Haters: Give a Sporting chance
How I learned to love all sport after growing up despising most of it
Disclaimers: The first assumption someone might make in my presenting of this argument on this platform, is that I think that all people who enjoy reading and writing articles in their spare time are not sports fans. That is of course ridiculous beyond stereotype (and a huge insult to the incredible amount of talented sports journalists in the world). I would however make some assumption, which I hope will be forgiven if need be, that there may be a lot of people like me who do enjoy reading and writing in their spare time who also hate sports for similar reasons that I did. These reasons will soon be apparent. I would also like to add an additional disclaimer to any American readers that when I say football, I mean soccer. I would never in a million years at any part of my life have summoned a level of bravery to take part in something as physical as American football. This too will become very apparent in the article. Thank you.
I think I stopped liking football at about the same time that I started playing it. It very quickly becomes less enjoyable when you realise you are terrible at it. A kick-about with your mates was always fun. But add the horror of onlookers, competitive opponents, pressure to help the team and hard tackles, and 6-year old me quickly decided that this was my worst nightmare. So I gave up on the whole thing. Physical and team sports that is. Wasn't interested at all. Whether that be playing, watching, or God forbid discussing.
I found a "sport" that suited me in swimming. I was good at it, it didn't have to be competitive, and I was doing it on my own. But, let's be honest, it wasn't really "my sport." I wasn't a swimmer. I didn't get up at 4 o'clock every morning to hit the pool before school. It was just an activity I did that if somebody asked me what sport I was into, I could give them an answer rather than try and tell them I wasn't into sport, and receive the inevitable look that says "alas, you will not grow up to be a man." Even worse was when men would say things like "you watch the game on Saturday son?" So you have to then say you aren't into football, often then receiving the reply "rugby then?" An utterly ridiculous suggestion I always thought, given my scrawny physique, but sometimes you could get away with saying 'yeah rugby', because the hypothetical man would not be a rugby fan, and he could spend his time with 6-year old me discussing something much more important ... like the politics of the Roman Empire or JRR Tolkien's Oxford career. But, more often than not, the next question would be my opinion on the Six Nations or something, at which point I guess I'd either stop speaking or say something like "oh ruggggby, I thought you said ... swimming.'
This existence continued into my teens and, as any non-sport(s) fan will know, it can make life very awkward at times. At least people who don't like history and know nothing about it aren't constantly put on the spot during history lessons and ridiculed by their peers for not knowing the last emperor of the Pax Romana and the events of his rule. This is not the case with people who don't like sport and are useless at it. PE lessons are weekly sessions of torture and embarrassment. And it continues to infect everyday conversation. Nothing is worse than imagining you are joining an ordinary conversation, only to have to hang your head in shame because you don't know who the last head coach of Southampton was ... let alone the events of his rule.
I continued to find "sports" that weren't physical and didn't feature team-mates or spectators. One was pool, which I continue to love, usually thanks to its association with drinking, one of my greatest loves. The other was golf, which I started playing with my Grandad. I was unsure about golf at first. I mean, it isn't exactly physical, and the only person you're capable of letting down is yourself. But it seems to be very popular among people who love sport (my Grandad was a big football fan). Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and still do. Especially when I play well. It can still be fun when I don't. It definitely can be a good walk spoiled sometimes, however. This tends to be when you're playing a busy course and teeing off in front of people and the pressure gets to you and you send the ball hurtling in the opposite direction and get laughed at. The shame is akin to a PE lesson being observed by someone who you told you like rugby. But that's the exception that proves the rule. Those people who put pressure on you at a golf course are probably only doing it because it's their day off from shouting at other people's kids on the football field. On the whole, I learnt to enjoy golf. I enjoyed challenging myself when others weren't relying on me, and I enjoyed the long, picturesque walks with my Grandad and the conversations we would have.
I didn't really watch it, though. If I did, it was to maybe learn something to improve but that's it. I would rather spend my time watching films, or reading books, rather than watch other people play a sport.
But then I got asked to come and watch the Ryder Cup last day in Medinah 2012, where Europe were massively lagging behind the USA, and they were playing in front of an incredibly loud USA home crowd. But then these European golfers really pulled it off. I'd never seen such incredible golf and suddenly I was hooked on the edge of my seat like watching a thriller. It was still close right up until the end, when Martin Kaymer sank a massively difficult putt to win it for Europe. I jumped out of my seat. More elated than I'd been after any of the 'Rocky' films. I wasn't interested in what I could learn from Kaymer's skill. I would have surely felt the same way if I'd never picked up a golf club in my life (and many of my friends did). I couldn't believe I was feeling this way about ... golf.
