Subscriber OnlySportAmerica at Large

Dave Hannigan: I despise youth sports and don’t enjoy watching my sons play competitively

We introduce our children to the company of sports with the best of intentions, but somewhere along the way this gift becomes a curse

A father and son enjoy sport, without any pressure to win

A balmy May Friday night in a hotel just south of Boston. Bored and restless in the room, my 17-year-old son Charlie and I adjourned to a discrete corner of the car park to ping a soccer ball around. Sporting flip-flops that added a degree of difficulty to exchanges, barely a word was spoken, the only sound theatrical oohs and aahs at the more audacious volleys and muttered curses at treacherous footwear going airborne. Our kickabout began in the gloaming and ended in sweaty darkness and smiles. He played three heavy-duty tournament matches over the following two days, none of which brought me anything like the simple joy of our interplay.

A baking Saturday afternoon in June. I pulled up to a basketball court in a public park. Finn, my 13-year-old, had been there for hours playing pickup against kids younger and older. Rolling down the window, I hear J Cole blaring from a speaker, the sweary din of trash-talking, and the ribald laughter of teen boys showboating after baskets. No fouls were called, no coaches prowled, no meddling adults manned a scoreboard. “Winners stay on” was the only strictly self-policed law. I’ve seen my child play school and club matches all over this island, but invariably crimson-cheeked and leggy, he never looks happier with ball in hand than in this unruly place.

It’s been too long since my last confession but bless me father for I have sinned. I am a sports dad, and I don’t really enjoy watching my sons play competitively. I know I’m supposed to. I just don’t. At all. I genuinely don’t care whether their teams win. In fact, if they are losing and an equaliser means extra-time or overtime, I’m rooting for the result to stay the same and the torture to end quickest. I despise organised youth sport and just about all who sail in it. A couple of decades on the sidelines have done this to me. Too many demented coaches. Too many dysfunctional parents. Too much ugly. This is not what I thought it would be.

‘Underage team sport is all about winning. It’s heart-breaking to see our son ignored and excluded’Opens in new window ]

As Hallmark will remind us in insufferable fashion this Sunday, we introduce our children to the company of sports with the best of intentions because that is what fathers are expected to do. Be fluent in the universal male bonding language we inherited from our own dads; the easiest of heirlooms passed down through generations. We grant admission to this fellowship knowing it will yield large helpings of Kipling’s triumph-and-disaster combo and we are fine with that arrangement. Losing honed our characters and will benefit our kids too. All you really want for them is to maybe develop a passion for a game they can carry with them through their lives.


Somewhere along the way, this gift becomes a curse. We move on from the unadulterated fun of messing about with a ball in the garden and sign innocent rubes up for clubs, sacrificing them to the youth sports industrial complex, a meat grinder shredding dreams, pulping dreamers. Too quickly, the experience becomes regimented, excessively intense, and winning-obsessed. Training too much, playing way too many games, the parents’ struggle to keep the child’s love for the thing alive even as deranged adults in their orbit expect them to treat an enjoyable pastime like a full-time job.

Don't lose sight of what sport is supposed to be about. Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

All we can really do to combat this menace is to keep meeting them in the margins where the most enduring memories are made. Impromptu knockabouts in car parks. Endless games of HORSE in the driveway as the sun goes down. Our own bastardised hybrid of Olympic handball and water polo in every swimming pool we visit. Sacred spaces for this father and his sons, boys who, following the loss of their mother, learned too young time is the only currency that really matters and every second of these interactions are treasured possessions.

I don’t remember too many games from my youth but I can vividly recall the scent of cherished summer evenings pucking a sliotar with my late father on the hard, wet sands of Garretstown beach. And just about every time he kicked a ball with us in the backyard. Ever.

We middle-aged cranks are baffled by the ways of the modern sports world. Our children wear grip socks under soccer socks they’ve already cut holes in the back of. They prefer playing a video game of a sport rather than watching a live match on television involving the same teams. They have an inexplicable love affair with the gym. So much has changed yet one thing remains constant. No matter how old my lads get, the moment I kick or throw a ball with any of them, taciturn man-children become contented little boys again. Easily pleased. Kids at heart. Kids at play.

Gerard Gallagher: For many people, sport has replaced the religious experienceOpens in new window ]

The day that Abe, my oldest son, realised he would never actually be signed by Manchester United, I explained to him his “career” hadn’t been a waste of time because he would take soccer with him wherever he went. No matter the city, there would always be a game going, always be people wanting to play. A noble sentiment that didn’t exactly soothe his bruised adolescent soul. But last week he texted me from his five-a-side match at a caged-in AstroTurf on the roof of a high school in Chinatown. In his mid-20s, he understands the meaning of sport now. Making his father’s day.