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On your marks, get set ... go! How to survive your child's sports day


It's supposed to be a time of fun when children get a break from the classroom to take part in a friendly competition. But for those whose talents do not lie on the sports field, it's a time of dread or even derision - and that's only the mums and dads. Three writers reveal how they coped as pupils... and as parents.

‘It should be cute and fun... but I found it stressful’

Karen Ireland (45) is a freelance journalist who lives in Donaghcloney and has three sons:

Five words used to fill me with dread when my three boys Jesse (17), Korey (15) and Teo (13) were at primary school and that was: "It's sports day tomorrow mum!"

When they were really young, sports day was a big deal. It took place on a Saturday and the whole town came out to watch but our inclement weather meant it was postponed so much, it eventually took place on a week day.

The Saturday event was great and meant everyone who wanted to could go along, but when it started on a week day it became more difficult.

One of my main problems with sports day was it coincided with a fancy dress parade and when they were that age my three always wanted to dress up.

Hands up, I follow my mother's lack of creativity when it comes to 'whipping' up a costume with a few days notice.

I would break out into a cold sweat at the thought of material, paint and imagination.

They usually came up with some creation themselves and always ended up entering the competition.

One of my proudest moments was when Teo in P7, the anniversary year, went as captain of the Titanic wearing a construction he had designed and made himself.

He won first prize even though he could barely walk, get into a room or down the steps!

When sports day moved to week day mornings I was working on this paper in Belfast and it wasn't always easy to take a morning or in my case three mornings in the same week off to attend.

That brought with it guilt and worry. Whose should I go to and whose should we divide up between grandparents and various members of the family.

At that stage, none of my children were particularly sporty so they weren't winning races left, right and centre, but I always felt I wanted to be the face in the crowd they looked to and waved at before they ran their races.

I did manage, through understanding bosses over the years, to not miss too many of the days and for those I just couldn't attend I had a valiant substitute.

Karen Ireland with her three sons Jess, Korey and Teo

Other than the getting out of work conundrum, there was always the worry about them coming last and feeling deflated.

I watched through my hands many times. Every year it was the same children winning all the races - they had just grown a bit.

Mine always seemed to do best in the novelty races like the egg and spoon or bean-bag-on-the-head races. We have plenty of medals for those.

I didn't like sports day as a child and always hated running and maybe that's why I never liked it as an adult. I felt their pain.

Now of course in secondary school the boys are flourishing and have found their place in sport. The older two in rugby and the youngest in rugby and cross-country running.

He recently won his first Mud Run race and came second in the long-distance run (which of course I didn't see).

Sports day should be cute and fun but I found it neither; for me, all through my life it has been nothing but a stress and a worry.

'I was like a slapstick clown and she gave me a dignified but embarrassed hug of comfort'

Alex Kane (61) is a political commentator/columnist. He and partner Kerri live in east Belfast with their children Megan (18) and Lilah-Liberty (7). They are expecting a new arrival in mid-July.

It was the usual cry: "Sir, can't we pick Thompson instead?" The fact that Thompson was sitting on a chair in the assembly hall, with his right leg in plaster, a pair of crutches beside him and a patch over his right eye, didn't seem to deter the team captain who had asked the question. And that's because experience had taught him - as it had taught everyone else who had ever been picked as one of the captains on PE day - that Thompson in that condition was still preferable to the not so fit-as-a-fiddle Kane. Raising the dead was a better option than having me on any team, for any sport.

Fifty years later and I still can't catch a ball - let alone anything else that is thrown at me. I can't cope with anything that involves a ball having to be kicked; nor anything that requires me to run, jump, skip or move in a way that comes close to being described as coordinated. I quite enjoy trampolines, but I have been known to come off badly and collide with a tree (which I'm pretty sure wasn't there when I started).

So you can imagine the raised blood pressure and manic heart rate when I get the annual invitation to Lilah-Liberty's sports day (she's just finishing P3) and the bold print reminder that 'mums and dads can join in the fun!' It's at times like this, of course, that I regret being a freelance; because I can't say that I have work or important meetings to attend. So, for the third year in a row, I'll be cheering her on from the sidelines while dreading the megaphoned invitation from the principal for the dads to get to the starting line for the 100 yards sprint.