Please don't think, however, that that poor description of what has become known as the 'Miracle at Medinah' is my convincing argument, or indeed, my conversion moment. That was merely a preface, set a year before the first chapter of my sporting journey. It was just a one-off feeling. I though nothing of it after it was over. See, because of everything I've already explained so far, I'd always thought of watching sport and playing sport to be the same thing, enjoyed in the same way by the same people. Sports matches, I assumed, were just the next best thing the fans could achieve when they weren't good enough to play themselves. You hear them in the pub talking this complex language of formations and tactics that is both alien and alienating in equal parts. Surely it takes years to master, but it appears to be their mother tongue.
Then, one day, my Grandad's friend at the club acquired some Platinum tickets for a Football cup tie at St. James's Park. I couldn't think of anything worse than watching Newcastle United. But I didn't really have an excuse so I said I would go. I spent days dreading going to a football match. I knew I'd do or say something wrong. I'd be expected to get involved in things I hadn't paid attention to in years thanks to fear.
It took me about 5 seconds to be convinced otherwise.
The noise of the fans isn't terrifying, it's inspirational. It's impossible to fathom such a level of dedication and passion without witnessing it first-hand. And this is just the beginning. It gets better when the anthems play and the players come onto the pitch. And when a goal is scored it's just even better. It was the feeling when Martin Kaymer sank that putt amplified twentyfold. And this was a cup tie. I mean, I can't stress how unimportant a game it was. The stadium was nowhere near full. We were playing Leeds who were never going to beat us. But it didn't matter. I got it. See, I still don't like playing football now. If I'm walking through the park and I see a game of football taking place, I no longer walk through the park. But what I realised is what I should have realised when I watched that Ryder Cup game. The enjoyment of watching sport is not related to the enjoyment of playing it. It's the investment, the stories, the culture, the journeys, the colours, the music and the entire phenomenon that comes from supporting your team, country or athlete.
All the things I loved in life, that I found in art and literature, in language and in movies, suddenly found a platform in the least likely place. Something I still, may I stress again, wouldn't dream of playing myself. And may I also stress that Newcastle aren't a great team and haven't particularly improved since I started following them. Please don't think you've read this far into my story only to find that I'm a glory-hunting Manchester City fan. It isn't a need to have a constantly-winning team that fuels my passion, it's the passion itself.
In Italian, they have a word for it, 'Tifo.' We don't have such a word in English it would seem, but we do have the below quote from football manager Sir Bobby Robson:
I wish I could tell 6-year old me this. Because my banishment of sport from my life happened before my Dad first asked if I wanted to come with him to a football match. So I never grew up supporting my team (who actually had some of their best years in this time - I was born the year their greatest player joined - but never mind). But I've made up for it since. The 21st century is a wonderful time to suddenly become a sports fan. There's always sport accessible on TV. I haven't just started watching more football and golf; I've started watching snooker, boxing ... even rugby. 6-year old me wouldn't know what to think. But it's different now. It isn't something I'm excluded from. Every game, every match is something that invites you, as a spectator, to become part of. Last week I travelled for 8 hours on a coach to watch Newcastle play. I queued 20 minutes for a pie. I sang my heart out and I never sat down all game. We won. It was great. Last year I made a similar journey and we lost. It was still great.
Now I know that this won't convince everyone. Some readers may have been to the same football match as me for all I know and come away equally bemused, but may I please urge anyone who hasn't shown interest in watching sport because of the horrors of playing it growing up, to give it a go. Yes, you won't learn that foreign language that sports fans speak overnight. You may still struggle at first to really join in. But you're too busy enjoying it to notice. To illustrate, think of it as going travelling to a beautiful place to learn about the culture. Learning the language might be tough at first, but you're too busy enjoying everything else. Before you know it, you're fluent. Ish.
If one reader starts supporting one team, or athlete (or sport!) then I know I will have changed a life for the better. And I am thankful of my Grandad for opening my eyes to that change in my own life. He passed away recently, long before I thought he would, and though I will certainly never be able to score a winning goal to honour him, I might be caught on telly one day cheering the loudest when Newcastle win the cup!