Sunday 7 February 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

I still remember my first act of altruism. I was in year 4. There might have been other moments of generosity before, but they were probably unintentional, and anyway, I cannot recall them. At that age, eight going nine, I was probably one of the fastest runners in my school and rare was the day when I didn't leave my opponents way behind as we raced around the local park during our PE class.

But one day a competition was organised against a nearby school, which happened to be also the place one of my closest mates attended. That's when my principle of unselfish concern for others (unbeknownst to me until then) made an unexpected appearance.

My friend used to be bullied at his school and many people, including me at that tender age, were of the opinion that his personality was partly to blame for this. I knew this because even amongst my close circle of pals, he was also abused every now and then. Apparently he was a 'softie'. Although he sometimes stood up for himself against the bullies, he ended up on the ground very often, overpowered by other children who were physically stronger than him.

On that day the stakes were high. If we beat his school, we would progress in the competition and consequentely we would be entered in a draw at borough level. Tell that to a year 4 student and watch him dream about the victory and glory success brings. What I didn't know at the time, until we almost positioned ourselves on the start line, was the fate awaiting my friend.

We had been pitted against each other. He was a good runner, but I knew I could beat him, having already done it many times when we played after school. Then, minutes before we were poised to begin, he whispered: 'They'll beat me'. What? I asked, what was that you said? 'They'll beat me if I lose'. And then he, surreptitiously, pointed at a group of three or four pupils standing nearby. Thoughts raced through my head. Was he having me on? After all, he knew I was a better runner. I looked at the bunch of thugs again and by the time one of the teachers shouted out: 'Go!', I had already made up my mind. We were supposed to run two laps around the park. I took the lead straight away and cheered on by my classmates I sped up. However, by the time I was three quarters into my second lap and on the way to victory, I pretended to fall. I tripped myself up and ended up on the ground, face down; unhurt but feigning injury. My friend, who was lagging way behind me, overtook me, not without first looking in my eyes and realising what I'd done. I limped towards the finish line and was warmly hugged by my mum and my teacher. The 'Never mind, that happens' and 'We're still proud of you' phrases rang in my ears like a scratchy record. At some point I turned around and saw my friend being lifted on the shoulders of those who, moments before, had been bent on inflicting damage on him.

Almost thirty years after I stuck out my neck for my mate, I am on the touchline on a warm summer day with myriad parents and carers. We are all looking at our offspring racing and skipping. Only this time there's no bullied kid to stand up for, but bullying parents to cope with.

Welcome to School's Sports Day.

If someone had told me when I was a teenager that one day I would become a pushy parent when sports day came calling at my son and daughter's school I would have laughed their comments off. After all, both my wife and I have fostered a non-competitive approach to activities that demand more brawn than brain since our children were young. But I guess some things never change in life. My surprise was that I thought I was an isolated case. Well, far from it.

Let me just get back to that touchline for a second. And what's that I hear? 'C'mon, son, you can do better' (I swear that wasn't me), 'Get stuck in, luv', 'Oh, sweet'eart, you grazed your knee, never mind. Now get back up and run!', 'Wha' you rollin' on the ground for, son? Cross the ball, mate, cross the ball!' Ah, love it. And that was just the grandparents. Just joking. Well, just.

What is it about seeing our children, as in my case, engaging in physical activity that brings out the animal in our otherwise placid homo sapiens existence? And that makes us discard the sapiens from the equation, too, in the process?

I confess that throughout that whole sports session that day I tried to remain calm and cheerful, shouting out encouraging words not just to my two children but to the rest of the team of which they were part. But when my son and his classmates came up second in one of the races, it was hard to disguise my disappointment. And the funny, ironic, unfair aspect of it was...? That I was blaming another kid. Oh, yes, I was! Self-righteous, smug, little pushy father that I am (was, was, sorry, it happened only that day, I swear!). I zeroed in on this other young chap and began to watch him closely and as soon as the other games resumed I started to cheer on him rather than my son, to his parents' surprise - oh, yes, they were both there and that must have looked odd, to say the least.

That's why it's only now, as an adult, that I can understand how the experience of playing sports, competing in them and participating in an open school day where you have your next of kin watching you closely, can leave damaging scars for life sometimes. I've met people for whom the experience of playing for their school's football team was too awful to bear; the tackle came too late, they did not react quickly enough, the teacher's criticism was too harsh and the jibes from his or her teammates were cruel.

And yet, is this winning vs losing quagmire not a reflection of the life my children will have to face at some point? A basic lesson on the pros and cons of teamwork and individual effort? My pragmatic self would say that, yes, indeed that's reality, but, at the same time I hope someday they both learn the importance of tripping themselves up for the sake of somebody else.

Copyright 2010

Next Post: 'Yesterday' by the Jasmin Vardimon Company (Review), to be published on Tuesday 9th February at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. It is a very sweet story, you were such a good boy..

  2. That's lovely :)

    I was never good enough at sports for sports day to make any difference to my life - I only cared whether it rained.

