Letters from the Lowveld 5
Sport is everything to a lot of people around the world, and it’s no different in the Lowveld. When we arrived in Kampersrus in January, it was a week before school started for Ben and Charlie. The right amount of time to find our feet without experiencing the anxiety of a new school for an extended period. I was keen for the first day of school to arrive so we could get into what was my biggest concern about the move from our life in Howick, KZN. That first day will remain with us forever, with hardly a familiar face we navigated the classrooms and smiling faces speaking the odd word of Afrikaans, before switching to English, something Afrikaans people do for us Engels mense way too quickly (subsequently I have had situations where I now pursue in Afrikaans regardless).
We sang in assembly, spoke about the rain that had created the rainbows, and it was obvious that Laerskool Mariepskop had a unique and special character that has allowed many a child to grow up thriving at the base of the mountains.
At this point, we assumed it to be cricket season, the first-term sport we had always played in KZN, so when the boys returned from school during the first week having just done sprints, we figured it to be athletics, confirmed by the inter-house athletics taking place on the first weekend. Charlie reported having won many of his races, coming second in only one or two, while Ben, the less sporty of the two, didn’t really say much other than he liked the 1200m most.
When sports day arrived, we joined the large crowd of parents eating boerie rolls and drinking Nescafe under the shady grandstand with an epic view of the Lowveld beyond the field. It was a hive of activity with seemingly every type of athletics sport from long jump to discus taking place on two enormous fields the school of 250 kids has to enjoy. The facilities are something to boast about and are there largely because the school was built to school kids whose parents worked at the military base on top of the mountain. There is a trail that links the two places, that’s a story for another day, or come to K2C Challenge in July and experience it for yourself.
Anyway, sports day underway, I assumed Charlie would bring home the medals while Ben might have a chance in the longer races. Not to be. Ben moved from 80m to high jump, to 100m, to long jump to the 1200m, picking up four podium places (high jump not working out for him), while Charlie finished just outside the top three for his sprints. Now I know it’s supposed to be about just enjoying it all, and we did, but it’s a race, and we all like to win or do well. Ben’s newfound athleticism boosted his peer status and set a great platform for the start of his new life. Despite Charlie being the more sporty, he was struggling and would have to wait for the rugby season to find his groove.
Unfortunately, quite a few of the interschool athletics meets were rained out, but Ben did get on the school bus to Orighstad one Wednesday afternoon. The 1200m, a clear favorite, he started conservatively, pacing himself like his Dad had taught him. Accustomed to the 400m track and still not understanding Afrikaans very well, he missed the memo that the Orighstad track was 300m, which meant the race was four laps long and not three. On the “final” lap, he broke and took the “lead”, crossing the finish line in “first”. Obviously, his heart sank when he realized there was another lap, but he held onto a gutsy 4th.
When the rugby season arrived, it once again took us a while to work things out. With such a small school, the U9 team has to recruit from the year below to fill the team. U8’s don’t play contact, which just wasn’t an option in Charlie’s eyes, so when his chance came to play the Tzaneen tournament in late March, off we went. Three games in a day were a lot for the little guys, but they played their hearts out, winning two out of three. Being Charlie’s first games, he did only what he was told. Playing among the forwards, he always “went over,” not daring to handle the ball on the ground.
His comments after the first game tell the story. They had won and played well as a team, but he said the coaches just shouted at them. This made me more observant in the games to follow. Intense and enthusiastic instructions can easily be interpreted as shouting by youngsters, especially when they don’t understand the language that well. In fact, we rarely listen to words over body language and tone as kids and adults. The tournament was a demonstration of just how seriously we as South Africans take our sport, and in particular, rugby. I watched a coach from another school take to the field during a break in play and scream and shout at them, asking “had he ever taught them to play like that.” Of course, I am sticking my neck out a bit here by saying this, but the research has been done to show that kids thrive and do best when learning in an environment that is not threatening and they feel like they can make mistakes. Read what Naomi Holdt has to say. A top sporting team may require discipline, but not fear, and sometimes our own enthusiasm as parents and coaches can be misplaced and come across as “shouting,” even if we just want the best for our kids. I imagine most people reading this, who have kids, have been told, “don’t shout at me” when in your mind, you were just encouraging.
Living only a kilometer from the enormous school fields, we head down there most days to kick and run and just have fun. Both boys continue to love their running and rugby respectively, and I hope I can remain a supportive and encouraging father without getting too serious as my sons grow from boys into men here in the Lowveld.