Playing the Game

I suppose my memories of football are pretty similar to many others; a freezing cold Lakeside Oval, standing on tin cans of Courage Draught to get a glimpse, sitting behind the goals at the Junction Oval, as the Cats took on the Lions, and watching The Flea Wilson and Larry Donohue plying their trades, a few trips to the terraces at Kardinia Park which were alive with the smells of stale pies and fresh urine.

It was always about the players. We came to watch our heroes.

If the Cats lost I would feel like someone had ripped out my heart. There were even tears occasionally (though I’ve vowed that this will stop in 2014). I can still feel the emptiness in 1980 as the Cats crashed out of the finals in straight sets, beaten by Richmond and a fat bloke called Rene. We trudged down the dark, dank concrete steps at Waverley Park in silence as if we were at a funeral march in Derry during The Troubles.

I remember Dad piled us all into the Golden Streaker (his 1972 Kingswood station wagon) and did battle with 8 million other cars attempting to leave Waverley car park. Another bloke tried to push his way into the traffic, against the tide.

Dad casually held his ground, ploughed the bumper bar of the old Kingswood into the other bloke’s rear quarter panel, and dragged it along the entire length of the poor bastard’s car. The sound of metal on metal was like hearing finger nails scratching a blackboard. There were a few yells, and a “you’d better not get out of your car mate”, before we all went on our dreary way home.

There was no consoling me. The Cats had lost. Defeat lived in my gut like an almighty, incurable hangover. At school, which was in the heartland of the Collingwood zone, I was verbally tortured by snotty kids with the horrible black and white stripes on their backs. And the Richmond supporters gave me a nice old hurry up in the shelter shed; blood noses and red cheeks were numerous before a teacher broke it up.

I’d copped a belting but I’d taken a few with me as well.

In fact, I remember being beaten and experiencing defeat far more often than I do triumph. Defeat is like eating green vegetables; we may not like it but it’s good for us. We become resilient, we develop a sense of self, and we begin to understand that a loss is just another experience. It was during these dark and horrible days that I really fell in love with the glorious hoops of the Cats. In defeat I found a reason to persist.

I feel sad that kids playing junior footy are being herded away from these experiences.

The AFL has deemed that playing to win, that playing for the four points, that playing to secure a Premiership is somehow evil. These kids will not feel the surge of adrenalin when the final siren confirms their Premiership victory, they’ll never experience the desolation I felt when McLeod-Rosanna belted St Francis Xavier Primary by 10 goals in a 15 minute Lightning Premiership game.

They’ll be empty vessels running around a footy ground in the pointless pursuit of nothing. If we don’t give the juniors a reason to play our beautiful game we will lose them to other sports. And the good players, the kids who get their chance on the football ground if not in the classroom, will be made numb like Randal P. McMurphy after the frontal lobotomy.

But there is a more compelling reason why kids should compete to win and play for medals and the four points.

During the training, the hard games, the wins, the losses, and even the scuffles, we become team mates. A bonding occurs. We learn what a community is, albeit a small one. We learn how we fit into that community and we feel the power of belonging. We attach ourselves to a club and the people we play with each week. And we do this because we are all striving for something. Whether we get there or not is almost secondary. But we have a go. It takes courage to enter the field of battle each week and risk losing, but kids need this life lesson.

I have just finished reading Rod Laver’s autobiography: Rod Laver: A Memoir by Rod Laver. It is a shining example of a young kid whose burning ambition was lit by competing against his older brothers, by striving to be better, by trying to win. But what Laver hangs onto more than anything is not so much the wins, but the battles he had with Muscles Rosewall, Lew Hoad and Pancho Gonzales (amongst many others), because the games meant something. He mentions the many exhibition games he played only in passing. They had no consequence.

