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Out on the Football Field

Out on the Football Field

In 1974, George Montague was convicted of gross indecency. This was the legal name given to the ‘crime’ of homosexuality in a time when a consensual relationship between two men could make both of you criminals.

Following a royal pardon given to Alan Turing a few years ago, over 50,000 men were recently given pardons for a crime they were convicted of, but that no longer exists. But George said that he wanted an apology, not a pardon, “To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty. I was not guilty of anything.”

Perhaps this is one of the problems with homophobia in society, when compared to racism, for example. Homosexuality is mistakenly considered by some as being a choice (and so in the past even a crime you could commit). I wonder if seen as a lifestyle ‘choice’, it is easier to see why the phobia lingers. Some men feel threatened by it, as if homosexuality is something you can catch or even that you can somehow be gay by association.

Apologies to other sports, but for this little slice of my meandering musings I’m going to focus on men’s football. This is partly because (despite its many flaws) it’s a passion of mine and partly because it’s the largest spectator sport the UK has, and therefore has a lot of scope to influence. That said, much applies to other sports I’m sure.

While there is certainly racism in football (and worrying levels in some countries), there is an improved picture in the UK in 2017 and certainly a downward trend in incidents. I’d also argue that racist chants would be viewed very negatively by the majority at a match in this country.

Sadly, I don’t think the same could be said for homophobia. The word ‘gay’ itself is still heard as an insult/adjective thrown around all too readily, in sport and beyond. Stonewall published a report, Leagues Behind, that said that seven in ten football fans have heard homophobic abuse while watching sport. This is despicable, but I fear much of what is heard is parcelled up as ‘banter’, thereby making it ‘harmless’, rather than something born of prejudice and hate. Again, not something that happens when racist abuse is discussed.

We have famous black players. Great players. World class athletes that are seen by many young people as role models, as heroes. Not so the gay footballer. They are there of course, it is statistically impossible for them not to be. But how many current, top level players are openly gay? Not one. A quick gander at Wikipedia throws up a ‘List of Gay Footballers’. There are SIX names in total, only two of whom still play, and none of which are household names.

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Not exactly Galacticos… Robbie Rogers (MLS) and Thomas Hitzlsperger (retired)

This can’t help but send a damaging message to everyone, especially young gay men, that sport and homosexuality don’t mix. A recent survey by Radio 5 found that 82% of fans in the UK are comfortable with their club signing an openly gay player. Unfortunately, this leaves 18% who aren’t comfortable with the idea and worse, there are 8% who say they would stop supporting their club if an openly gay player were signed. I would say good riddance to the 8% – it’s saddening and maddening in equal measure.

What will it take to change things? FA chairman Greg Clarke warned players who came out would suffer “significant abuse”. Others, including ex-footballer Chris Sutton, argue that we don’t need more obstacles – once the first gay footballer comes out, others will follow.

I think he’s right, but there will be a lot of weight on that first man’s shoulders. It is difficult to say what tangible effects such a revelation could have. They are certain to get abuse from some elements in the crowd. But this sadly inevitable outcome will at least expose the 8% and, with increased reporting of abuse, it can then be shown up for what it is – unacceptable to the majority – and be driven out of football.

So, the first high profile gay footballer will need to be thick-skinned and have the vocal support of all those that seek to see diversity represented in sport. There is a possibility that their career might suffer too. It may be the case that clubs avoid a perceived risk to supporter income by employing a gay star and that sponsors have a similar fear about brand perceptions.

On the flip side, being in the vanguard, a trailblazer, would certainly  get people’s attention. The first openly gay footballers will certainly have an increased profile, not to mention the fact that they will be heroes to many, including an audience who have long been short-changed in terms of sporting idols. Perhaps new sponsors may step forward?

Ideally, a player with the status of a Messi or a Ronaldo would step forward and tell the world they are gay, providing a big push to get the seemingly immobile ball of acceptance rolling. If not, then a group of players collectively deciding to come out could be the answer. And I hope this happens sooner rather than later. It’ll certainly be a cause for celebration when it does.

And this collective approach extends to us all. Everyone, and especially those with a following on social media, a voice people listen to, need to be vocal about their support for football becoming a family that welcomes everyone. In these times when fear and division are all too often being cultivated, I’d like to believe football can be a force for good in society and that the people’s game can become a game for all people.

