Sir James Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, was one of the most enthusiastic cricketers Scotland produced. He was once asked to describe his bowling and replied that, after delivering the ball he would go and sit on the turf at mid-off and wait for it to reach the other end which, he said, "it sometimes did". Sir James loved the game so much he formed his own side and named it the Allahakbarries, in the mistaken belief the Arabic term "Allah akbar" meant "God Help Us".
I was thinking of his life the other day as feedback from previous columns on political correctness poured in, including a patterned response from people who continued to insist that sport was all about winning and losing and nothing else. Anyone who had a problem with that was probably a sexually-repressed, sandal-wearing, tofu-eating, commune-dwelling, draft-dodging, son-of-a-pisshead. Astonishing. How did these people know me so well?
Sir James remains the patron saint of children; the boy who wouldn't grow up. But as famous as he was for being a giant of the imagination, his cricketing skills were somewhat less compelling. His batting was as abject as his prose was uplifting, and his fielding was unclassifiable. His most mortifying experience was being cleaned bowled by the American actress Mary Ander-son in the 1897 "test" against the village of Broadway, in the West Midlands.
He installed himself captain of the Allahakbarries, of course, and had specific instructions for team-mates, especially when Bernard Partridge, an illustrator from Punch magazine and the unfortunate sufferer of a lazy eye, was bowling. "Partridge, when bowling, keep your eye on square leg," advised Barrie. "Square-leg, when Partridge is bowling, keep your eye on him." Another of his tips was to never practice on the opponent's ground before the match, because, he said: "this can only give them confidence".
Others in Barrie's side included Arthur Conan Doyle, AA Milne, PG Wodehouse, EW Hornung and Rudyard Kipling. To think, in one team, the creators of Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson, Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, Winnie the Pooh, Eyeore, Raffles, Jeeves, Wooster, Mowgli and Baloo. It must have made for some wonderful after-match repartee.
For all that, a hundred years ago the Allahakbarries were able to illustrate a point that possibly needs to be underlined again: that sport has never been the sole preserve of the elite or the professional, nor for that matter, the winners. It remains as relevant to the useless, incompetent and uncoordinated as it does to the athletically-blessed and the perpetually successful. Participation is the key. Trying to win is the key. Losing is merely a formality.
With respect to our All Blacks and Olympic champions, the best part of New Zealand sport is still the sight of the thousands of Kiwis who every weekend take to the fields and courts throughout the country to indulge in their favourite form of lower-grade distraction. Like Barrie, there is a preference for participation over watching. We play, no matter how useless we might be. Presumably much of the time we lose but it doesn't matter. We turn up.
I have a friend (yes, I know this will surprise some) in Wellington, fast-approaching the 50-year mark, who plays regular lower-grade cricket alongside team-mates ranging in age from 17 to 65. In fact, three of them have now slipped past their 60th birthdays but continue to present themselves for duty, regardless. Creaking hips, dodgy knees, bifocals; everything but the Zimmer frames. Surely this is what it's all about. Not so much the winning or losing, but the joy of playing.
It's not something we should take for granted. Different surveys place the attrition rate for American sporting youth at anywhere between 40% and 50% by the time they start their second year of high school. A significant number of those who quit say too much accent is placed on winning. More young males base their decision on win-loss records than do females. An earlier investigation into the drop-off rate found a large proportion were concerned about an over-emphasis on competition. It wasn't fun, anymore, they said. It seems a pretty clear message. We ignore it at our peril.
Given the gist of much of the correspondence I've received over the past fortnight, it's clearly time for many New Zealanders to accept that sport isn't all about winning and losing; that the concept of trying to do your best is a far more important part of the equation. Youngsters need to know that it's good enough to play sport for the enjoyment of the game, rather than being duped into judging their entire experience on the strength of the result. They are naturally competitive, in any case. They'll try to win without anyone needing to tub-thump or pressure them about the importance of it all.
A University of Michigan study seemed to confirm this. In the biggest survey of its type, young athletes were asked to rank their motives for participation. They provided a clear-cut response. The runaway priority, regardless of gender, was to have fun. The next was a combination of factors: the interplay of skill development, physical development, and social interaction. However, the motive "to win" was rated only the eighth highest priority for school-sponsored sport, and wasn't even listed by non-school sport participants. Translated? An over emphasis on the result was a turn-off. Again, the child's perception was much different than that of many of the adults.
Sir James understood how important it was to try to win, but saw accomplishment in all endeavour. "You", he once toasted a team-mate, "scored a good single in the first innings but were not so successful in the second". "You", he said to the opposing team, "ran up a fine total of 14, and very nearly won".
His message probably carries more relevance today than ever: Yes, of course, winning is great. Sir James probably wished he'd experienced it more. But losing can be an awfully big adventure.
- Sunday Star Times
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