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June 19th, 2014

Football Feelings

Boys playing rugbyMy nephew is 13 and he has been crazy about rugby since he could kick a ball around. It’s a passion he shares with his father and his uncle and the three of them are most happy when playing or talking about the game.  My nephew won a sports’ scholarship at his prestige private school on the strength of his prowess with a ball. He is also learning some valuable life lessons on the rugby field.

I was struck by comments in a recent article by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Atlantic (The Confidence Gap, April 14, 2014) which describes the difference between men and women in terms of confidence. One of the reasons they attribute to women’s lower levels of confidence is their experiences with failure growing up. Girls are less likely to get in trouble at school because “They have longer attention spans, more-advanced verbal and fine-motor skills, and greater social adeptness. They generally don’t charge through the halls like wild animals, or get into fights during recess. Soon they learn that they are most valuable, and most in favor, when they do things the right way: neatly and quietly. … In turn, they begin to crave the approval they get for being good. …the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in their stride. ”

Taking part in sports exposes one to the experience of taking risks and making mistakes. It can teach one to accept making mistakes and learning from them. If he works on his techniques, skills and strategies over time a child can learn that he can improve with effort and he also learns resilience. Taking part in competition feeds on boys’ natural testosterone- fuelled competitiveness and it makes them relish winning.  Kay and Shipman argue that boys’ greater exposure to sports gives a confidence edge as they ‘flick off losses’.

They also mention that “Boys also benefit from the lessons they learn -or, more to the point, the lessons they teach one another-during recess and after school. From kindergarten on, they roughhouse, tease one another, point out one another’s limitations, and call one another morons and slobs. In the process … such evaluations ‘lose a lot of their power.’ Boys thus make one another more resilient. Other psychologists we spoke with believe that this playground mentality encourages them later, as men, to let other people’s tough remarks slide off their backs.”

This weekend my nephew learnt a very valuable lesson on the rugby field thanks to the sensitive parenting of his father and uncle. He played on the Saturday for his school and his team were not doing very well against a very competent side. At one point a friend of his had been tackled and was getting a beating from an opponent while on the ground. My nephew went to defend his friend and overstepped the mark. He was sent off. He was mortified then, feeling he’d let his side down and himself. The next day he was due to play for a club side and was told he would not be allowed to play because of the sending off in the previous game. He came over to where his father and uncle were standing, very down in the dumps and a bit teary.

His father did not tell him to suck it up, that life was like that and there’d be other games. He did not tell him he was reaping the consequences of his lack of judgment the previous day. Nor did his uncle say “Poor you. That’s so tough. It was really unfair that you got singled out and the guy on the opposing team who was doing the wrong thing didn’t get picked up at all.”

Instead his dad acknowledged how he felt. He told him he understood how his feelings had got the better of him in the moment and how embarrassed he felt now. He acknowledged that it must feel unfair. He told his son he trusted that he had learnt a valuable lesson, that he needed to trust the referee to take care of things when there was unfair play on the field, and that sometimes referees missed things and this was something you lived with when you played the game. He applauded his son’s urge to protect his mate. He let his boy know he knew that he felt he was letting down his side. Only then did he say “and you can help out your team from the sidelines today. You can go back over there and give out the water and support your mates.” The boy did go back over and his team did that male sportsman thing of backslapping and handshakes that clearly let him know without any more words that he was accepted.

He learnt that his feelings were ok. He learnt that he was ok. He learnt that he could learn from his mistakes and he still have the respect of the important adults in his life and his friends. He is learning resilience, to slough off the mistakes and to pick himself up and have another go. He is developing confidence.

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