BY TIM MIDDLETON
We have all seen it, the super-enthusiastic young boys on the pitch playing their hearts out in front of their adoring parents. There are no tactics; there is no teamwork! Every boy wants the ball and chases after it, swarming all over the pitch following the boy with the ball until another boy manages to get the ball and everyone now chases him.
Usually the boys head across the pitch in the vain attempt to outstrip all the other youngsters, some of whom are still crossing the pitch in the opposite direction from when the previous boy had the ball! In this game, there is no passing, evidently, and no positions; there are no team-mates. It is every boy for himself and maybe, just maybe, at some point in the game, each boy might possibly touch the ball once, if he is lucky. It is as if each boy is thinking he cannot live without the ball.
Readers of an older generation may remember a powerful love song first sung in 1972 by Nilsson (later also covered by Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, among others) entitled, ‘Without You’, with some of the haunting words including, “No, I can’t forget tomorrow. When I think of all my sorrows, When I had you there but then I let you go. And now it’s only fair that I should let you know What you should know: I can’t live, if living is without you. I can’t live, I can’t give any more”.
Such words seem to encapsulate the feelings of those young boys on the sports field — they cannot live without the ball! They cannot play if playing is without the ball!
In the recent Euro 2020 soccer championships, one of the television pundits spoke of how impressed he was in the early rounds by the eventual winners, Italy, in noting especially that “what they do when they don’t have the ball counts hugely”. In truth, very often what players do without the ball is far more effective than what they do with it, in sharp contrast to those eager young boys haring after the ball.
A player can be judged far more astutely by what he does without the ball than with it. He should not be chasing after the ball the whole time, as he will be closing down the space and crowding out the other players. He should not be calling for the ball all the time, as often he will be in the wrong place and more than likely be heavily marked as the opponents will know the ball is coming to him. He must learn to live without the ball; that is how he will be assessed.
In a similar way, a team will be judged by what it does when it does not have the ball, how they close down the possible routes and direct the opponents to play in areas that will give the advantage to the defending team. The players need to be communicating as much (if not more so) without the ball than when they do with the ball. They need to be working twice as hard without the ball, both in terms of defending and attacking. They cannot win if they cannot live without the ball.
These are crucial lessons we need to instil in our young players — how to play without the ball. This invaluable lesson will in turn enable the youngsters to learn other vital lessons. They also need to learn how to play without the wins. Just as a heart-broken youngster whose love interest has departed will no doubt be encouraged that there are plenty other fish in the sea, so a disappointed youngster who has lost a match (or matches) must be directed to understand there are plenty of other opportunities to find delight and progress. Life and joy and sport do not need to stop simply because they have gone without a win.
We should take it further, however, and reinforce that the children must learn not just to live without the ball and indeed without the win but also crucially without the sport. That may sound bizarre and be encouraging children not to play sport but in fact it is exactly the opposite. Children need to learn to live without sport if they are to understand the true value of sport, in the manner the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson declared that “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”.
If a child cannot live without one sport, then that sport is becoming a god to that child – and that god will only disappoint at some stage. Children need to learn to be content (calmly, confidently, at peace) when they have sport (with all aspects of sport, both winning and losing) as much as when they are without sport for them truly to appreciate sport. They have to learn to be content playing without the ball as much as with the ball if they are to be effective. Sport is not everything. We can, and must, live without the ball, without