Go on son, get stuck in

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Scotland will never get back to winning ways on the football pitch if the game is in a funk over emotional abuse, says Stuart Waiton

In my last article I raised my concern about whether my four-year-old boy, who is starting school later this year, will be academically pushed when he goes to school. The question I raised was to what degree can a child be put under pressure to achieve when the teaching profession appears to be ever more concerned about the emotional well-being of the pupil? In short, if happiness replaces excellence as a benchmark of success, will my boy ever be pushed to reach his potential?

While in Newcastle upon Tyne over the Christmas period, I was telephoned to take part in a debate about the Scottish Youth Football Association's plan for a new set of guidelines regarding "appropriate" behaviour of parents and volunteers. It appeared the issue of emotional abuse had come back to haunt me.

Much of the discussion in the media about these new guidelines has focused on the now customary increase in vetting of anyone having contact with children. The official starting point for this type of regulation is based on the assumption that every adult is a potential paedophile and every child is a potential litigant.

So parents taking a friend's child to a match may now need to be vetted and all volunteers will be warned to "never be alone with a young person".

Distrust, it appears, is now the basis of all adult-child relationships - the message being we are all potential abusers and accusers.

However, another equally problematic, if less discussed, aspect of these guidelines, is the encouragement being given by the SYFA to watch out for emotional abuse. Actions such as shouting from the sidelines or being sarcastic to children playing football could be considered as being abusive, while officials are being asked to polish up their crystal balls and watch out for signs of bullying at home or for indications of a "lack of love and affection".

Officials are also instructed not to "physically abuse" the children by pushing them beyond the "capacity of the player's body". Both officials and parents are to be made aware that subjecting players to constant criticism or putting children under "unrealistic pressure to perform" will be viewed as child abuse. Criticism that is not framed in a "positive and constructive manner" is to be outlawed.

Looking at these new regulations, the Craig Johnston story springs to mind.

Johnston, who designed the Predator football boot used by today's stars, following a successful career with Liverpool in the 1980s, has this year been nominated for the Designer of the Year award for another football boot invention.

However, his life story is not one of constant success. At the age of 15, his family sold their house to pay for his flight from Australia to England where he had a trial with Middlesbrough. In his first youth team game, Middlesbrough were losing 3-0 to Leeds United at half-time and in walked Middlesbrough's first team manager Jack Charlton.

After having a go at the whole team for their poor performance, Charlton turned to Johnston and said: "And as for you, you kangaroo, you can f*** off right now. You're the worst player I've seen in my life."

In today's emotionally correct times, Johnston could no doubt have put in a claim against Big Jack, claiming racial, emotional and possibly even physical abuse. Jack clearly hadn't been told about the need for positive criticism. However, instead of this, Johnston quickly realised he wasn't up to the job and put himself through a gruelling private training schedule that took between three and six hours every day.

By the end of his footballing career, Johnston, who had had polio as a child and almost lost his leg, had played 224 games for one of the most successful British football teams of all time.

Other players in this Liverpool side were Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen - three of the best Scottish players of recent times. If the SYFA wants to turn Scottish football around and produce footballers of this calibre again, I would suggest it stops treating children as vulnerable victims, bins the new guidelines and tells the kids to "Get stuck in".

Stuart Waiton is a director of YouthGenerationIssues.org .

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