Mind Games

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Mind Games

I’m a jolly person.  If you’ve met me you’ll probably agree.  Others would say my chirpy demeanour is something that comes across pretty strongly in fact.  So, I’m happy, right?  My mental state is healthy, yes? Well yes, luckily it is.

But it isn’t always and, a long time ago, I went through a pretty bad patch.  Like everyone else, I have had low points in my life.  I consider myself lucky that the only episode of what I’d call depression, lasted just a few months (though it seemed much longer at the time).  It was brought about by a relationship ending and compounded by being during the ‘what do I do with my life?’ period between studentdom and proper adulthood.

I won’t dwell on the catalysts however as it can be different for different people at different times.   Sometimes there’s no catalyst at all.  That’s why it’s not as simple as thinking someone suffering will ‘get over it’. As the causes can vary, the symptoms can too.  Some will cry at random moments. Some will withdraw from social interaction.  Some will drink or smoke more. Some will sleep less (At my lowest point I didn’t sleep for what seemed like weeks in a row). And some symptoms will manifest themselves physically.  My eczema is worse when I’m stressed, for example.  But more widely, headaches, chest pains or stomach problems can be experienced.  And some symptoms won’t be obvious to others, or even the one suffering.  How can you deal with something that isn’t identified?

Mental health is far more complicated than the black and white divide of being either okay or clinically depressed.  This is not just about ‘breakdowns’. Mental health, like physical health exists on a broad spectrum that we are all on somewhere.  We all have bad days and good days of course, that’s natural.  What we need to watch out for in ourselves and those we care for is when things go beyond our version of ‘normal’ and behaviour changes.  Whatever the cause of poor mental health, short or long term, others being understanding and empathetic is key.  It’s hard to explain how you feel when you feel mentally weak or out of control, but all those around can do is listen and be sensitive to people’s feelings (as we all should anyway of course)

There are a number of lifestyle choices that can positively affect your mental health and luckily most are accessible by all.  Getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising are all known contributors to both a healthier mind as well as a healthier body.   The trouble with the exercise part though, as readers of my own blog will know, is that I really have to push myself to do a decent amount of exercise.  I didn’t have sport in my life growing up.  I remember PE seeming like punishment and the playground felt like it was dominated by the more socially confident children.

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Missing out on sport when you’re younger can make it harder to motivate yourself to do enough as an adult. I only really started doing sport as an adult and I consider myself lucky to work for Sport Wales for many reasons, but a key one is the culture of playing sport together.  Staff frequently play badminton, run together or play football at lunchtimes. It aids communication and team-working, the benefit of which is felt back in the office. The sport I enjoy most, by far, is football.  Following England and Southampton FC has been an exercise in sadistic, self-inflicted torture over the years due to their overwhelming ability to disappoint, but I really love actually playing the game (albeit badly).

Team sports like football have double strength mental health boosting powers.  First there is the exercise itself. Serotonin and endorphin production increases as you get a sweat on, which causes that buzz you have from getting physical.  There is no way I know to get the same positive feeling that is both free and doesn’t cause you damage (unlike many of our most popular vices).  Second, there is the social aspect.  The camaraderie created through being on a team is hard to beat.  I play on a lunchtime as well as after work in a five-a-side league and genuine friendships have been forged through doing so.

I cannot overstate the benefits felt from playing sport.   When I do, I don’t stress about work and when I return to the office my mind feels energised too, quite the opposite of the sluggish fog that envelopes you when you eat too much for lunch and just want to snooze…

NB. This piece was originally written for Mental Health Awareness Week for Sport Wales.

Max and his Magic Daps

Max and his Magic Daps

When I was at school (late 80s-early 90s) there weren’t many people with my name. The only ones I could think of existed on TV and they were either in cartoons or were dogs. I mention this because a) I thought about it and got all nostalgic and b) the title of today’s blog is reminiscent of an old kid’s show title (who can remember Jamie and the Magic Torch?)

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So then, the story of Max and his Magic Daps*.

There once was a young boy young man man called Max. Max loved football very much, but he really wasn’t very good. One day he met a wise man known simply as JK.  JK was the (self-appointed) leader of a group of mighty warriors called the Spartans. Named after their similarly chiseled, six-pack toting historical counterparts, the Sport Wales Spartans were a fearsome footballing bunch who terrorised the Gol Centre‘s five-a-side work league every Monday night, crushing all teams that stood in their path (and by all I mean a few). Despite Max playing the beautiful game like a blindfolded Bambi on ice, he was invited to join the team.

