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Barking up the wrong tree


A Father was playing golf with his two teenage sons and being a fair man he advised them, in accordance with their respective handicaps, that he would give them both one shot a hole and he would take a “Woof” The sons were aware of, and happy with, the handicap system, but they were puzzled by the “Woof”, so the father explained in a casual way that it simply meant that on one occasion (and one alone) during the round he could say “Woof” as loud as he liked.

The boys thought nothing of it, but as the round progressed the boys became aware of their father’s looming presence as they prepared to play each shot and they sensed that at any moment during their backswing they might hear a loud “Woof”! Because they were thinking of the “Woof”, they forgot all about their swing and fluffed their shots. And the father won, without ever having to say the word!

Of course, this was a fun family game of golf, not a serious tournament. The father was injecting some fun into the game, as many do with light-hearted banter between opposing players or teams, though no doubt he would have argued that he was at the same time teaching his sons how important it was to concentrate on each shot and not be distracted by outside noises, movements or effects – a crucial lesson, for sure.

Sport is indeed meant, after all, to be fun. And even competitive sport can be fun. Take for example the lovely story of the Glamorgan fast bowler Greg Thomas, who managed to make the great West Indian batsman, Viv Richards, swing and miss in one match, and then taunted him by saying, “It’s red, round and weighs about five and a half ounce. Try hitting it next time.” Richards proceeded to slam the next delivery out of the ground and into the adjacent River Taff and quietly told Thomas, “Greg, you know what it looks like, now go and find it.”

However, modern sport sees players trying to put the opposition off in a not so light-hearted way, as seen in recent cricket Test matches between Australia and India. Sport writers speak of managers and players playing ‘mind games’ with their opposing numbers in advance of the game.

The intended effect is to put the opponent off by getting them to be distracted by these thoughts, even by getting them so mad that they fail to play the shot or execute the move or to the point where the player gets sent off, thus giving the advantage of the opposition.

What they seem to forget is that by resorting to such tactics they are actually acknowledging that they are inferior by resorting to alternative practices in order to win the match; they do not have enough confidence to beat the opposition by normal means. Furthermore they seem to be unaware that in concentrating so much on what they must say to the opposition they are not focussing on what they have to do themselves.

Indeed, more often than not, it can backfire, with the opposition responding with a better one-liner, as when an over-weight Shane Warne told the South African batsman Daryll Cullinan whom he had previously bowled out several times in previous Test matches, “Daryll, I’ve waited two years for the chance to embarrass you again” and Cullinan is said to have quietly responded, “Looks like you spent most of it eating.”

So when does something move from being banter to abuse or cheating?  At school cricket matches, even at junior levels, players can be heard shouting to their team-mates that the opposing batsman is looking very nervous (when he is not) and is going to miss it, no doubt in a bid to get the batsman thinking he might miss it.

We do not condone someone shouting “Miss it!” when a player is about to hit a ball (in the same way that we do not shout “Woof’) but we do not condemn others booing when someone is taking a penalty or playing a shot. It is a thin line that we must not cross.

What should we say to all of this? Woof, woof? Gamesmanship need never be part of school competitive sport; we are simply barking up the wrong tree.

By all means, pl ayers may psyche themselves up for their own performance but they do not need to try to psyche out the opposition.

Children are not mature enough to handle mind games (either giving or taking it), but neither are many adults. Let the children learn simply to concentrate on their own game and have fun. So, now we know what it looks like; we must just go and find it!

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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