My boys love football. Australian Rules Football (AFL) that is. They read AFL magazines as bedtime stories, have AFL stickers on their bed heads and have even named a couple of their teddy bears after their favourite players. They also love to kick a football, a passion which began before they started school, when my husband would take them outside for 30 minutes in the evening, to give me some time to myself.
Jeremy will even sit still and watch a full AFL game on TV (all 80+ minutes of it). The first time Jeremy sat down and watched football on TV, Damian was as dumbfounded as I was and he said “What are you watching that for?”
Like any football code, you support your favourite team, which in any great sporting nation is often determined by your family alliances. My boys’ love of AFL obviously came from their father because it certainly didn’t come from me.
The sound of sirens, whistles, cheers and boos; commentators with deep authoritative voices making broad sweeping repetitive statements about the play and the players, with lots of references to toughness and teamwork, does not appeal to me. Any deviations from the norm, an outspoken opinion from a player, on-field or off-field ‘antics’, a rogue hairstyle or more than the average number of tattoos will be flippantly commented on throughout the game, with equal weight, as air-time fillers.
I have often likened football to the Roman Colosseum when people used to find other people being eaten by lions entertaining. It’s a veritable nightmare trying to teach your children how to be a ‘good sport’ when ‘booing’ (and worse) of umpires and players is commonplace. At the worst of times, my boys’ behaviour is impeccable compared to many other spectators at an AFL match.
However, because my husband and my sons love football, I tolerate it. I’ve even been known to make impressed exclamations when I’ve paid attention enough to notice that there is a good game going on. I know the rules (having been raised in a football loving community) and I even know the words to my boys’ teams’ songs. To top it all off, I finally joined our family footy-tipping competition this year (inclusive of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents) after my boys’ begged me to join. Funnily enough, I was top of the ladder until last week (it’s all chance, if I am anything to go by).
Damian, unlike Jeremy, bucked the trend with his choice of team. My husband took Damian to his first football match when he was three years old (I tagged along to deal with any fallout) and it was there that he chose his team. We went to see my husband’s team Essendon play the Western Bulldogs. Essendon was tipped to win.
We arrived early to the Essendon V’s Bulldogs game to partake in the pre-game kids’ activities; kicking goals through mini-goal posts and dodging obstacles and getting faces painted and balloons blown up in team colours. By the time the starting siren sounded Damian wanted to go home. We toughed it out for the first quarter with distractions and feigning excitement but Essendon was losing. Eventually, I took Damian for a walk and finally we left altogether at half-time.
Later that evening when my husband and Jeremy arrived home announcing that Essendon won, Damian wasn’t impressed. With a love of dogs and the colour blue, the Bulldogs had caught Damian’s attention and from that day forward Damian was a Bulldogs supporter. Of course, he has wavered here-and-there to the winning team of the season and even threatened to barrack for Collingwood at one point (Essendon’s ‘arch rivals’) but ultimately he always returned to the Bulldogs.
The story of Damian’s love of the Bulldogs recently won him a competition that entitled him to run on the field with the players before the game commenced. We did our best to prepare him for it and while Damian was excited I was very nervous. I hoped that he wouldn’t become overwhelmed or upset if he lost sight of us on that massive stadium in front of the 15+ thousand crowd. But Damian was too excited to be overwhelmed, and proved to be a star performer.
He posed for the cameras in style, almost like a body builder would with fists in the air, biceps flexed and a fierce-looking competition face. We videotaped the occasion and played it for his class at school. He was very popular that day. One classmate even turned around and asked if he played with them too.
Then there was Auskick. When the boys were 4 and 5 years old respectively, I wanted to enrol them in Taekwondo but my husband wanted them to join Auskick so we decided they could do both, much to our boys’ delight.
Auskick is an AFL-sponsored, volunteer-run program for young children to teach them some of the skills of football and to encourage them to become enthusiastic membership-paying AFL supporters in the future.
My boys were already experienced in kicking a football but they weren’t used to a ‘real’ Auskick game, where kids fall over each other trying to get the ball and only ever manage to handle the ball once or twice for the entire game.
