Phobos, the God of Fear and Football


Sketch: Sunday Morning from the Fence by Kate Birrell



As a sideline, fence hugging, chatting with friends, sometimes inattentive, latte sipping junior football parent, I like to muse from time to time on the various aspects that infuse the world of kids sport, it’s role in our society and in contemporary parenting. Here are this weeks thoughts….

What is it about football and fear?

“He or she is scared of the ball”.

We hear it said by others and often, by ourselves.

“So and so is soft….. don’t stand back, you’ve got to go in hard and get the ball”.

There was an article written in The Age a few weeks ago. It resonated with me somewhat, because the piece spoke of fear. In the previous week a young AFL player had flinched in the face of a marking contest. It had been noticed by some and remarked upon in the media. The player in question was a young man with several AFL seasons behind him.

In the early days of junior football parenthood I could not say that fear was something I had given much thought to, in either Auskick or in the lower junior levels of the game. But as my kids have gotten older it is something that has gradually seeped into my football being.

I am now conscious of fear being an intrinsic part of the game of football. And not just for those that play.

What am I fearful of? I ask myself. And why am I more fearful on the sidelines of a junior football game, than I am at a game of junior tennis or basketball.

Most obviously, it is the vicarious fear of physical injury to your own child, or some else’s, that can be disturbing. Fear that they will suffer, fear that they could sustain a head or life altering injury in their pursuit of the ball, and in their love for the game. Although rare, it does happen.

The stakes seem high in this and other similar codes of football.

Less obviously, it is the fear that as a knowing parent I feel somewhat complicit in allowing exposure to such risk.

As for players, at any level, fear must lurk somewhere beneath the veneer of strength, courage and bravery; the fear of being hurt, the fear of underperformance, the fear of choking, the fear of scrutiny, the fear of not getting a touch, the fear of flinching and perhaps worst of all, the fear of showing your fear.

Whilst the risk of injury in lower junior football levels is minimal, it does increase steeply and quickly with each season as kids grow into their adult bodies. Whilst the once oversized footy jumpers, and the down to the knees footy shorts shrink, and hug shapely torsos and the heavy thighs of growing bodies, the chance of greater and more significant injury stretches considerably.

As a parent I am known to flinch when on the sidelines of an under 17 game, not for the buffed shapely torsos gliding past, but for the sound of colliding bodies, bone on bone; or the deadening thud of a body landing at high speed on the ground before me.

The seconds it takes for a player to rise or to move from a prostrate position can seem like an eternity. And it gets worse if it takes minutes and a stretcher is called for. As parents, we hope it’s not our child, yet at the same time, we dont want it to be anyones child.

So how does one reconcile fear within the game? How do senior players combat fear in the face of constant scrutiny and criticism? How do parents and junior clubs manage their fears for the safety of those under 18yrs. Are little kids actually scared? I’m not so sure they are. It takes a certain degree of knowing to be afraid.

Fear is an integral part of life.

Phobos, the Greek god of fear in mythological times, was known to torment those upon the ancient battlefields, a ploy to scare and send an opponent scurrying. Nothing much has changed.

Today, Phobos appears within the grassy realm of the footyball field and upon the surface of the ball. With eyes ablazing and gnashing teeth, shining white, he still personifies the idea of fear, sending flinches through the buffed and shapely torsos of sportsmen, shards of concern towards those on the sidelines and a shimmering glee into the hands of the opponent.

And therein lies the contest.


  1. Pottering says

    Halfway through you state it’s not the “buffed shapely torsos” that make you flinch, but by the end of the article you’re back to those “buffed and shapely torsos”, so it makes me wonder if fear is the overriding emotion you’re feeling.

  2. Speculate as you wish Pottering…overly embellished perhaps, if it is distracting, you can delete second reference and substitute with “Sportsmen”, and I can then dedicate a separate post to just “buffed and shapely torsos” of footballers

  3. Thanks Kate, really interesting article, makes you think, which is a sign of good writing.

    My wife is still surprised that after watching our son start in the Under 10s and now at nearly 6 foot play in the Under 15s, she has never run on the field to help him or another boy hurt in a contest. I think as a parent, the fear of injury never leaves.

    Sometimes I don’t know what’s worse. Those that fear and don’t go in, or those who don’t fear and show little regard for their own safety.

    Love the art as ever


  4. E.regnans says

    Well raised, Kate. Love the image(s).
    Fear can be a tricky one.
    We all feel it. And yet much of society decrees that we don’t show fear of physical pain.
    Certainly football parts of society.

    But then, navigating fear is such an important part of navigating the world.
    We learn our boundaries, we learn, we avoid danger, we prosper.

    Knowingly putting yourself in danger is a difficult thing.
    Those who do so are taking a risk.
    But those who don’t are also taking a risk. A different risk, but still a risk.
    Courage comes in many forms.

  5. Sean and Dave, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, all too true.

  6. Peter Fuller says

    I think it’s really summarised by a quote which I heard from Ron Barassi, but probably originated elsewhere:
    Courage isn’t about not feeling fear, but it involves conquering fear.
    While the risk is physical on the football field, we are fearful in many aspects of our lives, the shy person approaching a stranger at a party, the junior staff member speaking up in a meeting, the taking on of any challenge where we doubt our capacity to accomplish it. Parents of footballers (and participants in other contact sports) obviously face a fear over which they have no control, but every aspect of parenting involves an acceptance of risk and the hope that we have given our offspring the tools to make sound decisions about acceptable risks. Life without risk is hollow; life with excessive risk is needlessly dangerous.

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