The post-game handshake: how sport doesn’t always reflect real life

As far as I can recall, in over thirty years of playing club hockey, I’ve only ever had one post-game handshake refused and I’ve never declined to put my hand out to someone.

I’ll admit that there have been games when I haven’t actively sought someone out afterwards. I’m no saint. I’ll make my way to the sidelines or the sheds quickly, head down and focussed, not dawdling to make contact with every player. However, when the moment came that I either put my hand out to an adversary, or was approached by someone, even someone I didn’t like from the game, hand and eye contact has always occurred.

It’s a truism in sport, and something that I think Australians pride themselves on, that once the final whistle goes you leave it on the field and shake hands. You don’t have to mean it, but a mumbled “good game”, “well played” or simply “thanks mate” is what’s expected.

That can be hard of course. Saying “thanks” to someone you felt treated you badly during a game can test the boundaries of your good nature.

But declining a handshake from an opponent is a very visible slight, something that even your own teammates would call you on, that reflected poorly on them and the club, so the outstretched hand at the conclusion of a game must always be taken.

That’s in sport.

But what of life away from the sweaty fields of play?

I have a dilemma, one I am not particularly proud of, but equally one I feel is my right to feel strongly about.

There are a few people (not many thankfully) but a handful for whom I just don’t think I could fake it and wish the best to. People for whom I cannot forgive or forget.

I know I am supposed to rise above these things, and let bygones be bygones. I know as a man I should be strong and not seem petty. As a father, particularly to my son, I should set the right example: that you always leave it on the field and shake hands after. I should live and move on, and don’t waste time with grudges and ill feeling. I realise that bitterness is a negative force and that you shouldn’t stew on things.

Away from the Almanac, I regularly contribute articles to wonderful site that is focussed on men’s health, emotional as much as physical. This site seeks to give men, who may not be too good emotionally, ideas, tips and guidance on being better men, looking after themselves, to talk about things that bother them, and being the best man they can be.

As such, I try to give solutions in my articles to difficult issues, answers to confusing things for many men, who may not be the best communicators or be keen to get in touch with how they feel.

So right about now, I should have a positive message here about forgiveness and being sensible, of rising above things like this.

But, it isn’t always like that. There are people, (interestingly enough all men), for whom I simply don’t wish to ever see again, and if I did see them, I truly don’t know if I could stick out my hand and say “how are you” or “good to see you”. Because I don’t care how they are or it isn’t good to see them.

In sport it’s different. If you play long enough, you get used to the same faces bobbing up regularly, and so you know that twice a year you’ll probably have a run in with them or get frustrated by their play. Maybe you steel yourself for it, do your best, and stick your hand out after. You don’t have to mean it, but the handshake is a ritual that is as part of the game as the formal rules.

Hockey in fact has a quaint tradition that still sees both teams clap each other onto the ground at the start of the game, line up along the centre line, three cheers for each side, and handshakes all round. Then you set about trying to kill each other for seventy minutes before shaking hands again!

Handshakes originated in medieval times, when the extending of the right hand between knights was a sign that they weren’t holding their sword, and therefore came in peace.

So a handshake is born from something positive and in sport is a way of breaking barriers, of saying that we are suspending our competitive nature to come together.

But to be blunt, (and I used to be a little ashamed at this but I now I’m OK with it), not only do I simply not wish this handful of blokes well, success or good luck, I think I’d take a degree of pleasure (and probably have) to see them fail, fall or suffer misfortune.

What sort of man does that make me?

Strangely, if I played sport against them, I’d take their hand and offer mine. And if truth be known, if I stumbled across them in the street or at a function, unexpectedly, and contact was unavoidable, if their hand came out, I’d take it, probably through force of habit and an unwillingness to make a scene.

I think the declined handshake, leaving someone hanging, is a greater insult than anything verbal. That silence, that awkwardness, that gap between you, is the worst you can do to someone.

You don’t have to offer your hand. But once it is offered to you, you really have to take it.

So if the moment arose, I’d cave, or at least take the hand without feeling or meaning, and not mouth platitudes I didn’t believe in.

I feel slighted, let down, cheated or simply not treated as I would expect to be by them in various ways, and despite having grown up around Christian ethics of forgiveness, just can’t bring myself to do so for this motley crew of people.