And that's where the problems start. I can - just about - run in an almost straight line. But they expect you to run with a rubber ring balanced on your head and a ball squeezed between your knees. Why? In an era when human rights legislation is supposed to protect us from arbitrary humiliation and torture, why is it acceptable for a 61-year-old man to be humiliated in front of his peers and a mob of hooting pipsqueaks.

Alex and daughter Lilah-Liberty

Last year, I put myself between two men whom I know to be grandparents and at least a decade older than me. My logic was that at least I wouldn't be last: bearing in mind that all the other dads in the race were late 20s and early 30s.

The granddads were running for sons who were at work. They still beat me. They didn't drop the ring or the ball. They could have pitched a tent, made tea and then resumed the race by the time I had dropped the ball and ring in serial succession. But it was the pat on the back and their, 'you did your best and your wee girl will be proud of you', response, which was the ultimate blow to my pride.

Meanwhile, Kerri and Megan (who is now 18) were practically doubled over in helpless laughter. Kerri knew I was bad at sport (she used to beat me at tennis when she was heavily pregnant with Lilah-Liberty), but I think Megan was under the impression that her mum was exaggerating my uselessness. And the tears were streaming down her face by the time I crossed the finishing line.

Lilah-Liberty hadn't moved during the entire race. I think she couldn't quite believe what she was seeing. All her friends were hopping up and down and cheering on dads who were ferociously competitive (actually, I was surprised and just a little bit scared by how competitive they all were.) I was like a slapstick clown. But she came up to me, gave me a very dignified and sadly embarrassed hug of comfort: "That was okay, Daddy. But I did better in my races." She did.

Meanwhile, this year's sports day is only a few days away. Where's Thompson when you need him?

'During my childhood I was a first-class butter-fingered loser'

Frances with her sons Luke (left) and Finn

Frances Burscough (53) is a writer and Belfast Telegraph columnist who lives in Bangor and has two sons, Luke (24) and Finn (20):

Sport has never been my forte, ever since I came last in the egg and spoon race at age five, in the sack race aged six, in the balloon relay aged seven and indeed every other race or game I competed in thereafter for the rest of my life.

That dreaded phrase 'it's not the winning, but the taking part that counts' was actually coined for me by my underwhelmed mum and dad, as they consoled me on school sports days year-in, year-out, throughout my entire childhood, for being a first-class butter-fingered loser.

I was never a team player and I was equally as hopeless at solo events. I was graceless, clumsy, slow and whatever the opposite of agile is.

However, I did get certain recognition in gym class - for being the only girl in the entire school who never - even once - managed a successful handstand. That in itself was considered an extraordinary feat.

So as you can imagine, without any sporting prowess to my name, when my own kids went to school and sports day loomed, I genuinely dreaded it. Not only did I have the UK's worst ever personal track record, but I also had to go there on my own; a solitary single mum without a husband or partner to cheer or participate with her, while all around me were happy couples in nuclear family units, often with grandparents, uncles and aunties all getting involved with their two-point-four children.

As I stood there, with a fake smile frozen on my face, I just hoped and prayed that my boys would show some flair and take after their dad who had always been sporty at school, rather than me who was such an all-round failure.

Fortunately - thank you God! - they were both good at something. Luke as a kid was swift and nimble and even won a few races; while Finn was great at rugby-tackling people to the ground - a great asset in team games but not so much in the sack race where he managed to get disqualified.

So even though I felt quite like an odd-man-out on such events, at least I hadn't passed down any inherent shame to my kids. I must also point out that my sons' school - Ballyholme Primary - tackled the annual gathering with tact and diplomacy. Everyone who partook on the day was given a medal 'for competing' so no-one went home empty handed. Not even me, who, naturally, came just-about last or thereabouts in all the games I was obliged to join in.

Even the egg and spoon race, during which my egg refused to stay put for a single step, fell to the ground and cracked while all around me mums and dads went hurtling past at breakneck speed with their eggs firmly in place and their shells perfectly intact.

I had to laugh, though, when on our way home from sports day in P1, in a great reversal of roles, Luke consoled me by claiming that everyone else there must have cheated by using Blu-Tack.

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