Contours of competition

After months of sweat, toil through heat and downpour we were finally there – the final bout, a clash between perennial rivals. My school and that of my opponents had fiercely jostled for ascendancy in the gentlemen’s game, among other domains, for many generations. I had played my part on the road to these finals, but was not to take the field that pivotal day; my role was limited to the side-lines where I was to put the fear of god in them if only by the din of my cheer. And cheer I did – shouted myself hoarse, and then some – right from when the first ball was bowled up until the last wicket of theirs fell, just seven miserly runs short of the target. We had come out glorious victors in an unforgettable day of competition. I had not played and it was the biggest victory of my life still; defeating arch-rivals superseded on-field partaking (would you believe it?)!

It is most unremarkable then that I have carried similar, almost religious, fervour to the sphere of sport coaching. Some nine months ago, fifty minors and I set out on a journey analogous to the one I alluded to above. We tirelessly laboured in the fields of football, athletics and kho-kho, and inevitably arrived at – in the very least for those whom I coached – an unprecedented occasion – the finals of the biggest tournament of their lives. Competition had been tough, opponents valiant; my boys had somehow managed to overturn them all. Through the course of the tournament new rivalries were forged; we knew exactly who we were meeting in the finals – some of them big, some burly – for we had played them before and beaten them, we knew what need be done. Come the day of reckoning there was neither uncertainty nor indecision, not an inkling of doubt; the boys marched on gallantly to receive gold in all but one event, deservedly earning the tag of champions – the ones to beat, the favourites – and oh, did we celebrate! Chhatarpur! Chhatarpur! In deriving vicarious thrill in the successes of those I taught, my life, I thought, had come a full circle (a tad too early one would imagine!).

As the days leisurely passed, the jubilations subsided and the sweetness of the victory slowly dissipated; I was left brooding almost in lament, something major was amiss. As a sportsman victory was never this hollow, why then, as a teacher, a mentor, winning nearly felt like losing? My students had battled hard and won every single game they participated in, but should sport be reduced to only rivalry, victory, and glory I wondered – we weren’t feudal overlords warring to annex evermore territory, were we?

Here I cannot help but trace the roots of my disaffections to the modern neoliberal conceptions of globalization and marketization and their influence on international sport, consequently on sport in general, in the 21st century. The modern sporting industry is a multi-billion (if not a trillion) dollar business globally and ironically sporting arenas of today can be likened to the coliseums of medieval Europe, where players are all but gladiators, and crowds blood-thirsty fanatics (generalisation?) – evidenced by the brutal post-defeat vandalism players’ estates are often subjected to – the only essential difference being the sharing of the spoils; both the victors and the vanquished mutually partake in this respect nowadays. Advertising fuels the proverbial flame; old, defeated foes are often belittled, reduced to rubble only to be resurrected from the grime in order to rechristen rivalries – bigger and badder than ever before – come the next season, only to be surpassed by the season after that; and so the cycle continues. Thus, a deeply partisan and aggressive rhetoric is created in regard to international sporting events and the terms, concepts, ideas used to market them are constantly reproduced, albeit inadvertently, in local schooling environments by way of coach-speak, pep-talk further stoking the fire that is in desperate need of dousing.

Admittedly, there are assumptions in the argument above and generalisations I posit. Perhaps prior to the pervasive television (and now social media) era sport was as fervent locally, where the rest of the world (including me of course) was just not in the know; if sporting fever ran as high even in the untelevised, localised era, then my reference to the role of ‘modern, global market-systems’ in fuelling sport fanaticism is certainly exaggerated however not entirely unfounded; for in such a case sport was already fanaticised, just not in plain sight, and television ads (the symbol for modern, global market-systems) just happened to exacerbate the situation (take local fanaticism global) without actually causing it. Also, my description discounts inter-sport stratification and the race (or lack thereof) to supremacy in capturing consumer imagination that lies therein; there certainly exist certain sports and sporting superstars who don’t belong to or partake in said ‘race’ and therefore aren’t necessarily ‘worshipped’ products under consumerism. This reduces – not wholly removes – the size of the (sporting) universe that forms the premise of my argument and limits the scope of the point I intend to make to some extent.

So what is this point (the fire in need of dousing) I am trying to make? The present global sporting landscape within which school sport, school-level coaching and therefrom the lives of children are located exerts palpable pressure toward the normalisation of a certain brand (read fanatical, fundamentalist) of sport and competition making it immensely hard not to get swayed by it. Children (and undoubtedly adults) under such milieu may grow up idolising ‘fame’ and courting ‘war’ (sport-related), which I do not contend are necessarily evil, but in isolation may very easily detract from the other – I would argue indispensable – aesthetic aspects of sport. Contemporary examples of this phenomenon are aplenty and hence I won’t go into them here.

This is no way absolves us of our duties as teachers – I don’t wish to blame it all on capitalism and leave, no – rather impels us to be more aware, vigilant of the practices we follow whilst coaching our children. Cultivating the ideas of self-improvement and awareness, nurturing patience and perseverance, creating opportunities for service and applauding sacrifice, practicing humility both in victory and defeat, all regulated through use of judicious, unprejudiced vernacular, go hand in hand with skill, competition, victory and glory to create the holistic realm, the holy grail if you will, of sport.

The introductory account of my cricketing ‘glory’ falls abysmally short of mentioning what I in fact savoured most about my time as sportsman: the struggle. The countless front-foot punches to the hanging ball in my veranda, the laborious hours of fielding and catching practice whilst eagerly awaiting a hit in the net, the multiple defeats that heavily punctuated all the victories, the inexorable battle within the mind to stay at the wicket against all predilection for heaving the ball toward the boundary – all moments I learnt from, remember and cherish the most pertaining to my game; winning was never everything for me.

I sincerely hope not to have let my students down in this most solemn regard, and that they have through our myriad hours on the practice field imbibed a love for the struggle in their bid to overcoming adversity and claiming glory, which is the only thing I ever really wanted to accomplish as their mentor.


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