Whilst coaching my school football team today a reserve from the opposition side caught my eye. He was a tall lad, who clearly hadn’t grown accustomed to his new height. A bundle of raw energy, he was running the line for his team. As he sidestepped up and down the pitch, trying to keep inline with the last defender you could see he was living every pass, shot and tackle that happened on the pitch. He didn’t stop moving, or positively talking to his teammates on the pitch the whole time I watched him. When there was a break in play he ran on to give them water. When there was an injury he was concerned about his team mate. He did this from the first whistle, to the last whistle. In the end the only ball he got to kick was the one inside his head.
After the game all the players, coaches and parents had refreshments in the canteen. I found myself seeking the reserve out and introducing myself. The reserve was called Jamal and I asked him “were you disappointed not getting onto the pitch today?” Jamal’s response was “of course, but I’m used to it. I’ve been reserve for the last four games and not got to play.” Four hours of school football as a reserve and hadn’t got to touch the ball. I was shocked, then memories of my younger self came flooding back.
This is something I would often do as a younger teacher. Selecting players I knew I would not use, unless I was forced to. I remember the excuses I made to them, however in the end it really only boiled down to one thing, winning. Not playing to win and being competitive, but winning solely for my self esteem and ego. I have learnt over time that feelings from winning are vivid and intoxicating. However they only last for a few hours or perhaps a day at best before they start to subside. School sport must be seen through a lens both deeper and wider than just winning. For many children it is their first and only experience of sport and those experiences can last a life time and shape future involvement. Let us not make it their last by keeping them on the side. Sport matters so much because all that matters in life, also matters in sport. Why should we close the opportunity to learn those lessons so early on in a child’s life just for the sake of a win or two?
I felt dismay after speaking to Jamal, so I plucked up the courage to question his coach on it. The answer was he just wasn’t good enough. I choked, not just because of the response but that it was a mirror held up to my previous practice. So he was good enough to make the effort and attend training. Good enough to be in the squad. Good enough to travel away to a school fixture. Good enough to run the line. Good enough to bring the water bottles on and off the pitch. Good enough to collect the equipment up at the end of the game. But not good enough to play? These are questions I should have asked myself a long time ago.
Who and what are we protecting with this attitude? This was a question I was asked by a parent who challenged me on this issue around six years ago. His son had travelled away with a school team. He had given up the chance to attend a friend’s party, putting loyalty to the school before this and was rewarded with three minutes of play after the game had been decided. I tried to respond but any answer I gave just wasn’t good enough and I couldn’t answer the question. It made me and the rest of the department think hard about our attitude not just to reserves but to school sport as a vehicle for a child’s education. Now every reserve gets a full half, no matter what. The squad understand this and the reasons behind our thinking as we share them regularly: Keeping as many involved in school sport, for as long as possible and in the best environment as possible will benefit all in the squad in the long run and hopefully beyond school.
As the opposition left I saw the coach thank Jamal for his time and effort. Thanks are all well and good, but the greatest thanks a reserve can get from us as coaches is time in the game. We need to reconsider the reserve in school sport. The reserve needs to be more than an extra player in a squad, serving as a possible substitute. We should perhaps consider an alternative meaning of reserve. To protect them by cultivating a culture that understands the need to play and develop everyone. To refrain from delivering a judgement or decision without due consideration or evidence. This means we need to ensure we give the reserve enough time on the pitch. If you’ve picked them, then get them on and let them play. Look after all your players and let the result look after itself.