I don’t believe that human endeavour and enterprise can ever be crushed. Just ask Lech Walesa. But there is a danger that we will be setting our kids back if we don’t encourage them to strive. And if we don’t encourage them to fail.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. craig dodson says

    well said Dips, couldn’t agree with you more. The amount of lifelong friends I have from sport at that age underlines the value of the shared expereince of winning and losing. We still talk about glories and opportunities missed to this day. Grant Thomas actually raised an interesting point on the topic – his view was that it was more a measure to protect the kids from parents who get too emotionally involved with the scoreboard at that age.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Totally agree Dips and the irony of it is that kids move in quickly with winning or losing playing wise to the next game . Dips also you are correct kids ( and adults ) learn more from the losses as a Norwood supporter likewise did not say boo leaving football park after a finals loss . I never thought I would write these words , Grant Thomas is correct
    It is some parents as a maggot years ago I actually refused to continue a under 15s samboy cup game between North and Port unless a parent left because of the abuse he was giving his own son ( got a round of applause by the parents and spectators present ) I umpire the college junior games on a sat morning now and overall it is good v few dramas . In any aspect of life you compete to try and abandon that is yet another ridiculous case of molly coddling which won’t work

  3. Dips nicely put. Marrying Lakeside Oval together with Geelong, there is nothing less memorable than playing night football at said ground for the dubious honour of been Night Football champion post-season. I’m talking early 70’s when the Cats were in the wilderness. Some of the coldest most miserable nights ever under lights which were closer to being torchlight rather than the real thing. I think I lost 2 relationships taking birds to watch me play those nights–although it was certainly a great way to turf them if that stage had been reached. In fact I often decided to put them in the draft at the end of a season!!!



  4. Hilarious Gareth! Did you ever have a super draft?

    RB and Craig – if the problem is with the parents, then that’s even sadder.

  5. matt watson says

    Back in the seventies, my first junior coach told us the most important thing about playing was to enjoy it.
    We all did, but our enjoyment was enhanced by winning while losing made us feel miserable.
    Kids can play in a sandpit if they don’t want to lose.
    And how can you convince kids that results are meaningless when they watch footy each week???
    Enjoyment is not a prerequisite of playing. Winning and losing are….

  6. Nice article Dips. When I first came across the news my first thought was that it is very important for kids of a young age to learn how to lose and deal with it. That is what is going to be lost.

  7. Neil Anderson says

    If defeat makes us resilient and allows us to develop a sense of self, us Bulldog supporters must be the most psychologically sound people on the planet.
    Good to know as we rip the last strands of grey hair out after yet another loss. For a better visual image I refer you to the shots of Mick in the coach’s box…even when he’s winning.

  8. Thanks Dips. Randall McMurphy and Lech Walesa. There’s two brave inspirations, two warriors. Lech Walesa is not a name I’ve read too often on this website! But then again there haven’t been too many games down at the Gdansk shipping yards!

  9. Very funny Neil. I used the word “defeat” not the phrase “perpetual defeat”. There’s a difference.

    Mickey – I reckon Lech Walesa would have topped the hard ball gets.

  10. Luke Reynolds says

    Great points Dips, totally agree. Not playing for points etc. means this generation of kids will have major disappointments playing older level sport. And in life in general. Life is a competition. Sport and life both have wins and losses.
    Loved the Golden Streaker story!

  11. E.regnans says

    Great topic Dips and all.
    Not at all sold on the idea of competition being necessary, though.

    I venture that collaboration and cooperation are what this life should be about; rather than competition and responding to competition.
    Yes yes, we will all fail and we all need to deal adequately with this when is occurs. But on the humanitarian scale, isn’t it better to be encouraging thoughtful collaboration and awareness of others, rather than the mantra of mine is bigger/ better/ faster/ has more points than yours?

    In this regard, I prefer half an hour of kick-to-kick than playing any match.
    I’ll take end-to-end ping-pong over a game of table tennis.
    I’ll take a conversation about the merits of buying Fleet Street over a game played to bankruptcy.
    My competitive fire happily blew out a while back.

    I see no problem with the scoreboard-less under 10 footy.
    As long as they’re having a crack there’s no drama.
    Surely the process is infinitely more important than any “result”?
    Why are we not celebrating this stoking of the creative fires of youth..?

    There’s plenty of time for wins and losses.
    Let’s all enjoy the days while we can.

  12. Do your best.

    I didn’t understand (believe) that was good enough until I went to Little Athletics.

  13. Dave – I suppose its a matter of perspective. In all things. That’s the key. Its interesting that you stated that there is no problem with a scoreboard-less under 10 footy as long as they’re having a crack. But I would ask “Having a crack at what?”

