MY grandson, Cooper, asked me if I would go and watch him playing rugby one Saturday morning.
He’s five and he showed me his rugby gear, including his gum shield, and he looked the part. I was dying to see him in action so off I went, even though I was a little concerned for him.
I was concerned because it was my first time having anything to do with rugby in years and my previous experience didn’t end well.
As a youngster, I had trained with Cobh Pirates a few times, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that rugby wasn’t for me. On my last outing, I dived to tackle a player around the legs, but mistimed it. His heel caught me in the mouth and all I can remember after that is talking with a bit of a lisp while most of the blood in my body was draining out of me.
I ran my tongue over my teeth, trying to figure out how many I had lost, which seemed like a waste of time considering that I was about to die any minute. Fortunately, I survived that near-death experience, but that was the end of my short-lived rugby career.
I decided to dedicate my life to a sport I could enjoy without risking my life and getting my clothes covered in blood. So, I took up tennis.
Anyway, it was because of that memory that I nervously went to watch my little buddy. I needn’t have worried though because things have changed dramatically since then.
The modern set up is very civilised and the coaching is well organised and professional. The kids are only allowed to tap tackle at that age, so there is no risk of mutilation.
They were all having a great time, which is how it should be, and that’s why Cooper loves it and looks forward to his training every week.
There were at least four lads coaching his small group of five-year olds, so they all got plenty of attention and each one of them was encouraged and praised. It was all very positive.
There were several pitches being used and kids of all ages running around and having fun. It was noisy too with coaches issuing instructions, whistles blowing, kids shouting and adults offering encouragement. It was a hive of activity.
I take my hat off to all those volunteers who give up their time at weekends to engage with the children. I’m sure there are days when they would prefer to take a lie in on a cold, wet winter’s morning, but they don’t. They haul themselves out of bed and turn up, week in, week out to offer their time for their sport.
They’re not the only ones either. Cooper goes to soccer practice after his rugby and it’s the same thing there.
They use several astro turf facilities to cater for all the kids, and again there are lots of adults involved in the coaching. I’m told it’s the same in the local GAA club, and that’s replicated in every town and village across the country.
The other thing I noticed was how the training process has advanced since I was a child. There was a structure to it and the coaches had obviously been trained and knew what they were doing.
In my day, it was a lot different. Training generally involved lots of adults shouting instructions from the side-line and getting all worked up. The instructions were mostly unintelligible and very often contradictory, and were usually accompanied by frothing at the mouth.
I played gaelic football for my school and I loved it. I loved the action and the comradery, but I hated being shouted at. I don’t remember receiving any proper instruction on how to play, or getting any encouragement from the side-line either.
No matter what I did, I seemed to upset someone. In the end, I just got fed up with the lot of them and threw in the towel.
I also loved soccer and in later years I discovered that there are times when it’s OK just to put the ball out of play. To kick it into the stand. But nobody told me that when I was a kid and I suspect that many of the adults didn’t have a clue what they were talking about either.
I was never going to threaten the world of professional football and I knew that. I didn’t have a competitive bone in my body, which is essential if you want to be even mildly successful in any sport. I never minded losing and that was frowned upon.
I don’t know if you can teach someone to be competitive or if you’re born that way, but in any event, I wasn’t that way inclined and there wasn’t much I could do about it.
Thankfully, coaching has changed for the better. There is a more professional approach now which the kids are obviously enjoying. Encouragement is the new order of the day.
I see that a lot with my own son now, who is a highly qualified professional tennis coach. He coaches all ages and I have watched him in action with the children and he has endless patience.
When it comes to playing, though, he is extremely competitive and absolutely hates losing. Must get that from his mother.
But when it comes to dealing with the youngsters, it’s all about fun, learning and enjoyment. If there had been more like him around in my junior days, maybe I would have stuck with the football, and who knows?
Maybe I could have played soccer alongside Liam Brady or football beside Tony Davis.
Who am I kidding? There wasn’t a coach on the planet who could have managed that.