Matt Williams: Learning to flex your resilience muscle is a vital life lesson

If the other team win on the scoreboard that does not equate to failure for your team

Leinster huddle after their Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

Leinster huddle after their Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle. Photograph: Dave Winter/Inpho

 

During April’s lockdown I was asked if I would join the Skerries RFC under-15s’ players, coaches, parents and carers on their Tuesday night online rugby training session.

On that Tuesday night, I was “Zoomed” back in time into the type of community that had nurtured me and every other player who has ever strapped on a boot. I had forgotten how uplifting the energy and enthusiasm that gushes through the heart of a rugby community can be.

Through the long months of lockdown, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters sat alongside their much loved teenager, as Skerries RFC assembled together “online” every Tuesday night. They all believed that their teenagers remaining involved in rugby was beneficial to their lives.

The leaders of Skerries RFC understood the impact the lockdown was having on these great kids. So like so many other community sports around the country they improvised ways to keep their players resilient in these extraordinarily hard times.

Resilience is like a muscle that can grow in size and strength if it is exercised. It logically follows that the practice of resilience creates resilient people. Skerries RFC were helping their youth learn how to flex their “resilience muscle”.

When the pandemic stopped all rugby from being played, parents and coaches began to reconnect with the ancient understanding that “the game” is the great teacher of many qualities and resilience is right at the top of the list.

There is no debate from educators that children learn the fastest through “play”.

A major benefit of adolescents experiencing healthy competition while playing sport is that they experience the joys of winning and they also begin to learn that not winning is a part of life.

Resilient

Sport is a place where we can begin to educate our youth in learning to become resilient to the disappointments and difficulties that life inevitably brings to us all.

This education should be couched in the rugby philosophy that, “the opposition may score more points than you, but you are never beaten”.

If the other team win on the scoreboard that does not equate to failure for your team. Each individual being able to find the internal resources to deal with this minor adversity is a learned skill that sport, especially rugby, excels at teaching. In the process, players discover how to flex their “resilience muscle”.

The belief that kids are so fragile that they should not be allowed to experience the emotions of losing in a game and everyone has to win all the time, is setting children up for failure.

We learned the foundations of what it meant to be resilient via losing a game of rugby

This philosophy wrongly believes that experiencing difficulties in sport will undermine a child’s self image. As Kipling says our youth need “to meet with triumph and disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same”. Resilience abides in us all, but it requires learning experiences, in safe environments, for each individual to create their own reservoir.

The teaching of resilience perhaps should not be delivered as directly as it was, many years ago, to my then under-14 team, by our wonderful Christian Brother coach, Paul Leary. When our team tearfully lost our season-defining match, he smiled, while placing his hands on his hips and looking into each of our watering eyes. “I am going to get a bag of cement and a teaspoon.” We all knew what was coming next. “One scoop for each of you, so you can all harden up. It’s only a game of rugby. There are lots more important things in your life than a game.”

I know that is no longer politically correct, but like all great educators, our coach knew his audience. Firstly we all laughed, which was exactly what we needed. There was no bag of cement, well at least that’s what we hoped, but with the Christian Brothers at the time you could not guarantee it. But in our young hearts, we knew he was right. It was only a game we were playing. The adult put the loss into perspective for his team.

Foundations

When tough times hit, as they will in everyone’s life, resilience has to be lived and we learned the foundations of what it meant to be resilient via losing a game of rugby. It was the beginning of learning how to flex our resilience muscle.

Our opponents scored more points than us, but the wisdom of our coach taught us we never beaten, we just didn’t win. While he taught us perspective, he also made it clear that giving up was never an option. Resilience as a concept was not mentioned but we took it into our lives and lived it.

The essential “Zoom” lesson being taught to all those fabulous Skerries under-15s, was not from me. It came from the determination of their parents, carers and coaches that despite the real hardships that the pandemic was dishing out, the young players had to keep living and be resilient. Covid might have us all behind on the scoreboard but we are never beaten.

It reminded me that the next year under Brother Leary’s coaching in the under-15s we got our revenge on our opponents and won. All Brother Leary had to say was, “Hmm . . . that cement seems to have worked.”

Thank you Skerries under-15s for reminding me of those essential lessons taught to me long ago, when I was your age, by my wonderful coach.

Another teaspoon of cement taken and my resilience muscle flexed.

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