I wish I could forgive. However, at the same time, these people aren’t seeking my forgiveness, or my friendship. I doubt I register on their radar, or they have the vaguest idea of how I feel about them.

These people don’t burn me up, or I don’t sit stewing on this daily, plotting revenge or creating bitterness in my life that stops me from being happy. I don’t flatter or honour these few people with my attention or thoughts.

But the impact of what they did remains, clearly and tangibly in some cases, and to put it out of my mind completely would be foolish and ignoring reality.

So if I run into them again, I suppose I take their hand, and pretend we are OK for that moment, and exchange pleasantries. Even though I hope that karma has turned on them as I felt or hope it should.

It is said it takes a big man to admit he is wrong, and probably a bigger man to forgive too. Maybe I am not as big a man as I think I am.

I’d shake the hand of a bloke who 10 minutes before on the hockey field tried to maim me with his stick, but I’d not want to see a person I had a business relationship with for years? Maybe so.

I don’t have easy answers. I haven’t been tested by that outstretched hand as yet. The time may come. What sort of man will I be then?

About Sean Curtain

"He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad". First line of 'Scaramouche' by Sabatini, always liked that.


  1. Hi Sean,
    Good on you for posting that very personal piece.
    You ask about the difficulty finding forgiveness: What sort of person does that make you? I’d say it makes you a human sort of person.
    It’s a tough area, no doubt.
    And there’s the added danger of “beating yourself up” over perceived inadequacies.
    So in my amateur view, we need to accept who we are and to accept who They are and to accept the whole box & dice.
    Perhaps we will one day reach the Nelson Mandela-esque point of “hugging our jailers” (as he literally did on release from Robben(sp?) Island). That would be a monumental point of acceptance.
    I’d say acceptance is the path rather than forgiveness. Perhaps forgiveness will come but it can be quite a leap from hostility to forgiveness.
    Great conversation topic.
    What’s the other forum you write of?

  2. I’ve always seen the after game handshake as being about respecting the game and the fact that there is an opposition to play. Even if there are ‘thugs’ in the other team, for whom you have no respect, you don’t get a game without there being another team. While I can do that, I don’t necessarily have to like them nor deal with them until the next game by which time, I usually had forgotten them.

    I had made myself the unofficial protector of a 16 year old kid. One of ‘their’ blokes roughed him up a bit more than necessary in a tackle. It was a dog act. I came in with a bit of a nudge and questioned whether he would rather have a go at a 6’7″ ruck than a 16yr old forward pocket. 2 minutes later I couldn’t have identified him…

  3. Thanks David

    Site is, run by Almanac contributor and AFL star Gareth Andrews

    Gus, really good point about the handshake respecting the game not necessarily the participants, had’t seen it that way, thanks


  4. Hmm. Your piece raises a lot of pretty profound questions Sean. Over my life journey I did a lot more sinning than sinned against. The reason I now work in mental health recovery is both to make amends and pass on some of what I learned climbing out of the hole I had dug.
    I used to walk around with my head down out of shame and fear of the people I might meet that I had hurt or disappointed. I figured they would be more likely to abuse me than shake my hand. Most of the time its not true. After a decent period of recovery I could start to give back (and expressing myself through the Almanac was a big step in that journey back to feeling a worthy part of the community), and 95% of people are really forgiving and welcoming.
    The old saw is “hate the sin – love the sinner”. But forgiveness is not that easy if the hurt and disappointment is deep or sustained. How many times in relation to Fev or Ben have we all shorthanded “he’s a f..wit” rather than “he’s doing f…wit things”?
    Along my journey I have learned to be very forgiving of anyone’s past and always ready to lend a hand to a fellow traveller reaching out. But I am very unforgiving/dismissive (tough love) of their current behaviour. “Come back when you’re serious – I’ll always be here” is a common line.
    From the other side of the fence I can only think of a couple of people I have or would refuse to socialise/shake hands with. One was a violent alcoholic teacher (he never did anything particularly bad to me but he terrorised classes and monstered the weak). He was a good friend of my best mate’s father and we would often bump into him at the Adelaide races (where else?) in the 70’s and 80’s. I would never share a drink or take his hand, because he was still an arrogant monster (probably full of hidden self-loathing).
    The other is a doctor I had cause to have his practice reduced in my former management life for reasons of antiquated poor care. I had the tacit support of many of his clinical colleagues, but I was the ‘public face’ that had to fire the bullets. I gave him every opportunity for confidential supported retraining – but he chose to fight it. When I subsequently ‘hit the wall’ he took several opportunities to stick the boots in and humiliate me when I was down.
    I have never forgotten it and would never shake his hand today unless he acknowledged that he had done something about his problems, and that I was motivated by the public good and not private malice.
    Good to get that off my chest. Thanks for the nudge Sean.
    Other Almanackers should check out Sean’s (and other wonderful reflective, optimistic blokes) writings on Gareth Andrews’ terrific Life Again website at:

