Where has all the joy gone?;Talkback

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
Sport is fun ... you've got to be joking, says Ian Whitwham

When my daughter was young, I used to take her to Wormwood Scrubs playing fields. We played football, just like my father had done with me. I was 46, she was six. I was Ferdinand, she was Sinclair. We honed some basic skills: close control, drag backs, uppies, near-post headers and histrionics - the sort of things a modern girl might need.

We had a game - to see who could hit the bar the most times. She got good at hitting the bar; she soon got good at soccer, and other sports. She enjoyed them.

I took her to QPR, Hallowe'en 1994, her first game. Up the steps to the lustrous floodlit grass and a fantastic team. I watched the game and she watched the lights; we beat Liverpool, she joined Gerry Francis's Blue and White Army. She was my soccer chum.

She got even better at sport, but as she got better, it got grimmer. Sport stopped being a lark and became a bit of a treadmill. She had to train, she had to get "hungry", "focused" and "mentally tough". She had to "want it badly". Delight become drudg-ery. Swimming became wall-to-wall lengths. A botched tumble-turn and you could be doing 20 press-ups. Galas became relentless shrieking as shrill parents urged their tots on to victory. Character forming? My daughter developed superstitious tics. If she arranged her towel north north west, blinked 17 times and spun round 16 she would win.

Once she was press-ganged into a Big Girls' Butterfly against a probable pre-Berlin Wall East German squad. She got focused, dug deep into her inner resources - and nearly sank. She broke her own record, came last, collapsed and retired. At 12.

Even tennis tournaments have lost their fun. Cross little girls snarl and grunt and argue calls. So do their mothers. Their tiny unsmiling offspring whack malicious top-spin backhands at my flailing daughter and punch the air in bizarre fascist gestures.

Now football has become less than a lark. We still go to QPR. Once we could take Man United apart under those floodlights. Now Grimsby beat us in the drizzle. Maybe it's not much fun for the modern girl to sit surrounded by blaspheming men as they contemplate the hell of another defeat. "Unload the bastard!" "Let him die!" All at volume 11.

My daughter pulls wool over her ears. "Come on, you Rs," she peeps, but the romance has gone.

"Dad, I don't think I like this as much as you." We still play our game at Wormwood Scrubs, to please me. You probably don't need to do a hundred uppies in later life, and near post-headers are not essential. You probably don't need to hit a bar with a football 50 times - or once. But it didn't have to be so grim.

Ian Whitwham teaches in a London comprehensive

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