I’ve had a variation of a dream often. My daughter is on a football pitch. She collects the ball high up from a slightly wayward pass. She brings it under her control, twisting from an oncoming opponent, drops her shoulder and taps the ball in to open field before giving it chase and then prods it further down the pitch, running at opponents in her attempt to make for goal.
Sometimes in the dream, she’ll pass the ball right outside the penalty box, only to be given a return pass a few feet from goal and she taps the ball in. I’ll often dream she’s playing golf where I’m her caddy and sometimes, I’ll dream of her as a pole vaulter. And yet, the most satisfying part of this dream is not that she’s winning, but that she’s playing sport. So, while winning and excelling at the sport is up to her, I believe making sure she plays some sort of sport is definitely up to me and her mother. Some of you may wonder if that makes any sense, at all?
Let me explain. If your child doesn’t want to excel in sport, or in art, or music or even academics, the more you push them to practice or try to enjoy it, the more they’re likely to resist. It was the same when we were young, and that hasn’t changed over the years. So, what can we do?
Help Your Child Choose While I’m no expert, I see this from the perspective of my daughter. She needs me to help her discover her ‘chosen’ sport. It is my job to expose her to as many sports as possible. Today I do that by showing her live sport on TV, by taking her with me when we play sport, or when her mother and I go for some form of exercise – cricket, running, cycling or yoga. The point is to underline that sport and exercise is integral to one’s lifestyle. She needs to learn that eating breakfast or listening to music is just as important as being physically active.
Get Moving! Then, I have to help her get moving. The incredibly insightful Pullela Gopichand talks about the importance of getting children out of their houses. He once pointed out how a lot of the kids who arrive at his academy today have poorer and poorer reflexes. They cannot catch! One of the primary reasons behind that is they haven’t been given any reason to test their catching grip and spend a lot of time sitting in front of screens. It’s clear to me that whatever she does, that even at three and a half, my daughter must know what different parts of her body can do.
Love What You Do Next, I want her to find the joy in sport. Whether she’s throwing a soft basketball or swinging a tennis racquet or a cricket bat, she should know this is for her to have fun. I’ll often throw stuffed toys at her which she loves catching. And we let her pick her sport or activity so at no point does it feel like I’m the one forcing her. I’ll often suggest things that don’t work out as intended. A suggestion for a running race will get converted into a stair climbing contest. I’ve learnt to just go with the flow and take pleasure in watching her tiny feet stomping up the stairs in mock aggression.
As a sports journalist, I’ve covered many child prodigies who excelled at the junior level and yet, you don’t hear about them today. There are several reasons for that – beginning with poor infrastructure as well as the lack of a sporting society that understands what athletes need. Perhaps, the most common thread with most of those star juniors is their parents. Most of them, even with children as young as eleven, had started to ensure that their kids had everything they wanted. That part is great. But, each time they didn’t succeed, they were reminded in one way or another that they had a duty to excel. The structures in place were used as a reminder of how much had been ‘sacrificed’ and how the child should be doing better than they were. And more often than not, the advice of the coach who works incredibly hard is rendered as being on par with the ‘coaching’ of the parents.
Learning From Sport Winning comes from being really, really good. Sport teaches us that. It also teaches us to deal with life’s disappointments. You don’t stop living because things sometimes don’t go your way, so why should sport be any different. And another thing, when I get to it, is that I’m going to let her schedule breathe. I refuse to crowd her day with ballet classes followed by hockey class followed by math Olympiad training. If she’s good at something, she’ll enjoy it and she’ll tell me. If it turns out she isn’t actually that good, she would have lost six months to a year. Given that her generation has a life expectancy of about 70 years, I won’t be losing sleep about her choosing the wrong sport temporarily. I would, however, lose sleep if she chose to reject any physical activity entirely and only because, the day she does that, that figure of 70 starts to reduce a little bit.
I do wish she grows up to create some sort of record in sport, and I do wish I’m acknowledged when she does some press interviews. You can be sure I won’t be standing beside her yelling at her about why she didn’t stick her landing after a double salto. I’ll leave that to the expert. Yet, I will get up at 5 am to help her make swimming practice or her mother will travel 200 km to help her get to the rock climbing trails in the mountains or we will start stocking eggs like a poultry farmer because that is what her diet demands. But I’m going to wait for her to ask that of me. She’ll always have a ready partner in sport in both of us. I truly hope she already knows that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time I completed that dream about her winning that 24th Olympic gold.