I used to mock parents who got fired up about their children’s sport. Now I’m one of them | Myke Bartlett (2024)

The best parenting advice I ever read – or at least the most convincing – was “don’t let your kids do sport”. As someone who had always treasured weekends, the thought of spending them driving to uncharted places and standing in muddy fields filled me with horror.

It didn’t help that sport and I had never really clicked. From kindergarten to high school, I was that child who was always picked last, if at all. Tennis, tee-ball, basketball, AFL. You name it, I was crap at it. I was determined to save my children from that trauma. And, more importantly, to sleep in on Saturdays.

Reader, this is a cautionary tale.

This Saturday, as with every other Saturday, I will drive my children to no fewer than three sports matches and cheer from the sidelines. On top of that, my weekly schedule involves shuttling between so many training and sports-adjacent activities that I would not have blinked had I been unexpectedly tasked with arranging the now-cancelled Commonwealth Games.

How did I succumb?

My great mistake was to be led by the evidence. We know that physical activity has benefits for children that far outstrip fleeting victory on the pitch.

Being active improves children’s bones, muscles and cardiovascular health – no surprises there – and over the long term reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancers and heart disease. It also (although this runs contrary to my own childhood experience) makes them happier. Sport boosts mood and cognitive skills and can help ward off mental illness.

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We had moved states and schools and, when my shy daughter was asked to join a floorball team, I thought it might help her settle. I attended the first game in an attitude of heroic sacrifice. Three years later, I’m coaching my younger daughter’s team.

What nobody tells you about sport, when you’re exercise-agnostic, is that it contains pleasures that have nothing to do with being active. Oh, how I mocked those parents who got ridiculously fired up watching their children play. Like it matters. Losers. I felt that way right up until the moment, about two weeks in, when I decided I should probably take up coaching – in a transparent attempt to legitimise my courtside bellowing.

The theatre of the pitch is an obvious pleasure I had once overlooked. For a writer, sport provides an irresistible form of storytelling, free from all the usual constraints. There are no themes, no morals, no guarantee of a hero’s journey. The best team, your team, will often lose for no good reason.

For those with an obsessive bent, whether it be for music, film or Dungeons & Dragons, sport brings an addictive and never-ending source of data. Stats. Records. Player names and numbers. Probabilities.

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What surprised me as a coach was not the vicarious pleasure of seeing my daughter’s team triumph, but the cerebral thrills of strategy. Sport, it turns out, is for geeks. Next time you watch The Sunday Footy Show, just imagine they’re talking with their forensic passion about Star Trek. What a bunch of nerds.

These hidden pleasures were kept from me as a kid, largely because of the sort of people who enjoyed sport. People who were, quite performatively, not nerds. The sporting arena was too often a bastion of the kind of toxic gender stereotypes that alienate, if not actively punish, the kids – particularly boys – who don’t conform.

Taking an active role in my daughters’ sport, at a time when women’s sport is finally winning the recognition it deserves, has helped me deal with my own anti-jock issues. (Parenting can often be a form of therapy.) There is a real sense that sport is now for everyone, in a way it perhaps wasn’t when I first encountered it. It’s also one area of parenting where men genuinely share, and sometimes shoulder, the load.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t issues around equity of access. Not everywhere has facilities available and sport can be incredibly expensive. Uniforms, equipment, club fees, training fees – it all adds up.

I still feel like an impostor, obviously. The kids I coach – and my own children – will always play the game (any game) better than I can. But you don’t need to be good at sport to enjoy it, any more than you have to be a violin virtuoso to appreciate Bach or Mendelssohn.

For me, the best lesson about sport is, despite what I thought as a seven-year-old, there is always room for improvement. One of the most powerful aspects of coaching for me has been recognising the kids who remind me of me. Those without instant and obvious ability. Those who you wouldn’t pick for the team, if given a choice. It turns out that being sporty isn’t a magical birthright. With a bit of practice, attitude can outstrip aptitude.

What advice would I give to my fellow sport-averse parents? Basically, surrender now. Yes, your weekends will become a logistical nightmare. You can say goodbye to long brunches and Sunday hangovers. But, of course, sacrifice is one of the key themes and gifts of parenting – the reward is finding meaning outside yourself and your own actions. Which, come to think of it, is much the same as following a sporting team.

I used to mock parents who got fired up about their children’s sport. Now I’m one of them | Myke Bartlett (2024)
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