Rufus, our eldest son, came back from school in an uncharacteristic melancholic mood last week. He’s normally upbeat, especially on a Friday because the week finishes with triple games. And for a sports’ loving lad, what’s not to love about that. But he looked decidedly under the weather, so I asked how things had gone. Not well. It wasn’t that the bottom had fallen out of his world. But it was pretty close.
He’d only made the seconds.
Spring term means football. Sadly the oval ball is consigned to the cupboard. The sports’ staff had divided the boys up into squads. After a few sessions casting their eyes over the talent before them they had to make some choices. Rufus had only made the seconds. He was in the first team last year. He was gutted. And there was a sense of incomprehension at the decision which, being a one-eyed father, I shared! I could have said, ‘it’s only footy’ and not a sport that really matters (which is what I really think). But I didn’t. I could have asked Rosslyn for advice about what to say. But I don’t think she ever got dropped in her life.
Let’s be honest. Making the seconds isn’t awful, though it feels like it when you’re not used to it. It’s actually quite an achievement in a school with 90 boys in the year group and only 7 boys in a team (though there are probably 10 in a squad). Footy isn’t Rufus’ sport. He’s small for his age. He’s just coming back into contact sport after a broken arm. But the simple truth is that (in the opinion of the selectors) he’s not good enough at the moment to make the first team. And that’s not altogether bad.
Rosslyn and I are grateful for this recent turn of events. We don’t like seeing our boy ‘crushed’ but there are lessons to be learnt. Rufus and I had a bit of a chat on our journey home. I can help with sport. It’s Biology and French that I struggle with. So we talked, on the hoof. And I’m sure that I said some useful things. But I’m pretty sure there was a whole load of dross as well. As I’ve reflected and we’ve talked some more, these are the four things I’ve said in response to being dropped. I wish I’d learnt them when I was younger. To my shame, I was rubbish at being left out of the starting XV or demoted to the seconds. These same four principles apply to all of us who play sport and have to cope with the disappointment of being told that we’re just not good enough at the moment.
1. It’s an opportunity to react to life’s disappointments. Life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. And that’s not a bad thing to learn, even if you’re only ten. I’m intrigued to see how he’s going to react. Lot’s has gone his way so far in life. He’s very good at the things he loves; namely sports. But that rich vein of form won’t last. And it’s going to be interesting to see whether he loses interest in the things where he doesn’t succeed. But it may help him put his sport into perspective. The danger is that whichever sport he’s playing that term can become the be all and end all. But there’s more to life than sports. And he needs to know that. The crushing sense of disappointment at being dropped does hint at some underlying issues that have been worth talking about. We’ll come onto those. But sport can become an idol even at such a tender age. And we’ve had a chance to talk about the appeal of sport and why we value it so much. Being dropped has been a good thing.
2. It’s an opportunity to realise that ability isn’t identity. In other words, we’re not what we’re good at. But that’s not usually how it works in a school (or in life). And in a boys’ school with a sporting pedigree, ability matters. One of the reasons that his transition in into a completely new school has gone so well was because he made his way into the first rugby team at scrumhalf. But I don’t want Rufus’ identity to be bound up with sporting success or which team he’s in, but with Christ. I want him to think of himself as belonging to Jesus more than he thinks of himself as belonging to any team, or indeed our family. I don’t want him to think of himself as being something because he’s one of the best footballers in his year. That’s arrogant. I want him to walk around gobsmacked that God in His kindness has given him the privilege of being a follower of Christ. That’s humility. God has picked him for Christ’s team. That’s all the selection he needs!
3. It’s an opportunity to respond by improving his game. He’s been left out of the first team for a reason; the coaching team don’t think he’s good enough. He could despair at the injustice of it all. Or he could go away and sulk, much like his Father would. Or he could go away and improve his game. This could actually make him a better player. He could stop coasting and actually apply himself to working out what he does well, what he contributes to a team and what he needs to work on. Presumably God gives us disappointments to remind us that we’re not the finished article; that there are areas where we could improve. And I’m not simply talking about his sporting skills. I’m talking about character. That’s why Rosslyn and I are pleased that this has happened. It’s provided an opportunity to focus on what really matters; namely what kind of boy he’s becoming not how good at sport he’s getting!
4. It’s an opportunity to remember that he’s part of a team. It’s not wrong to want to play at the highest level. He wants to play with the best and pitch himself against the best. But whichever level he ends up playing at, he’ll be part of a team. And that means that he has to play his part. After all, the key thing is not making the team but being part of the team. I think that this is the one thing I want him to learn above all. He needs to do what he can in the team that he’s in and not spend the whole time looking across at the first team game wishing he was there. His team, the seconds, can have a terrific season loving playing together and competing against other teams. And it could be a blast. With the group of boys God has given him to be involved with, he could be a real encouragement and help them become a great team where they’re more than the sun of their parts. That would be a far greater achievement than making the firsts.
Whichever team he ends up in, I’ll be there; supporting him whatever, encouraging him when he’s down, chastising him when he’s lazy and praising him when he’s playing his part.