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Remember why you started (philosophical Covid-19 edition)

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

A phrase often heard used within a sporting context is ‘remember why you started.’ Now this is a fairly general term and will mean something different to most people. However, the idea eludes to this concept that when we first started playing a sport or exercising we did it for a reason. When I was first studying Sports Science a psychology lecturer once told me a story, at the time I didn’t understand, but with the benefit of hindsight as well as another 10 years of life experience now really resonates with me.

There are a group of boys playing football in the park just down the road from their house, in this park there is the most perfect wall to blast the ball up against, if you think back to your childhood you might be able to reminisce on the satisfying thud of the ball hitting the wall. The harder you kick it the more satisfying that noise became. The problem was that wall was the exterior wall of an older gentleman’s living room. You know the type, grumpy old bloke who’s just there to ruin your fun and stop you from enjoying yourself, it’s not like you were doing any harm. He comes out and politely asks you to stop because it’s disturbing his afternoon nap in front of the Eastenders omnibus. Being single minded teenager, you thank him for voicing his concern and politely tell him it’s a free country and your almost certainly going to continue whether he likes it or not. What a predicament, so this guy retires to his living room to listen to the consistent muffled thudding of the football over the now thunderous screams coming from the Queen Vic in an attempt to drown out the noise. After reconsidering his options, the gentleman puts away the shotgun he momentarily removes from the gun cabinet and ventures outside again to chat with this group of teenagers.

‘Boys,’ he says “I tell you what, if you come back tomorrow and continue to play football against the wall then I’ll give you each a £1. What do you think?’

With confused murmurs of “hell yeah” the boys disperse to calls from their mothers that supper is ready.

The boys return the next day and start blasting the ball into the wall again after an hour or so the gentleman appears and gives them a pound each. The boys are amazed but accept the money and continue to kick the ball about.

“Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you £2 each, lads” explains the gentlemen and returns to the soap opera of the day.

Sure thing after school the boys arrive at the park and resume the ritual of attempted demolition of this poor blokes living room wall. But true to his word he come out and hands them each £2. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll up it to £3” he says.

Anyway this pattern continues for a week or so. The boys turn up day in day out, rain or shine and run around playing whatever stupid little games they can think up, football squash, headers and volleys, one touch etc etc. Each time this gentleman comes out and hands over the cash increasing the compensation by a pound each time until he’s handing them each a crisp £20 note for their afternoon’s endeavors.

The next day the boys turn up and play for an hour or so but there is no sign of the gentleman. The boys slope off home mulling it over and feeling slightly dejected. The next day they return and continue with their games but this time after the gentlemen doesn’t arrive with their money they decide to see if everything is alright. They knock on his front door and to their surprise he answers promptly.

“We were just wondering if you were coming out with our money sir?” Exclaim the boys.

“Sorry boys, there is no more money, enjoy your game though.” And he curtly shuts the door.

The next day at school one of the boys sees another in a science class and ask him if he is going to go to the park that afternoon? “What’s the point he says that guys isn’t going to pay us any more”

Sure enough that afternoon there is no thud of cheap plastic on brickwork and park falls silent.

So what happened?

The boys forgot why they started. The initial drive was to turn up, have fun with their mates and enjoy the satisfying thwack of a football hitting a brick wall. But like all of us money distorts our view of reality and we become a slave to our capitalist ideals. The boys forgot that the only reason they ever wanted to kick the ball at that wall in the first place was for the fun of it. As the week had progressed their aim had been altered to turning up in order to collect some money, the football took a back seat.

When we start out ‘exercising’ it is in the pursuit of one thing, fun or play! You watch any kid do anything in a playground and they are purely focusing on the enjoyment. Running until they are red in the face, chasing their mates until they fall exhausted into double maths of an afternoon thinking all the way through, “If only I had taken that short cut through the trees and I would have caught him and the spoils of victory would have been mine”. Any of the 27 children who were in my primary school year group will know with 10 minutes left of the lesson preceding break, whispers would start circulating the class of “are you playing the game?” The game was a subtle blend of 40:40 and It (tag). The exact nuances of the game escape my memory however, I know we played that game every break time, lunch time and any spare 10 minutes we ever had for an entire year or two and it was possibly the best game I have ever played. If you are not in the approximate 30 people who ever played it then I can only apologise that you didn’t grow up in the exact small village in an isolated part of Buckinghamshire, although I am sure most primary schools have their equivalent games and playground guidelines that made pastimes like this a staple of any pre-noughties child’s development.

As we grow up and leave compulsory education our opportunities for play often diminish and certainly within sports and exercise there is a shift from enjoyment to competition, unfortunately this trend is appearing in youth sport more often now as well. Competitive sport at all ages certainly has its merits, however, high stress environments can reduce creativity and fun which is such a necessity within youth sport. As children develop and mature it is imperative that the sense of fun remains within all training, including athletic development in an attempt to keep individuals motivated. The philosophy I believe is most useful when training any athlete is made up of two key points and needs to be carefully considered in order to develop physical characteristics almost inadvertently.

1. Make it fun

2. Keep it simple

During the relaxation of the original lockdown measures in June, we were once again permitted to meet a friend in an outdoor space to exercise. At the age of 32 I rediscovered the joy of almost pointless competitiveness. There is a mini game in rugby called kick back, when the forwards are off practicing their set piece, the back’s slip off to the first team pitch and kick the ball back and forth to each other in an attempt to score goals by drop kicking the ball between the other team’s posts. If you catch the ball on the full you are permitted to take three steps forward before kicking the ball so it is in your interest to catch the ball on the full as often as possible while also searching to land the ball in space so your opponent can’t catch it on the full. We played this game one-on-one for probably 90 minutes and although the score remained 0-0, I stand by it was almost certainly the most entertaining sporting fixture of 2020. There was no crowd, as is customary now at major sporting events, however the ebb and flow of pressure made for an epic battle. I covered 11.2km, my average heart rate was 140bpm, I probably kicked the ball about 300 times, did forty 20-30m sprints, completed all kind of physical movements, missed countless opportunities to take the lead and made some covering catches that made me wonder why I ever stopped playing in the first place. I’d say based on those numbers that’s a pretty epic workout, but if you’d said to me I want you to do 100 30m sprints at 70-100% of your maximum with an assorted variation of none or minimal rest I wouldn’t have left the house. So why was it one of the best afternoons of training I’ve ever had?

I believe as athletes we grow up and play more competitive sport, especially the ones who eventually go on to play elite level sport, often forget the joys of just playing and training for the fun of it. As coaches we also often neglect enjoyment which will stimulate our athlete’s far more than merely the drive to win. So as a coach, remember why you started and remember why your athletes did as well.

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