the tape I ran to find my grandad and my mum. I was so happy, so happy I forgot to get my prize. I think in that moment, although I did not realise it at the time, I found out that winning was important, but how you won was more important than the prize.
Our parents have a huge influence on us when we start out playing sport, probably greater than some parents realise. Today we have the horrible sight of the sideline parent shouting at their children as well as the opposition.
In my youth there was less of this, and when a parent did start shouting the others would soon tell them to shut up. Sheer weight of numbers forced the offending parent to quieten down.
Back then many a parent took on the role of coach. They were not qualified, they had no coaching badges, but they did their best to make us all better players instilling the basic skills that had been instilled in them and their fathers before them. They gave us the grounding, the foundation from which we could grow into better athletes.
When I was a young boy, rain, hail or shine, my mum would be there on the touchline or at the edge of the boundary to watch me play rugby, football, hockey or cricket. As far as I know she had never played any of the sports; long jump had been her event. Yet she religiously came to support me. If I was out of line on the pitch I was soon told after the final whistle.
When I reached my teens and had to get to the nearest town from our village to continue playing sport, with an irregular bus service, my mum would give a lift the seven miles into town so I could pursue my sporting endeavours. To her it was important that I played. It was important as it taught me some of the harsh realities of the real world. It had me interacting with others, it had me taking physical exercise. However the one key component in being given a lift to games, or to places where I could get a lift to a game, was that I had to be committed. I was expected to take the sport seriously, to practise, to have clean kit, turn up on time, attend club functions. I was part of a team and I must not let my team mates down. I had a duty to them and the club I represented.
Sport has given me some wonderful times in my life and seen me make many lasting friendships. I am now extremely privileged to make a living commentating and writing on sport.
This weekend my mother passed away after a long battle with Alzheimers and Dementia, a cruel and humiliating disease. I know I had thanked her for her support during those early years, and I know I have thanked her for being my personal taxi service, but I am not sure I ever thanked her for all that I have learned due to the opportunity of being involved in sport.
I still carry the memory of running between our rosebuds at the top of our garden every day after school. It taught me that if you want to achieve something, you must put in the work. It gave me that sense of achievement at an early age, one that I wanted to feel in so many aspects of my life and still do, but know the work that must be done first.
Sometimes the lessons we learn do not come from coaches with pieces of paper, they come from those close to us, who know us best, and how to get the best out of us.
Thank you mum for supporting me in my sporting pursuits on and off the pitch, the lessons you taught will never be forgotten.
(I apologise if this post is self indulgent, but my parents were a great support to me during my early sporting years, keeping me grounded while instilling me with belief).