Sideline Cut: Sporting life no fairytale story when reality bites

Court case in Cork raises question of why so many get disheartened along the way

Sean Cooke: lost his case for post traumatic stress after being dropped from his soccer team at Cork Circuit Court. Photograph: David Keane

Sean Cooke: lost his case for post traumatic stress after being dropped from his soccer team at Cork Circuit Court. Photograph: David Keane


There was Vladimir Klitschko, the world heavyweight champ’, waving his little USB stick at the world in a way that recalled a line by the waspish mid-century theatre critic Kenneth Tynan on an actress in a production he reviewed on opening night: ‘She shook her voice at us like a tiny fist’.

In a week when the tension revolving around the world heavyweight fight was less than zero and when nothing happened in the Premier League and when the GAA has gone into its usual pre-championship Bermuda Triangle, the most striking and relevant sports moment took place in Cork Circuit Court.

On the surface, the story that a young Cork footballer had lost his case for post traumatic stress suffered when he was dropped from his team seemed outlandish. It was certainly unprecedented: Seán Ó’Conaill, who lectures in and researches constitutional law and sports law at UCC responded to the news article in The Irish Times in a tweet as “truly remarkable”, noting that he had “never seen the likes before”.

And it was and remains a singularly strange episode: Séan Cooke, now 18, felt that his ambitions to join a professional club in Britain had been compromised after he was dropped from his local team when he was 13.

The court heard the player and his parents were particularly upset that he had not been selected for a match in which an Aston Villa scout was in attendance. The club coach testified that the player was recovering from injury and was being eased back into the team.

It also emerged that the player’s father, who had previously coached the team, had brought a motion of no confidence against the coaching team prior to the relevant season. That motion was rejected in a vote. The player felt he was omitted from the first team because of bad feeling arising from that motion.

Séan Cooke eventually ended up leaving the club and claimed he was later taunted by officials when he played with another club. Representatives for the club said they tried their best to accommodate the player and that they offered the boy the option of playing with the next oldest age group instead.

A psychologist told the court the teenager had suffered post traumatic stress as a result of being dropped.

No confidence

His former coach, who is a volunteer, spoke of the duty of care he felt to all players and said that while he had been very hurt by the motion of no confidence, he continued to regard Séan Cooke the same as any player. “We picked on merit,” he said.

The judge hearing the case, Seán Ó’Donnabháin said in his summary that it had been an ‘emotional’ and ‘difficult’ case on all sides. In dismissing the case, he explained that a breach in duty of care in the case had not been established. Afterwards, the player said that he was proud of his parents for taking this stand with him.

The vast majority of us know nothing about the team or the player or club involved, but even from reading the various court reports, it seems clear all parties believe passionately in their interpretation of the events which led to the footballer quitting his boyhood club and, ultimately, to the court.

Imagine for a moment the courage it must have required for the young footballer to air his story publicly and to admit the emotional devastation it caused him.

And imagine equally the distress of his coach, who presumably gave his time because of a love of the game and a wish to contribute, at finding himself in the middle of a legal case. Possibly through nobody’s fault, a common source of sports club tension and friction deteriorated to the point that there could be no winners and when the joy of the game – of playing, of having fun – seemed like a very far away ideal.

And the case illuminates the contradictory nature of youth sports. More than ever, there is an urgent need to get kids out and playing in Ireland. Spontaneous street games don’t happen as often now; organised clubs are where parents look to send their children.

In the early years, all sports are based on inclusivity and learning the game and enjoyment. But relatively quickly, by the teenage years, the competitive edge is heightened. Some kids excel. Some kids struggle. Some kids have natural physical or athletic advantages. Coaches can only field the required numbers – 15 in rugby, 11 in football, 12 (with a first five) in basketball etc. . .

Some kids are pushed to the margins of the action. The very resilient – or those who just love their sport – stick it out. Others quit. The drop-out rate increases dramatically in the mid-teens. The strongest players in their club want to be challenged and pushed and guided towards realising the extent of their ability.

Meanwhile, there are games to be played. Games to be won! Stan van Gundy, an NBA basketball coach, has been significantly outspoken on the dilemma facing youth basketball in America.

Simply winning

The skill level is plummeting, he believes, because the dominant interest is “in playing games and winning and losing at a young, young age rather than on skill development”.

There is an element of truth contained within that statement applicable to any teenage team playing any competitive game in Ireland this weekend. Listen to the parents on the sideline. Listen to the coaches. Winning, often, is paramount.

And maybe that is fine as long as everyone is clear about who the winning is for. Is it for the kids playing the game? If not, then what’s the point? And also, if it is about simply winning at 13 and 14, then what is the point anyhow because how many teams can win stuff?

Isn’t there something at once ridiculous and shameful about the GAA issue of burnout in young athletes who should be brimming with energy and enthusiasm for the game?

Isn’t it time parents start wondering who, exactly, is responsible for burning their kids out? Why, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute 2013 study, do 75 per cent of kids who play basketball in Ireland and half of those who play Gaelic games quit after the age of 16?

Why do half the kids playing rugby in primary school fail to keep it up at secondary level? Why do so many children walk from sport? How many of those walked because they felt irrelevant or lost within the team?

Clearly Séan Cooke was, as a young player, accustomed to standing out in his peer group. It is a terrible shame that his teenage football years took the turn that they did because they are years he won’t get back. But the genuineness of his hurt is not at issue. He is one of many Irish youngsters who showed up to play sport with optimism and, in the truest sense, innocence, only to discover a reality that was more complex.

So this court case should at least give the tens of thousands who are heading to the pitch or court or track or swimming pool this morning – the parents, the kitted-out youngsters, the be-whistled coaches, the caretakers and the thousands of kids who maybe have the same dreams as Séan Cooke had four years ago – the reason to just pause for a second. And to ask themselves: what are we all trying to do here?

What are we trying to achieve?

What is the sport about?

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