  5. Sean,
    As this is my first comment on the site, let me first tell you that I enjoy all your articles, comments, ruminations and thoughts. Pity about your AFL preferences, but one must admire loyalty to foolish decisions made in youth.
    On forgiveness I’ve got two comments that may or may not be useful. Firstly, I believe forgiveness is a two way street. If the person who you believe gave offence does not in some even minor way acknowledge their fault and seek reconciliation, I don’t believe forgiveness can take place.
    Secondly, if the offender does not acknowledge their fault, the question for the person hurt is ‘How do I make sure this offence doesn’t continue to hurt me?’ As you say in your post the important thing is that you ‘don’t flatter or honour these few people with my attention or thoughts’. This is where spouses and good friends can be a helpful reality check, and a bit of personal honesty can help – I realised a few years ago that I couldn’t think of a particular senior person in my organisation who I believe has treated me unjustly without obsessively going over the offence, losing sleep, and generally bitter and angry feelings. He’s never going to admit that he treated me unjustly, and it took a good ‘soul friend’ to help me to just let it go, and move away from the man’s authority . The test for me is that I can now have a politely superficial exchange of words with the ‘senior person’ involved without feeling anger inside. I try to make sure that this is a rare occurence, and I think that will probably be as good as it gets!
    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  6. PB

    Powerful and honest stuff, really appreciate you sharing it and honoured that you did in relation to something of mine sparking your thoughts. Great stuff

    Jim, good advice all round too, thanks


  7. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great Topic extremely gutsy and thought provoking , Sean . Your honesty is to be admired and in general we blokes don’t talk about our feelings any where near enough we bottle things up and let them get bigger at least in our minds . Suicide rates are up in males compared to females for this very reason to some extent .
    Good on you Sean and some great comments made I will look up your sight
    Thanks Sean

  8. After reading this I mused whether I’d shake Andrew Bolt’s hand should we ever be combatants? I pictured Bolt eye gouging, squirrel gripping, bowling bodyline, calling footfaults, bending his arm over 30%, ball tampering and using up DRS referrals on palpable LB’s. I imagined him diving in penalty boxes, slagging off teammates, corking bats, talking with shadowy bookmakers, backchatting umps and kinghitting behind play. In short, playing a number of sports the way he writes. I then imaging his hand before me. The same hand that’s shaken Murdochs hand a squillion times. The same hand that greedily pockets wads and wads of cash for comments. I reckon I’d leave it hanging; wouldn’t feel flash about it, but that’s what I’d do.

    Great piece.

  9. Steve Fahey says

    Very interesting discussion and great article Sean

    About 15 years ago when I was a late-30s bloke playing in the thirds in local/park cricket, we had a couple of very talented 13 year-olds play their first senior games with us. In his first game, when he was twenty-odd not out, one of the kids got Mankaded by a bloke my age or older and left the ground in tears. The opposition bloke had form in poor sportsmanship, as did his club. Thankfully it was the only game I ever played in in which there was a Mankad.

    Not much was said at the time, although, amidst a lot of consoling, one of our experienced blokes made the point to the young bloke to let it be a lesson about not backing up until the appropriate time and not assuming. I was pretty outraged and suggested to a couple of blokes that we shake hands with all but the perpetrator at the end of the game.

    In the end, we decided to shake all of their hands and after kicking their butts, point out to our young blokes that it was important how you played the game. I agree with Gus, that it is as much about respecting the game and that you have an opponent without whom there is no game.

    Off the field, there are several people whose hands I wouldn’t shake and some whose hand I would shake through tightly gritted teeth !

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