Sport is a metaphor for life: you win or lose, then you move on
Ellis Cashmore, professor of sport, culture and media at Staffordshire University injected a welcome dose of reality into the aspirations of young people, and their parents, when he pointed out this week that your child probably has more chance of winning The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent than they do of making it as a professional footballer.
And when someone like Cashmore, a highly respected commentator on the links between sport and wider society speaks, people would do well to listen.
Instead, people have heard what he said, but they don't seem to have actually listened. Because, for some, his comments seem to tally with the worrying and dangerous belief that sport is just too competitive and places too much pressure on fragile adolescent minds.
Given the fact that we are seeing such ludicrous ideas as making rugby non-competitive for children under the age of 13, thanks to the type of people who think that competition and judging kids on the basis of their ability is somehow a bad thing, it's no surprise that Cashmore's point has been so widely misused.
It would be easy to say that this growing acceptance of mandatory inclusion of every kid on every team and a prize just for participating, is part of the increased feminisation of society. Easy and accurate to a point – you only have to look at women's football and the recent successes of our female rugby team to see the competitive compulsion burns just as deeply in women as it does with men. Or, to be accurate, it burns just as deeply in some women.
In many ways, this instinctive dislike of assertive and competitive behaviour can be traced back to the insane document Exploring Masculinities, a sociological survey – headed by a woman – that came out in the late 1990s in Ireland.
This suggested that traditionally male traits such as competitiveness, tribalism (or team spirit, as everyone else calls it) and affording respect to someone just because they're good at sport were all bad things. It was a deranged assault on maleness that has helped create a generation of men who are utterly confused and baffled as society tells them that the qualities that were once prized are now a liability.
That was an after-ripple of the insane 1970s American idea that while winning may be good for the winner, it's bad for the loser. And therefore it should be eradicated. This fatuous idea that all people are created equal and nobody should ever have their self-esteem hurt is a form of sporting communism which seeks to drag the best down to the levels of the weakest, rather than elevate the weakest towards the levels of the elite.
In yesterday's Indo, one female writer opined that: "Although some children flourish in competition, there are always going to be those who feel publicly humiliated by their own inadequacies on the pitch. Those children who aren't brilliant are embarrassed in front of their peers as they sit on the bench or are picked last for teams."
To which, the obvious answer is... tough. Get over it. That's life.
When you get benched, or you just don't make the cut, you either train harder or find something better suited to your talents or interests. And everybody has something that they can enjoy and be good at. It's just a question of finding the right outlet for them.
Cashmore is indeed correct about unrealistic sporting aspirations and those parents who are stupid enough to project their own failed ambitions on to their child – but that is the fault of idiot parents, not sport.
Sport is the great equaliser – you find out more about yourself and the people around you from playing the game to the best of your abilities than you will in any classroom. Whether it's as captain of the SCT with hopes for a place on the Irish schools team, or a a kid playing for Cherry Orchard who has English scouts taking interest in his progress, or just playing for your local side, the rules and the reality are the same – do your best and people will respect you for it.
Hide, shirk your responsibilities or let your teammates down, and they will hammer you for it. Which is how it should be – do your best and earn respect and trust, try to hide or slack off and your mates will call you out on it.
Some kids will be better than others but you learn more from losing than you do from winning. And both states, winning and losing, certainly build more character than meaningless participation, where nobody keeps score and everybody wins a prize. That teaches nothing.
People like to say that pushing a kid too far is a form of abuse and I've seen, at first hand, pushy tennis parents who should be ashamed of themselves.
But to suggest that just because a child might be a bit upset if he doesn't get picked on ability, we should simply stop picking teams, is a form of abuse and criminal neglect that is crippling to their long-term hopes of becoming a functional human being.
Because if you are never rejected as a kid, if you are never told that you just aren't good enough, how are you going to be equipped to deal with those situations when you are an adult?
We've all gone for jobs we didn't get, we've all been reamed by bosses at some stage and anybody who says they have never been disappointed in life is simply lying.
Disappointment is an everyday fact – and how you cope with that is what defines you.
It was interesting that Cashmore cited The X-Factor in his argument, because that show has arguably done more damage to a generation of kids than any sporting setback ever could.
After all, whenever you see young fella bawling his eyes out like a big blouse when he doesn't get picked to go through to the next round you just wonder – maybe if he'd played some sport instead of dreaming of becoming Simon Cowell's latest slave then he'd have been better prepared to cope with such rejection.
So, the next time your kid comes home from training furious and humiliated because he has been dropped for the next match, do you tell him to train harder and make sure he doesn't lose his place again? Or do you tell him that it's not his fault and he shouldn't bother?
I think we all know which approach he'll thank you for when he gets older.