I don’t do sport. In fact, I don’t do exercise of any kind, and neither does my wife (unless you count a swift and brisk walk for about twenty minutes each day). Sport hurts. Sport is painful and stupid, and leaves you out of breath, sweaty, and uncomfortable.
It seems this is a very bad attitude to have. Some people might say it makes me a Very Bad Parent.
As you know, children are now no longer the fit, active, energy-filled dynamos of yesteryear. Children are now obese, waddling, wheezing lumps of inactive matter, who aren’t allowed outside to play, and this is turning us into (amongst other things) a nation of agoraphobic, armchair-hogging lardies, staring at pixels, in a state of moral decline.
And Alice is right there amongst them. She’s not fat by any means, but she doesn’t really do exercise. Activities that involve running, jumping, throwing, kicking, or hitting some sort of inflatable ball are not part of our daily routine, and 95% of the time, I don’t give a crap. Then, all of a sudden, I will suddenly develop a sudden conscience, and suddenly and unreasonably wheedle a protesting Alice into doing some sort of physical activity for about 20 mins, and then forget all about it for a month, and we find ourselves slacking back into a torpid state of Playstationing.
And, before you start, it’s not the Playstation’s fault. We’ve never been anything other than a fairly sedentary family. Sarah and I avoid strenuous activity, and sport in general hardly ever appears on our TV screen (apart from the occasional soccer or rugby game, or coverage of the Olympics). Alice has never been much of an active, sporty kid. She’s not one of nature’s runners, or jumpers, or throwers, or catchers. We’ve always known this, we’ve just never done anything about it. I’ve written elsewhere about Alice’s running style. It’s particularly distinctive. More than once I have heard the phrase “The Alice Run”, to describe her unique sprint; staff at her old nursery coined it, and then independently I’ve heard it chuckled about by some of the other mums in (what I hope to be) an affectionate tone. It’s a sort of fast, determined walk: hunched shoulders, elbows tight to the side, arms pumping furiously, legs never fully extending, teeth gritted, a lot of physical action with very little speed.
One memorable Sports Day at Alice’s school, our girl took part in the sprint race. Off went the whistle, and her peers powered ahead, with Alice trotting some distance behind. The mums all cheered her on with great bonhomie and a little, but not unkind, sarcasm; and Alice – being about 6 at the time – mistakenly thought she had won the race, especially when she got the standard medal for “taking part”.
This year, for work reasons, I was unable to support Alice at Sports Day, and Sarah attended for the first time. Halfway through the afternoon, my phone pinged with a message. It was, apparently, a photo of Alice doing the long jump. What it showed was Alice, shoulders hunched in a most determined fashion, taking a step. It basically looks like she’s walking. Oh dear. She’s never going to leap a lava-filled chasm at this rate.
It’s not hard to see where Alice gets her running from. Sarah is also not a natural sprinter, and runs as though she’s on a narrow ledge going as fast as she dares, with arms raised for balance. It’s rather like the awkward running one does along the side of a swimming pool while dressed in a bikini. I think it’s rather cute.
And me? Well, I can’t run more than 30 yards before wheezing and sweating to a halt. In my primary school years, I was the slowest in the class. The weird gangly girl with badly-coordinated limbs, who spat when she talked, and bottle-bottom glasses could outstrip me by miles. Then, aged 11, early-onset puberty (combined with taking up rugby in yet another attempt to fit in with my classmates) suddenly took hold and I suddenly developed a turn of speed hitherto unknown to me, and was quite surprising to all who had grown up with me. My classchums who had always enjoyed thrashing me into last place were not impressed, and made peevish, jealous comments. This golden age of athleticism saw me compete in 100m and 200m dashes at a county level for a brief while (plus long-jump, discus, relay, and shot-putt which made me a county champion and record holder for, oooh, about 12 seconds in 1989), and lasted until I was about 14, until early-onset cigarettes and total lack of interest in any form of continuous or dedicated training relegated me to a fast burst at the start, and a gasping, painful lumbering over the finishing line in 5th place by the time I was 18.
The last time I did any form of athletics was in 2008. We had just got married, and Sarah was pregnant all of a sudden. We visited my Mothra-in-Law in her village, and the village was alive with activity. On the village green, instead of the usual wicker structure for burning Christians in, there was a “Village Olympics” that tied in with the events in Beijing at the time. We attended, and I was bullied into taking part in the 50m dash (ironically by a lady in a mobility scooter wielding a clipboard). I was unfit, only recently a non-smoker, and wearing biker boots.
I also took part in the ‘welly discus’. I joined the queue, picked up the wellington boot, decided to use my old discus technique of spinning before release. I stepped up, gripped the boot, spun round on the spot, lost balance, got disorientated, flung the boot in totally the wrong direction, and it slammed into the crotch of a nearby teenage boy, who took it on the chin (or more precisely, his cock and balls), and accepted my fulsome apology with considerable grace, especially as he was sort of crying.
