Try telling the parents it's only a game

24th March 2000 at 00:00
"COME ON, sir, we'll help you over," they called from the top of the 10ft wall. Their hands stretched down, grasped mine and pulled me up and over into a soft landing among the discarded schoolbags in the adjacent back garden. I stumbled to my feet and urged my P7 pupils onwards in the hope that no one had seen us commit our act of trespass.

My teaching career was only a few weeks old, I was in a strange town and we were on our way to my first school football match. The boys assured me they knew the quickest way to the pitches through the housing scheme and I was too naive to question the route which led through an unexpected obstacle course of high walls, cabbage patches and dripping washing lines.

Responsibility for the football team was one of a number of tasks which had been allocated to me with the words: "The youngest teacher always does this." Thirty years and several schools later, I am still in charge of the team.

I enjoy school football without having any commitment to the grown-up version. My last attendance at a professional match was an Ayr United v Hearts midweek cup replay in 1976 where the intense boredom so silenced the crowd that even a feather could have been heard dropping.

Football is one of many activities which I have seen developing children's positive attitudes to school and to one another. They have co-operated in a team, learnt how to handle success and disappointment and grown in confidence and physical skills. We like to win but we know that it's only a game and we return home in a pleasant mood even when we lose.

We play for enjoyment and I know that children who participate in satisfying activities at school develop a positive attitude to all the learning in which they are involved each day.

Recently I had to look at a headline three times because I was so sure that I was misreading it. "Sorry, children, no more football matches," it stated and described a ban being poposed by one council on under-12 school sides taking part in competitive matches. The ban appears to be the result of a Scottish Football Association recommendation that there should be no winning of trophies or elimination from competitions in case children became depressed about losing or there is verbal abuse from spectators.

Football has changed during the past 20 years. The introduction of Soccer Sevens is an excellent example of fitting the game to children's development, with small teams and goals, reduced playing area, rotation of players and carefully adapted rules. A generation of children has been brought up on Soccer Sevens in schools and clubs, where enjoyment and the development of skills are stressed. The Soccer Sevens ethos fits well with the ethos of self-esteem, fair play and achievement which all schools encourage.

Yet there is a problem with children's football and it comes from some parents and other spectators and a vicious win-at-all costs philosophy. Those are the parts which the ethos of Soccer Sevens has still not reached and whose attitudes can damage children severely. Some schools do not help when they abdicate responsibility for football to parents who are uninterested in positive attitudes or unable to encourage them, and where school management does not appreciate the value of harnessing such activities to the development of an ethos of achievement.

To eliminate the idea of winning from children's football seems to be a step too far. Individual schools have a responsibility for setting out clear, consistent expectations of pupils and healthy attitudes could be further encouraged by banning parents and supporters. This is one area where some parental neglect could be very healthy.

Perhaps my first football team led me through a rite of initiation on the horticultural route to the pitches. A similar experience for parents might discourage many of them from attending.


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