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Disciplined or disqualified

school of sport:with TIM MIDDLETON

THE Importance of Being Earnest was a farcical comedy written in the last years of the nineteenth century by Oscar Wilde, in which “the protagonists maintain fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations” while the play’s major themes include the “triviality with which society treats institutions as serious as marriage”.

In looking at international sporting events over the last weekend we might well hear strong echoes of Wilde’s original play. Three highly successful and experienced sportsmen let themselves, their team and their sport down by their behaviour and indeed also by their responses to the events and the consequences of them. Each incident has significant lessons for youngsters playing sport at school to learn. 

Firstly Novak Djokovic, the odds-on favourite to win the US Open tennis title this year, was disqualified from his fourth-round match after hitting a ball recklessly that led to one of the line judges being injured.

Secondly, Lewis Hamilton, the reigning Formula 1 champion and current leader of this season’s championship, was penalised for being called in for a stop when the pit lane was closed because marshals were dealing with another car close to the entry.

Thirdly, Kyle Walker, the English soccer full-back winning his 49th cap, was sent off in a match against Iceland after receiving two yellow cards, the second one for a lunging and unnecessary tackle which left his team-mates with twenty minutes to hold on against difficult opponents.

Certain things stand out about these incidents. All three professionals should have known better not to act in such a way. Each of them admitted that they had done wrong, and that they had acted naively, irresponsibly, unacceptably. That is encouraging, at least. However, at least two of them tried to argue their case and justify their behaviour. All apologised, though such apologies are not always respected when attempts to justify the action were presented.

Djokovic later stated that he was “extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong.” It seemed this was his line of argument throughout his lengthy debate at the net; he is reported as saying, “I didn’t do it on purpose, so I shouldn’t be defaulted for that.” Such is a familiar line spoken by youngsters at school — “I didn’t mean it so don’t punish me!” Whether an action is intended or not, if it is wrong, it has consequences. Children need to learn that at school; future tennis champions should have learned that at school. It is all very well apologising to the injured party, to the team, the family, the fans, the tournament, everyone we can think of but simply saying sorry is not enough. He needs to be sure he will not hit the ball away in anger (as he had already done) and he needs to be sure he does not hit the ball away without looking where he is hitting it.

Kyle Walker was quoted as saying, in his defence, “I have to take the full blame. To make a rash challenge like that is not acceptable. I don’t blame the pressure, I am a seasoned professional and I should know how to manage a game.” Leaving aside the point that who else other than him could possibly take the blame, he admits it was not the pressure, so what was it? Foolishness? Anger? Bad management? Or shall we just call it what it really is? Indiscipline, plain and simple (as was the subsequent actions of two other English soccer players following that match who broke Covid-19 rules and socialised inappropriately — an offence, co-incidentally, of which both Djokovic and Walker have also been guilty in recent months)! No wonder Walker’s manager, Gareth Southgate, later said he will “hammer home” the importance of discipline to each of his players.

It comes down to the importance of being disciplined, not simply of being earnest. Players must be earnest in their efforts and in their responses, for sure, but more importantly they need to be disciplined. The fact is each of these seasoned professionals should have known better; each of them should have done better; each of them could have responded better. Seasoned professionals should realise they have social obligations (that are not burdensome) which they cannot escape and must not treat such responsibilities as trivial. As Djokovic claimed he would “turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being,” so we must ensure this is a key lesson for our children to learn from an early age with regard to sport and to life. We must hammer it home, earnestly, or else sport will turn into another wild farce.

l Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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