The line up of the mighty Spartans team included many legends.  Firstly, Twohey, a goalkeeper likened to a cat, due mainly to his lightning reflexes and partly his habit of occasionally coughing up hairballs.  Then there was Simon. A man of unbending self-belief. A belief that the ball should do all the work.  He may not have run around like Speedy Gonzales , but he didn’t need to.  The ball was always where he wanted it – on his foot or in the goal.

Next up was Ski.  His name was a mystery, but some say it was due to his ability to glide past defences as if he were a world champion skier and the opponents flagpoles stuck helplessly in the snow.  And then we come to Ben.  An enigma.  A force of nature.  The kind of player who covers more ground than a carpet fitter, but still has finesse in abundance.

Next is Tom.  Those who wonder what Fergie’s infamous halftime hairdryer was like need only play on the same team as Tom.  Commitment is a word too weak to describe the Midlander’s passion, and that passion was often felt bellowing in your face when your desire was brought into question.  And last there was JK.  The man who took young Max and brought him into the Spartan family.  JK’s feet were something to behold. With the speed of Michael Flatley and the grace of Ginger Rogers, they bemused and confused the opposition into surrender.

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This group of men would take to the plastic crumb coated pitches on a Monday night and weave their soccer magic.  Goals would go flying in. Sometimes actually into the opponents’ goal. And everyone would chip in with goals. Everyone would tot up their tallies after each bruising victory.  All but Max that is.  Max’s headless chicken routine, while enthusiastic, only served to contribute fitfully and rarely towards the goal tally.

So, after another disappointing night in front of goal, Max’s wife Clare suggested that some actual football boots, rather than tattered trainers, might help.  Following a search that took the pair through the myriad malls and markets of old Cardiff town, some glittering golden boots were spied in a shop window.  Handing over the last shilling from their savings, the boots were bought and carried gleefully home.

The next match day arrived and Max pulled on his new boots. As he warmed up and took some practice shots, confidence flowed through him. His usual wayward marksmanship was seemingly much improved and his turning circle had gone from oil tanker to rally car. And then in the game itself, the unthinkable happened – Max scored a goal. He openly wept after that game, such was his joy.

And that wasn’t the end. Max went on to score TWO in the next game, taking the season’s tally to three. Wow. The crowds cheered raucously, and his teammates carried him from the pitch.

I know what you’re thinking. Magic Daps. Really? Well it’s true. In a way. You probably didn’t realise, but the Max in this story is me! And the magic was simply confidence. The new boots made me believe I could do more. I am never going to be a world beater, but it’s true that, with a good team around you and a little bit of self-belief, anyone can do more than they thought possible.

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*For the unaware among you, ‘daps’ is what some call trainers round these parts.

 

Screen Time

“Trust in meeeee…”

Kaa’s eyes turn to swirling vortices, his coils tighten and poor Mowgli is trapped.  Those spiralling, whirlpool eyes have hypnotised the little boy, sending him into a trance.

Holloway-Kaa-The-Jungle-Book.jpg

Luckily for Mowgli, Bagheera the panther is on hand to put the python in his place and come to his rescue.  But you don’t need a Disney character to see the same mesmerising effect in recent years.  It can be seen pretty much everywhere.  On buses, walking on the street or in offices and schools across the country.  I refer to SIH, or Screen Induced Hypnosis.

If there was a self-help group called Nerds Anonymous (actually, there probably is), then I would be in that circle.  “Hello, my name is Max and I know Pi to thirty four places..”  I like love technology and am always happy playing around with the latest bits of kit.  But where cutting edge technology was once the preserve of the enthusiast, it has become an essential companion of the modern man, woman and child.

Yes, that’s right. Child.  I used to joke some years back that we’d soon have little kids with mobile phones, rocking round like miniature yuppies. And now it’s happening. In 2012, 75% of ten year olds had a phone.  But it’s not just phones of course.  The affordability of tablets has meant that anyone can carry a screen around with them.  We’ve all seen (or been) that person walking about with a screen inches from their face and little awareness of what’s around them (including lampposts, traffic and kerbs).  More cases of SIH.

tablets

Though this affliction affects a range of ages, at least for us oldies, we have at least lived in a non-digital world. So, when we are digitally deprived at any time, we can regress to simpler forms of communication and entertainment easily enough.  For some children and young adults, it has become addictive, and herein lies the exercise angle.