The umpires try to share the ball around as much as possible letting the less skilled or less actively-involved kids kick the ball in from the goals or have a turn tapping the ball out from the ruck. Once or twice an umpire will even join the game as a player to make sure that the ‘losing’ team gets to touch the ball. Although, the umpires don’t take score during the game, the kids still score in their heads and it’s obvious when a team gets thrashed. So there are plenty of triggers for disappointment and meltdowns for children in an Auskick game.
Damian in particular, would often cry when he got hurt or get upset when his team was losing. It usually resulted in him refusing to play for five or ten minutes at a time and announcing that it is the “worst day of his life”. Regardless of the sentiments, they always wanted to come back again for more the next week. It is extra incentive for our boys’ that my husband and I both help out with various Auskick activities, which is a lot of fun and they love playing with us on the oval after the session has finished too.
I can actually kick a football better than your average woman because I took it upon myself as the eldest of four girls in my family to teach our only brother that ‘all important’ skill. I obviously thought he needed tuition at the time. We spent many an afternoon kicking the football to each other over the years, he only wished we had practised goal kicking too (and probably tackling and handballs etc.).
This year, unlike the year before, Damian and Jeremy were in separate age groups for Auskick, so my husband and I would split up and alternate between each group. The day before Damian got to run under the banner with the Bulldogs team he was so excited and in such an excellent mood that he didn’t get upset during Auskick at all and I thought that finally he may have developed enough experience and coping skills to manage better from now on.
A week or two later, I was away for the weekend and my husband took Jeremy and Damian to Auskick by himself. I got a phone call later that day from my husband to say that Damian had a bad day.
Unfortunately, a new umpire ran Damian’s Auskick game that day and she wasn’t as skilled at sharing the ball around. When Damian finally got the ball for the first time the umpire blew the whistle and took it off him because he had run too far with it (after being crowded by a few of the better players). Well, Damian did not cope well with that at all. My husband reported that he was very confused and very upset and was insisting over and over again that he never wanted to go to Auskick again.
My husband managed to convince Damian to come back to Auskick the next week with the compromise that Damian would not be expected to play the game. Instead he could just join in with the before-game activities and drills. When the next week came, Damian seemed very relaxed watching the game with me from the sidelines. We clapped and encouraged the children together and I intentionally commented on a couple of occasions when someone got rid of the ball quickly before the whistle blew.
Another week went by and I asked Damian if he was going to play the game this time. Damian started to complain about how no-one ever passed the ball to him and how he hardly ever got to touch the ball. My husband and I did our usual spiel about how the kids were still learning how to pass the ball and still found it difficult, how even professional AFL players don’t get to touch the ball often in a game and how he could stand in the opposition’s goals where he was likely to get the ball more often and run towards the ball when it was near.
The usual spiel didn’t satisfy him until I said “How about I make a tally of how many times each child gets the ball during the game to show you that you are not the only one who doesn’t get to touch the ball often?” Instantly, Damian liked the idea of the tally and agreed to join in the game.
I’m not surprised that something relying on data collection with observable and measurable results would appeal to Damian; a true scientist in the making. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Fortunately, we also had an experienced umpire that day and they split the groups into smaller teams so everyone got to touch the ball more often. In addition, Damian was so inspired by my tallying exercise* that he got very excited about getting involved and touching the ball. Each time he got the ball he was able to pass it on fast and then he would run over to me all excited “Did you see that mum? I got the ball! Did you see that?” And lo and behold, Damian did not get upset once. That’s two days of ‘no upsets’ out of two years of Auskick, within one month.
There are very few things more rewarding to me than watching my children reach turning points when it comes to more successfully managing life’s challenges. It takes my boys longer to get there sometimes but that just makes it all the more sweeter when they do finally get there.
*In case you were wondering, I did feel self-conscious standing there keeping tally of the game wondering what the other parents thought of my abnormal behaviour. Perhaps they thought I was taking it a little too seriously. Afterwards, I asked a couple of the mums I knew, if they had noticed (they hadn’t noticed) and I explained what I was doing. One mum was shrewd enough to ask if Damian had been right after all (something that had also crossed my mind) and mentioned that “there is an app for that” (not such an original thought after all).