I started but I didn’t finish, avoiding the temptation to go “See, it’s what I’ve said all along, but now we won’t see any progress for five years”.
Then I read the deluded, agency driven hashtag trend of #IstandwithMaria and the tributes from “sick note” Serena, “Anabolic” Navratilova, “seven month” Nadal and “caught doping” Kuznetsova and realised, it’s not my battle.
There’s too much noise and no intelligence, and cleverly so. Tennis is an elite sport, for the elite, they will protect it to the end and besides, there are far worse crimes committed daily in tennis than doping. Instead I decided a good news story on kids football is in order.
In September last year I wrote an article on kids football in Russia. Largely a commentary on the negative way the Russian youth system, coaches, culture and parents affect chances participants have of going on to have normal lives, let alone football careers.
I’d put my own lad, now six, into a school which focuses on developing skills, discipline and enjoyment, rather than stick him in the cut throat world of regular club football. Yet even in an environment where kids football is designed and organised to be enjoyable, I saw parents continue to destroy their own children, with mothers being the biggest culprits.
Coaching in Canada in the late-90s, I brought a philosophy my Dad had instilled in me to my job. It ran counter to the local culture where it was win at all costs. and abuse the opposition and officials.
The deadly hockey culture flowed from the rink to the pitch, where hockey moms and dads were a hindrance and embarrassment.
Yet the structure of the club allowed me to do something different. I had a team manager, which allowed me to just coach, and before the season I laid down the law.
“No disrespecting our own team, the opposition or officials. Only positive comments or keep your mouth shut. If anyone breaks our code, I take the team off the pitch and forfeit the game.”
Our team consisted of cast-offs from other clubs, from our club’s Premier team and nobody else would touch it. Yet by season’s end we had a full turnout of parents who supported and cheered our team to the last kick of the ball.
We won our league by a mile, two weekend tournaments and were unbeaten against our Premier team in friendlies – winning one of four. Most importantly, the kids and parents enjoyed their sport.
So despite the positive work being done in Moscow, it didn’t quite sit well with me when I had parents around me yelling at their kids, instructing them from the balcony and basically undermining the coaches. And then we hit pay dirt.
The original football school/club, FC Lev #1 we’d wanted Tim to join set up a section in our area and it was game on. The difference?
Training sessions are closed. Sessions short and intense (40 minutes). Parents can view once a month. There is non-stop encouragement and direction. Kids are treated like professionals. Teamwork and friendship is encouraged. Everything is orderly, from kit, to training materials to a post training session of English language. Vitally the coaches treat the youngsters with respect, and it flows both ways.
Academics, sports, character building and skills in one set-up. It is kids football at its finest. Yet it costs less than the shambolic efforts I saw at three premier academies for these and older age groups.
Important for me was the reaction of the youngsters. They arrive full of energy and leave smiling and exhausted. The coaches are all ex-pros who did their time in the post-Soviet meat grinder that is football and they have taken the positives from this, and made them better. The kids are driven to win, though if they don’t, they want to go again and win the next one.
I contrast this to a scene which played out at a $25k ITF women’s tennis tournament in Moscow a couple of weeks back. A young local player threw away a chance to beat the top seed. Distraught she left the court and was verbally attacked by her coach.
She got the same from her parents immediately after, she was humiliated in front of slack jawed officials and sniggering players. Nobody objected as this is the norm. Once a star on the rise, she has retreated to the comfort of doubles and will drift out of the sport within two to three years.
The fault lies firmly with her parents who thought that image and style were more important than character and substance. They hired an unqualified coach who looked good in adverts and came with a “winning record”. And I knew why they did it.
The mother of a former client of mine told me, of him, that “he looks good watching matches, and this is important for girls”.
The fact that he caused long term physical damage to players by dint of his appalling lack of knowledge of physical preparation, added to other character flaws, didn’t stem the flow of parents that line up to hand over their daughters to him. Nor that he is a “go to guy” if you need something to boost your performance.
And sadly, the ITF have known all of this for almost three years. He’s still coaching and wrecking careers and lives.
However I don’t want to dwell on the ridiculous, instead to say that in a far flung field (or indoor hall) in Moscow, my faith in sport and how it can benefit youngsters is restored. Kids football and sports are where we can begin to change the sorry mess that we see daily play out in social and traditional media.
Teach kids the basics, with the right attitude and respect, and they will win, just not at the cost of their own health and well-being.