When I were a lad, there weren’t as much in terms of sedentary entertainment.  There was one hour of kid’s telly each day and the rest of the time we were sent to play outside if possible. So, though I was never into sport early on (more spotty than sporty), I was active.  Even playing inside would mean running around the house endlessly (sorry Mum).

I can see the appeal of the phone/tablet for a parent.  Everyone has one so it’s hard to deny your own child one and it can also serve as a robo-nanny in the short term.  I’ve seen many a grizzling child silenced by Peppa Pig popping up in a portable format, in cafes, at home or on long car journeys.  But I’ve also seen how hard it can be to tear a child (and some adults for that matter) away from a screen to do something else.  Something active maybe…  So, in this age of expanding waistlines and childhood obesity, we need to be careful that today’s children do enough exercise and that screen time is limited to a reasonable level.

One study in 2010 showed that US teenagers spend over seven hours a day in front of a screen and there are many similarly scare reports to be found . That doesn’t leave a lot of time for running around and playing games or sport, sadly.  And this is the serious point – while keeping children entertained can be difficult and time-consuming, the very real potential for damage to current and future health from inactivity is too important an issue to ignore.  So enjoy your tech, but take a break and embrace the world beyond the peripheral from time to time.

Sport Relief Super-Mini-Blog

 

It’s Friday 18th March 2016 and Sport Wales staff volunteer to run a one mile relay race for Sport Relief…

 

Every limb is aching.

Every sinew straining.

Hamstrings highly strung.

Lungs wheezing from the freezing air.

My decrepit body is struggling to hold it together.

 

Then the race actually starts and the real pain begins.

 

dawg

Getting Started

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Getting Started

I grew up in Soberton Heath.  It’s easy to miss.  If you blink as you drive through it, you’ll miss it entirely.  It’s in the middle of nowhere, tucked away in the rolling hills of rural Hampshire and consequently I grew up in what was effectively one big outdoor playground.  I was outside most days if the weather was ok; running around, climbing trees and evading farmers who took umbrage at our pre-teen trespassing.  So there you have it – I was an active child, destined to grow up playing sport, right?

80s

Droxford Primary School.  1987.  Year of the Great Storm™, memorably NOT forecast by Michael Fish.  A time of Wham! and Bananarama, not to mention a baby no-one puts in the corner…  It’s a summertime lunchtime so everyone’s outside on the playground. A game of football is being played.  And I love the game.  I did then as I do now.  So I was out there playing, right?

As an 8 year old, I was quiet and not very confident at all.  And this for me is what was critical in shaping my first years’ experience of (not) playing sport.  Now, this is only my view, my memory of that time, but it seemed that the boys (girls didn’t even get a look-in) who played football at break times were the most socially confident, rather than the most physically able.  The same group of boys who, it seemed to my shy younger self, dominated our school year.  The ‘cooler’ ones, the ones peers and teachers noticed.  The playground was tribal.  If I was an American Indian warrior, I would be less ‘Sitting Bull‘ and more ‘Reading Books’.

Like everywhere, there’s a social hierarchy at work at school.  As soon as kids become aware of themselves and others, this comes into play.  And so, the shy, bookish young boy that I was didn’t have the confidence to join in with playground sport.  And when you’re not involved at break time, it can mean you are behind the development curve in PE as well, which can reduce your sporting confidence further.

So, the end of the story then?  Luckily not.  As a confident, outgoing adult, I have found opportunities to play the sport I love most, through after-work five-a-side games, where ability is not the key attribute (but more on that another time).

Well, this post started hopefully enough didn’t it?  Then it kind of tailed off into a ‘poor me’ story..  Don’t worry, my posts will mostly be upbeat, odd and rambling. Allow me this fleeting introspection.

This post then.  What is my point?  I guess I have two.

Firstly, you don’t have to be an active child to be an active adult.  There are opportunities at every age to get involved.  Whether it’s playing sport after work with colleagues or friends, or opting for adapted sports when your body isn’t up to the rigours of the full game (I personally think that even now, Walking Football might be more my pace).

Secondly, if you have children, or are a teacher or coach, then do your best to encourage the less confident kids to get involved in sports, to try a few and hopefully find at least one they like. Winning is a great feeling, but not everyone can excel at sport.  Luckily, just getting active can increase your self-confidence off the field and improve your mental health, so there’s something in it for everyone.

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