Playing or watching?

So which are you, a player or a watcher? And which role do you prefer? 

For most it is probably an easy enough question to answer. Who would take the option of sitting on the sidelines when the opportunity to participate is on the cards? There comes a time however when even that most clear cut answer enters the grey area.

I am occasionally reminded about the occasion when I pulled a calf muscle celebrating an early wicket too gleefully, a day spent spectating the eldest resulted, rather than playing alongside him, as planned.  Intensive warm ups cannot hide the frailties of an ageing body, no matter the will. Intensive warm ups are not what the ageing player wants either, captains take note.

There comes a time when logic takes over and the former player admits defeat.  Definitely the wrong word in this case, how can a decades long love affair with a game be termed as a defeat, it just feels like that at the end. 

Retirement to the sidelines is a poor alternative but it is the only one available that retains a relationship with the game, unless umpiring is your thing, I actually qualified as an umpire one winter and at the end of the course could not quite work out why I had started it in the first place. As a result I have never officially umpired. So we become spectators.  Personally, I am a dreadful watcher.  

When I stopped playing rugby for the winter, I was able to go and watch the better half play hockey. High class stuff the hockey was, she played in one of the country’s best sides.  It was great Saturday entertainment and only 35 minutes per half and with a 10 minute half time break.  So in and out in an hour and 20 minutes.  Before long, I realised that even that was too much for me.  

I tried the cricket trick of doing laps of the pitch, but it was a lot less satisfying than the cricket version and only resulted in odd looks from the other watchers for which this was an unheard of way of watching their game.  Instead, I began to bring my camera with me.  A roll of Spectra film gave me 24 shots to capture during the 70 minutes of action.  A new hobby was born.  I quickly realised that not only did the players like seeing occasional photos of themselves but time passed a lot quicker with a camera in my hand while working out when was the right time to use up the precious film.  

It didn't matter that the quality of the photography was decidedly more ordinary than the quality of the hockey. It was a great novelty for club players, back then, to see themselves in print, even the internationals rarely got much photographic coverage.   Unlike modern days, it was not a speedy process.  They had to wait till the following week to see the results, after the wait for Spectra to get the prints back along with a new roll of film (free) for next week’s game. A slow process but it made the act of watching a lot easier. 

I played cricket a bit longer than I played rugby, the survival instinct was not as necessary for the summer game, but once children arrived my interest in playing died. I stopped in 2001 and parenthood meant that watching cricket was no longer top of my list of priorities. We watched hockey together for a good few years after the lads' arrivals but it's a different proposition keeping young ones occupied for an hour or so than the entire afternoon and half an evening which I suddenly realised was how long a game of cricket took to play.

The kids turned out sporty so it didn't take many years for us to spend our weekends back on the sidelines, watching again. We toured every suburb of Dublin in the act of trying to find Pitch 23 of some park we had never heard of in an area that was as foreign as any holiday resort we might have liked to visit for a weekend retreat (but guess what? There's a game against Mochtas that weekend so scratch that holiday off the list).  

In a wonderful twist, the sporting lives of the parents became suddenly and utterly unimportant. 

It's a strange experience watching your children playing sport. The sportsperson in you craves the competitiveness of the action. It takes some time and generally a few embarrassing episodes before you realise that screaming "advice" from the sidelines is ridiculous, counterproductive, unhelpful and generally unwanted by the proposed recipient. A wander through your local park will let you know that not everyone has learnt that lesson. 

And child protection measures meant I couldn't bring the prop of a camera, most times, I had to sit, well, stand, and bear it. Or not. 

Watching your children is hard work. Even if it's not our own chosen sport that they are playing, let's face it, we think we know better.  After all, haven't we invested, year on year, in a Sky Sports subscription?  From football to Kabaddi and everything in between, we understand the tactics, the rhythms and the technical requirements of the game. We have listened to the in depth analysis, watched the replays, teased out the option on the tactics board. Surely we can see the issues in the under 9 midfield? Surely the under 9s want it pointed out to them? Surely?

If you have sense you shut up and watch your child, tell them how well they played and sure there's always next week, for you can bet your life on it that your child will be up at 7.30 on Sunday week, full gear ready and all you have to do is to find your way to another God forsaken mud heap. 

Come Monday morning, when a colleague queries what it was you got up to for the weekend, it is almost with a sense of pride that you list the football, hockey, athletics, GAA games, judo, cricket (delete as appropriate) which took up every waking hour, "And that was only the eldest" you proudly tell them. 

It becomes what you do. 

Does watching get any easier? Sadly, no. The joy of youth sport is that it really doesn't matter, really it doesn't. Arguably, sport never really matters, for 99.9% it is a pastime, a welcome break from the humdrum of life. Of course, that is not how 99.8% see it, as we move up the sporting ladder we are told that the stakes get higher.  

Whatever the standard, whatever the stakes, most of us just want our kids (irrespective of age they are always our kids) to do well. Are they happy at the end of the game? A simple yea will do for most of us, some want their kids to be the best, for most being the best they can be will do just fine.  Just because it is important to you, doesn't mean that it will be the same for them.  And that is hard,sometimes.  

There are days when you desperately want to support your child but just as desperately cannot face the emotional turmoil that it might put you through.  That last sentence makes me realise that watching your children is really just like playing.  The days when you wanted to be the hero, be the one hitting the winning run, taking the final wicket or that stunning full length dive to catch the star opposition batsman.  The one who is mobbed by your teammates.  Now you want that for your child but without the emotional turmoil.  Rarely does something come easy though so we understand that there will be good days and bad days.  Easy to say, not so easy to act out.

Unfortunately whichever way you handle this, it doesn't get any easier for the parental watcher.

Now I am back able to bring a camera to games. It is a welcome distraction from the fact that our lads are taking their places on cricket fields, rugby pitches and hockey grounds, just like we used to. We still watch as much as we possibly can, it's still bloody hard, I don’t expect it to get much easier.  The camera helps distract me but only a bit.  Through a 300mm lens the action is acted out just as it is with the naked eye, just you can see it all closer.  The distraction helps but the focal length does not.

So we are off again, the season is underway.  You may say it has been for months but the weather has been poor and the preponderance of 20 overs games are not my cup of tea, just a bad net really.  There are days I wish that I had something better to do but there are days when watching the lads play, no matter what sport, no matter what level, are the best days of my life, so I wish for some of those.