  3. what a precious post!
    My friend Joe, the Cuban Thoroughbred trainer, said that he tried to teach his son that the game was all that mattered, not winning, "Let's go get an ice cream." (He'd never had anyone to root for him,) At his funeral, his son said how proud his father was when his baseball team made the championships, how much it mattered to him, and thanked his father for standing behind him when he went into the service, since hardly anyone else did. (It pained Joe terribly that his son was putting himself at risk.)
    Thank you.

  4. We learn from our childhood, to give our kids a better life and yet our very human nature sometime overrides our good sense eventhough it is still in the name of 'wanting the best for our child'. I can certainly relate to that the sports day issue.

    It is a rare deed indeed to find altruism in a 8-9 year old child.. very thoughtful.

    Have a good week ahead.


  5. Beautiful post. It's the "I want the best for my children" feeling and Human nature that brings out the competitiveness in all of us.
    Have a good week

  6. Qué linda historia... ay, a ver si tenemos nosotros niños un día!

  7. What a sweet little guy you were!

  8. Hm, well yes, not too sure about that.
    Were you a bit too good to be true? Sacrificing yourself for the sake of your buddy? They write poems about that sort of thing.

    As for the pushy parent bit, so long as you don't go round praising your kids endlessly and boringly in conversations with non-family, a bit of encouragement from the stand is okay.

  9. this is a very common thing, as you say, you are not the only one. i think its a collision of instinct and society really. ya know i listened to the radio today and thought of you. they are cubans in scotland who blend the two traditions of music together; band is called Salsa Celtica.

  10. The story of your altruism at such a young age was a beautiful one -- all we parents should hope to have our children demonstrate such strength of character. But the second part of your post was rollicking fun -- I have always been a woman who hates sports yet I find myself freaking out inside at all the sporting events of my sons, thrilled when they win, even more thrilled when they do something good, bummed when they lose, suspicious of other children on the winning team when my son is on the losing team, etc. I don't have any idea WHY other than that we're all nuts!

  11. Buenos dias.

    Maybe we are all raising for prizefighters, we just don't realise it or do not want to admit it.

    Beautiful post. I love childhood stories.

  12. I've never been one for sports days, my own or those of my children.

    I admire your altruism here and your story.

    I wonder whether it's different when you're one of the ungainly ones, the ones who get chosen last for the team, the ones who are considered to be losers.

    Competition is good when it comes from within but I suspect the dreadful pressure from parents who want their kids to do well in order to bolster their own lack of confidence can be crippling for kids.

    It's tough.

    Thanks for your post. It stirs up powerful feelings.

  13. Many thanks for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.

  14. I coached my daughter's soccer team...a team of 5 year olds. It was an incredible experience especially since I know nothing about soccer but had a wonderful man who played soccer his whole life as my assistant coach. The saddest thing was listening to the parents on both sides...I almost got myself ejected because I would tell parents to shut up if they had nothing encouraging to say. Winning when you have worked hard is a wonderful experience but losing and having parents ridicule their kids and other kids was more than I could take. I must have done something right because almost every parent wanted me to coach their kid the next year and my wonderful assistant called me to think about it.

    Sometimes the lessons our kids learn is the one we probably wish they never had to learn. Winning and losing are not the culprits, as you say that is life. I loved your story...what a lesson to have learned at such a young age.

  15. A lovely, touching story, and not just because of the wisdom it imparts, but also because it allows us into your family's circle and into your life as a young man. I feel privileged to have been allowed to catch a glimpse. Thank you for letting us to be present.

  16. I can see you so clearly, that young you, making that decision.....

  17. Oh, Cuban, I have to admit... at first I was thinking, "I can't believe he's tooting his horn." Ha ha ha... but really. That was cute to remember such a moment when you were so young. What was also endearing, though, was the fact that you're not afraid to be honest about the person you are... a fang-bearing father, indeed! Though, I'm sure, they're just rubber fangs. After all, if they were real, you wouldn't have shared this lovely story with us, now, would you?

    I enjoyed this post, Cuban. I enjoy all of your posts. But when I get to enter a little bit of your world by reading such a personal piece, I feel like I know you a little bit better. Thank you for sharing this.


  18. It's wonderful that you were that "big" when you were that little. Truly rare.

    I haven't experienced the parent competitive feelings yet, b/c my guys are too little. Thansk for the heads up that it's coming. If you feel that way, no doubt everyone does. It's probably one of those things that looks so shallow and avoidable until it happens to you, like the biological panic response we ladies get when our baby cries.

  19. Hey,
    Mr. cuban

    Thanks for the ws a little difficult for me to write done that bit...
    To be a kid once again..
    and realise that for parents all of us remain kids forever...


  20. We just can't help but protect our children, after all yours, mine are the highest degree of our's in us!
    That daring act of altruism as a kid put you on the path of forever fighting for the underdog..not such a bad way to go, after all...

  21. Thanks a lot for your lovely comments.

    Greetings from London.

  22. I was watching my 16-year-old play basketball last week, thinking I wish I had had that experience--where when you make a bad pass you can't stand there dwelling on it; you have to go get the ball back.

    As your post shows, there's a lot we can learn from sports.

  23. I loved this post. Because you have the insight to consider the issues of childhood and parenthood, your children are lucky to have you for a father, Mr. Cuban.



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