I’m Way Too Soft For Football

So this is what I remember.

It was the Summer time. I was 10 or 11 years old. It hadn’t rained in a few days and it was hot. I was playing football for my team which was called St Dominics. Under what age or in what competition I’m not sure but I know it was in a place called Bellew Park. I think it was an important match of some kind, a cup game maybe. My mam was there. I scored a goal.

I’m fairly certain there’s no way for anyone to fact check this so let’s just say I was man of the match as well, why not.

Memories are strange. I was in bed the other night and all of this came back to me. Right now, I feel like I can smell the jersey. I can smell the entire kit I was wearing. The socks covering the enormous sweaty shinguards I was wearing, the boots that always smelled like grass. There are parts of the match that are very vivid to me but then there are massive, important chunks which escape me. The reason I know it hadn’t rained for a while before the game was because when I slid on the grass to win the ball, I got a grass burn on my leg. The kind of burn you can only get from grass when it’s angry that it hasn’t been watered in a while.

This match, or at least, something that happened in this match, is the reason I wanted to stop playing team sports.

When I was a kid I played a lot of football and I loved it. I would still be playing it in some shape or form now if it weren’t for my wantaway knee caps. It was the only team sport I wanted to play. I played rugby in PE at school and didn’t take to it. I tried playing GAA and I absolutely hated it. I was way too timid for GAA. I wanted my own little space and time with the ball so I wasn’t a fan of a game where, it seemed to me, there were little to no rules against fouling.

I had a horrendous experience playing GAA one time which I feel like was the final nail in a coffin which already had been bolted shut. Let me set the scene. Me, a boy who would cry for almost no reason, was playing a sport where aggravated assault is not only accepted but encouraged. You might be thinking some big country boy came along and levelled me into next week and I gave up because of that? No. That probably did happen at some point but not this night. No this night was worse.

The goalkeeper kicked the ball out to me. I was near him and I was in space. My plan was to catch the ball, turn and belt it as far away from me as possible because I was, as my mam would say, a big shilty. I still am. I still cry all the time.

So, catch it, turn, belt it. Easy right? Well, preoccupied as I was with my own safety, I committed one of the most egregious sins you can commit in sport or indeed in life. I took my eye off the ball. My hands were out to catch it but my eyes were turned to see what was around me. Self-preservation was kicking in and in so doing I became so concerned about being crushed by someone called Seamus or Diarmud that I failed to see the danger right in front of my face. The ball.

As I mentioned my hands were out, perched and positioned to catch the ball but I must have miscalculated its size because, as I was about to find out, my hands were too far apart. This was one of those moments where your brain is able to react in microseconds to something that is happening but your body isn’t quite as quick so you know what’s about to happen but you can’t move your body quick enough to prevent it. I noticed the ball sneak through my hands and turned my head and, most crucially, my face towards the approaching ball. Bang. Right on the nose which instantly started bleeding as I calmly walked off the pitch.

Hang on, no I didn’t, there’s no way I just nonchalantly walked away from that like an action hero walking away from an explosion. I ran off, probably crying that I had been beaten up by a ball. I didn’t play GAA ever again.

That night in Bellew Park I was not assaulted by a ball but I did want to give up. I can’t remember if it was because I didn’t want people to rely on me or if I didn’t want to rely on anyone else but I remember thinking “I’m not doing this anymore, I’m going to play golf instead”

I was 10 or 11 years old. The oldest I could have possibly been was 12 and I gave up on team sports.

Kid version of me wanted nothing to do with the disappointment or guilt that came with being a part of a team. If I tried my best and made a mistake, I didn’t want some angry teammate shouting at me. I was very soft. Again, I still am.

This kind of thing continued when I would play 5-a-side football as an adult. If anyone got angry at me for not being good enough or making mistakes? Well sir, I just stood there and took it. I didn’t want to argue with anyone but you better believe I wasn’t going to pass the ball to them the next time I had the opportunity to. Actually, if they were in a good position I would. Anger aside, I still would want to win.

I watch football now, as an adult, worried about the mental state of players. I watch them as human beings, trying to see the best in them and not to see them just as objects who have no feeling or emotion. When a player is getting abuse from his own fans that has to upset them right?

I go watch Dundalk FC play and the level of abuse that is hurled by fans at their own players always astounds me. I know the players and the manager can hear the comments being launched from the crowd and so do the people launching them. I assume everyone’s confidence is as shaky as mine and that each player is just one volley of abuse away from just packing it all in.

“No, fuck it Karen, that big bald chap in the crowd said I was rubbish and I’ve decided I’m done. I can’t take the abuse anymore Karen. I’m going to take that job at your fathers garage, I’ll be much happier there.”

Someone who I respect once told me that he went to football matches to shout and scream and get angry. I’ve never been more confused and let down. How can someone I thought to be thoughtful and articulate and aware of people’s feelings and emotions turn into a monster, frothing at the mouth, screaming obscenities when the floodlights are on? Why are you going to a match to get angry?

I’m way too soft for football.

I’ve been spending a few days trying to figure out if it was a good move or a bad move to quit football when I did. On the one hand, you’re taught not to quit when something gets difficult. You should persevere and stay the course and see things through and other nonsense like that. On the other hand, I really didn’t want to go anymore so…

Was I very understanding of my own character and personality or was I being chicken? I guess either one is fine right? I didn’t make a huge mistake when I was ten did I?

Golf, which I was playing at the time also, was much better suited to me. I was responsible for how I played, I wasn’t letting people down if I made a mistake and if someone else made a mistake it wouldn’t cause me to lose. It is a solitary sport, at least it is until you get a caddy who can help you but even then it’s all on you.

I didn’t play golf for much longer than I played football. I retreated into listening to music and watching movies and shunned the outside world in my teenage years.

I have recently taken up playing golf again and it’s been fantastic. It’s been like rekindling an old friendship and wondering why you ever lost touch in the first place. Why didn’t I keep playing golf? Golf is expensive and you need transport and the weather can affect it and it takes up a long time to play 18 holes and…There are lots of reasons why I stopped.

I’m absolutely fascinated with sports, sportspeople and in particular, the psychology that is part and parcel of it all. Golf, to me, is possibly the most fascinating sport to look at from a psychological standpoint. Rory McIlroy might have all the talent in the world but if he gets nervous, gets into his own head, the tiniest fractional mistake can lose him a tournament.

As of writing this, I have been on a golf course a handful of times since taking the sport back up and each time has been wildly different. The course stays the same but you change, your mentality changes. My technique changes wildly from shot to shot and the results are equally variable. I find it fascinating and stupidly frustrating how much swinging a golf club can change from one thought to the next. If I think to myself ‘slow down, slow swing, concentrate’ that can work. But the next time I try the exact same technique it doesn’t work. I’m going to go & study the phenomenon of how much your brain can impact your golf swing in more detail.

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