Good and bad at gamesmanship

Contact sports can help children to channel aggression. But only if they learn to play by the rules.
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The Independent Culture
When is a rugby fracas not fair play but a hostile act of premeditated violence? Anyone who has ever played the game, or had children who do, knows that there is sometimes a fine line between the two. This week, however, a Crown Court judge in Sheffield sentenced David Calton, 19, to 12 months in a young offenders' institution for causing grievous bodily harm. While playing in an inter-schools rugby match, Calton, whose nose was broken in the first half of the game, kicked a boy on the other team, knocking him unconscious and breaking his jaw. Calton was a talented player; he represented his county and had never been sent off. His boarding school, Mount St Mary's Catholic college in north Derbyshire, which suspended him as soon as he'd finished his A levels, says he had a previously unblemished academic and sports record.

Was Calton's act a one-off, a lashing-out in the heat of the moment, or was his thuggery lurking beneath the surface - and did his bent for a contact sport encourage it? "Aggression makes them good at the game," says a mother of two rugby-playing sons, "but they have to learn how to turn it off and often they don't have the maturity."

In contact sports, says Sandra Wolfson, a psychologist at Northumbria University, it's hard to disentangle hostile aggression - wanting to hurt someone for the sake of it - and instrumental aggression, where you hurt someone in the process of achieving a goal. "Both can occur simultaneously."

Psychologist Richard Ryder believes the "macho crudeness" of violent sports like football, rugby, boxing and wrestling encourage sociopathic tendencies. But surely school sports, if properly taught, can help kids channel aggression? Even in the games children organise themselves, there are always rules, and the child that doesn't play by them gets thrown out of the game. "When there are two teams there are always niggles," says John, an amateur football referee. "You can ignore it or you can niggle back. A good referee will stop trouble before it starts, call both players over and get them to sort it out. You have to learn gamesmanship."

Carol Gordon, who lectures in sports studies and coaches a volleyball squad of 14- to 16-year-old boys, believes sport can be a positive outlet, and that learning rules which have to be applied in a physical environment help us to become better citizens. And the playing field is sometimes a better place for teachers and pupils to interact than the static classroom. "In football, when you express yourself it has consequences for the whole team," she says. But some people just can't take the heat; one of her volleyball students was unable to control himself at critical moments. "He would always kick out when things got pressured. He'd say sorry afterwards, and in the classroom he was a quiet, calm type. It was to do with trying too hard, believing he should be able to do better, and rivalry with his best friend who was effortlessly good at sports. He couldn't cope with the competitiveness."

In rugby, you have to be firm; if you're half-hearted you're more likely to be injured. "If you're not aggressive you'd be walked over in rugby," says Chris Birch, a full-back who plays for Wimbledon and who had keyhole surgery for a knee injury just before his finals at university, as well as numerous other wounds at school matches, some, he says, inflicted maliciously. "But it's a complex sport, all about strength and holding people off, not about violence. Of course you shouldn't deliberately kick someone, though you're allowed to stamp on people when you're trying to kick the ball out, and sometimes you connect with a head - and if that happens you're often banned. David Calton's sentence seems harsh - after all, a player in a match in Bath got a six-month ban for biting someone's ear off."

Rugby is, by its nature, violent - it's top of the league as far as injuries to the upper body are concerned, though football is worse for injuries from the waist down. A 17-year-old boy was recently paralysed for life (and won damages against the ref for allowing the collapse of a scrum). How can we let our little darlings play such a terrifying game? "I can't watch," says one mother whose husband and son are both keen rugby players, and whose son had to have stitches on his chin after tackling someone - a result, said his father, of bad coaching at school. "He hadn't been taught that you have to tackle low down rather than high up - because he did it too high, the rugby stud met his chin. And the lower the level of rugby you play, the worse the injuries, because people don't know what they're doing."

Coaches are often blamed for encouraging violence; they can whip teams up into a frenzy, or can misjudge someone's ability and encourage them to do something they're not capable of. "It's a vicious sport but I like it," says another mother. "It gave my shy son confidence, and had a knock- on effect with his academic work."

In fact, it's not until boys get bigger that the danger starts; being hit by a speeding 17-stone body is bound to be painful, while a light 11-year-old can't inflict as much harm. And many schools start by teaching touch-rugby or mini-rugby, where there's a ban on anything too aggressive. Jack, a small 12-year-old flanker, loves rugby because it's so exciting and varied - much more so than football, he says; in rugby you can pass, kick, or throw and make drop goals - not because it unleashes his aggressive instincts. "Life's about taking chances," says Priscilla, the mother of two ice hockey-playing sons aged 13 and 15. "I don't want to wrap them up in cotton wool. Ice hockey is as violent as rugby, but at least they're padded, though that can make them more daring. It's hard to get it right: one player on the team is often sent off in tears for fouling - he can't control his temper, but it's the same emotion that makes him good at the game and want to win."

Often parents are to blame: shouts of "Get him!" and "Bring him down!" are heard from the sidelines and, at a youth club football match in Blythe recently, the inter-team parental fights got so bad that the mums and dads were banned from the game.

Dr Richard Cox, a sports psychologist at Edinburgh University, played rugby for years as a back. "I only remember being assaulted once," he says, "and it was never premeditated violence. You don't last long in the game if you're not prepared to channel your aggression." What concerns him is the possibility that David Calton was apeing the violence he sees in senior rugby. "Any youngster watching adult games will see forwards trampling other forwards and kicking out of the back of a scrum with no penalisation. It's war in most front rows. And there's an unwritten code that if you mete out violence you'll get it back."

"Incidents like the Calton case are rare," says Carol Seheult, a sports psychologist at Durham University. "There's no excuse for deliberate injuring. You have to be assertive rather than aggressive; to use the right amount of force to get what you need." But isn't the playing field an ideal place for the school bully to unleash his force?

Michele Elliott, of Kidscape, whose teenage sons play rugby, feels it can be, especially when winning is the main motivation rather than good sportsmanship. "Winning at all costs, getting away with whatever you can to do so - that's abhorrent. Kids must be taught to pick someone up if they're knocked down, to stop and help someone. Co-operation and team spirit is great, but the trouble with rugby is that it often does encourage bully boy tactics, to go straight through the other guy."

Richard Cox thinks bullying is less likely to occur in team sports because "if they're mismatched in terms of skill, they shouldn't be on the same field - it's very different from the playground, where everyone is together. There are myriad rules, and a good referee will control them well."