Not put off, or beaten up by the locals, I then lined up to take part in the race. Me, two other chaps of my age, who were tall, fit, outdoorsy, and the square-jaws and haw-haws of private school rugger types, and a giggly girl in her twenties who loudly told us several times she was “rubbish at running!!”. I had done no stretches, warm-ups, and was wearing completely the wrong footwear.
The flag went down, I charged off, and instantly realised I was completely unfit and going to die. Of course, the other two chaps were being massively competitive, and pummelled down the green. I got about halfway, when I suddenly felt as though I had been shot in the leg. I crumpled, fell to the ground, and heard a shriek of alarm from Sarah. I got up, felt agonising pain in my right leg, and hobbled on to the finish where I collapsed due to a tendon snapping in my leg, and had Sarah and Mothra-in-Law rush over to attend to me. I still came third though. That girl turned out to be not a liar, and really was rubbish at running.
Henceforth, I have done no athletic things, and Alice does not get much encouragement from us. And we were sort of fine about it, but also aware it could be an issue. And then, at parents evening, Alice’s class teacher gently suggested we do some catching practice with her at the very least.
Fuck this, I thought to myself. But he had a point. Alice can’t catch a falling leaf.
Catching is one of those motor skills we all take for granted. Imagine, for a moment, being completely unable to catch anything: It wouldn’t bother us most of the time, but it’s one of those things that is useful at very specific moments. But it’s more important than that. It’s not just the catching, it’s the hand/eye coordination. Now imagine your life without any hand/eye coordination. Life would be a succession of clumsy incidents at the very least. And Alice can be very clumsy at times.
So we have attempted to get Alice to catch things. It’s not easy for her. She has a very strong sense of self-preservation, which in many ways I’m very glad about. She’s not a risk taker, she hasn’t had many injuries in her young life (unlike some of her peers, who show up to school with bumps, scrapes, scars, and plastercasts on a regular basis), and she’s cautious – but sometimes she’s too cautious. She takes great care about descending particularly tall steps. Anything that requires a jump of more than about 6 inches is worrisome for her. A jump for Alice is a sort of tiny hop in case she falls awkwardly. Catching is yet another one of those moments when she really is far too cautious.
Alice’s method of catching something is to screw up her eyes, hold out her hands all splayed, and flinches into a defensive position, with arms and legs protecting her torso. Even if you throw her a sponge to catch, she reacts instinctively as if you were chucking a bag of wasps at her head.
Her throwing is worse. I hate to use the phrase “she throws like a girl”, or the toxic word, “spaz”, but Alice is utterly crap at throwing things. It’s not uncommon for her to throw something at a 90-degree angle from where she was aiming at. And what’s more, she’d throw it about 14″ before it plops harmlessly onto the floor. Underarm, overarm, it doesn’t matter. So, on some weekends, we take her to the park and throw balls for her to catch. It’s like walking a chatty labrador.
Meanwhile, the lack of sport for children to experience is one of these things we parents like to bemoan. Almost every other day, there’s some news report stating that kids don’t get enough sport facilities or opportunities in school. This, along with rising child obesity statistics, is one of the top hand-wringing worries of modern parenting. Alice’s school has very few gym apparatus, and what apparatus they have, Alice invariably freaks out about using. Their small playground offers little in the way of sport equipment.
They do have after-school clubs, however. I’m both pleased and surprised that Alice invariably signs up for a new sport club every term. I’m pleased for obvious reasons (1. Alice gets to do a sport with other kids that will hopefully develop her skills; and 2. I get an extra hour to myself at home before having to pick her up from school. Winner!). I’m also surprised, because of Alice’s comical running, shite throwing, and inept catching, poor love.
It has to be said that every time Alice shoves the letter inviting her to join a new after-school sports club into my face while I’m on the sofa, I do always say “Are you sure??”, because every single time, she joins a club, can’t keep up, doesn’t get the ball passed to her by the more athletic and co-ordinated kids, and she comes away dejected. This has happened in hockey club, football club, running club, handball club, rounders club, tennis club, and cricket club – although cricket club was eventually stopped because the kids took no notice of the ineffectual teacher trying to get them to behave, and he cancelled the remaining sessions in a spectacular huff. Thanks to him, I don’t get a pleasing hour to myself on Tuesday afternoons any more. Twat.
Alice is a writer and dreamer, not a runner. She’s shaping up to follow in mine and Sarah’s waddly footsteps, and is heading for a life of sofa-flumping and sore feet after 30mins of shopping. This isn’t something to celebrate, and I totally recognise we as a family need to change our crappy lifestyle in one way or another. For Alice it means I hope she’ll be able to run in order to escape zombies, and to catch a ball. Dammit, I’m determined she will be able to catch. And for Sarah and I… well, we’re not getting younger or bendier or healthier or any more breath in our lungs. We’re over 40, and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to bad things. For Alice’s sake, we need to be better parents when it comes to physical activity.
After Top Gear, though. I’m feeling sleepy.