    My point is not the winning and losing, but the competing. And not life and death competing, but competing, or striving. It creates camaraderie and it is a sign of respect for the other person (or team).

    And lets not fool ourselves, even without a scoreboard the kids know exactly what the score is. Its human nature.

  14. E.regnans says

    Hi Dips, yes great points.
    Have a crack manifests differently for different people. It could mean arriving at the ground on time with all of your equipment. It could mean being prepared to volunteer to play. It could mean kicking two goals and laying three tackles.
    As JTH says, do your best.
    We all have little competitions inside ourselves. Can I do better today than I did yesterday?
    Having a crack us this giving it a go. Giving life a go.

    I always thought we should celebrate those who achieve personal bests at Olympic competition – regardless of coming 1st, 2nd, 17th.

    Plenty of camaraderie between blokes I know playing touch footy without scoreboards. Scoreboards are missing the point. It’s the playing that’s the thing. As your original piece is titled. Good stuff.

  15. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Sign at our local netball comp:


    1) These are kids
    2) This is a game
    3) The coaches are volunteers
    4) The umpires are human
    5) This is not the ANZ Championship

  16. Dips, it was summed up beautifully by a great junior coach of mine years ago – “It’s not about winning – it’s about trying to win” Can it be simpler than that?

  17. The problem with Dip’s argument is that parents are involved in under 10 sport, and once there is a prize it is the parents who generally stuff things up.

    The readers of the Almanac are probably all here because we have had plenty of positive experiences along the footy road. Unfortunately, not everyone’s early experiences of sport are positive. Yes, we all need to toughen up at some stage, but at 10?

    I am speaking from 20 years of experience in footy development, where pushy parents stuff up not only the enjoyment of their own kids, but if they get into coaching and management roles they stuff it up for lots of others.

    If we have winning and losing in under 10s the kid who struggles to get a kick stays in the back pocket or on the bench. He or she doesn’t develop, and the champion in the centre who is going to enjoy their footy anyway is pushed to win the game, the cup, the sheep station. Some of those kids might like being pushed, but not all do, and some of their parents drive them till they quit, usually in their mid-to-late teens.

    I have a vivid recollection of umpiring one of my first games of under 7s in 1977 at Morningside in Brisbane. I was 14 years old and was trying to pick up some cash to fund my punting habit! I was playing Rugby Union for a club and my school, and also spending a lot of time in the back pocket for Coorparoo AFC under 14s. I was enjoying lots of football, but was no champion.

    The parents of one of the under 7 teams I umpired were feral; we were apparently playing for sheep stations. I saw the best kid in one team deliberately kick an opposition player in the head. Shit, I thought, better do something about that, so I sent him off – in under 7s!

    All hell broke loose. The father of the offender was a HUGE man, and he corralled me at half time with a few of his feral cohort. After 5 minutes of berating I was in tears, but didn’t let his son back on the field. The fallout through letters of complaint about my umpiring, and victimisation of his son and team, continued for another two weeks. I told my parents I was quitting umpiring, but a bad run on the punt that had me back as a white maggot a few weeks later.

    The child in this story actually went on to play some AFL football and continued at a community club into his early 30s. That part of the story defeats my argument, I know, but I witnessed many many more over the next 30 years who were just driven away from sport by ugly parents.

    Kids can wait for premierships, winning and losing till they get to the last years of primary school. There is plenty of good research that supports the position of not competing when you are 10. The research suggests that kids should be encouraged to compete against their own performance … difficult to simulate, but it is possible.

    Has anyone been to an Under 10 Grand Final recently? They bring out the worst in parents. We don’t need them, and the kids will be ok.

  18. Well said Muz. I agree with you 100%.
    As a fellow punt drunk (retired hurt – carried off unconscious really) it is good to see that it can sometimes have positive results in areas beyond the pocket and personal sanity.

  19. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Great discussion. As a parent and helper, I loved the non competitive years of the Newtown Swans. Little ones having engrossed imaginary battles with opposition teams. Fantasy tallies of 13 goals having been kicked in a quarter. 12 variations of a score at full time. Smiles all round. I guess there is a natural arc towards competitiveness as we know it in the adult world but I do love the sanctity of what goes before that.

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