Yesterday I sent an email to my brother, five and a half years my junior, about our theoretical plans for playing golf this year and was slightly taken aback when he replied saying that he hadn’t been enjoying the game for some time and had decided to stop playing it – well, save for making a token appearance at an annual family tournament that we have kept going for the past three decades.
Reflecting since upon this development, perhaps I should not have been surprised.
At some point in all our lives – no doubt different ones for each individual – we all give up active participation in the sports that we once loved and in which we found great pleasure, satisfaction and fun – only thereafter to follow them as spectators. I guess there’s a marginal inbuilt difference in attitude here between those of a natural athletic bent (to some degree or another) and those who did not have the good fortune to possess one yet enjoy sports-watching all the same: the latter may have less of a problem, or indeed none, in this regard.
Thinking back to my own experience, however, I came to some interesting revelations.
It occurred to me that some sports – those tougher or more arduous in terms of physical contact or effort – tend to be easier to leave behind. Or perhaps, just as likely, they leave you before you choose to leave them.
Take boxing, for example. As a kid I was reasonably successful at it even though I never actually ‘enjoyed’ it. Being naturally competitive and programmed to respond to physical challenges, I came to it with a pronounced fear of being beaten, possibly a product of lack of self-esteem or confidence.
At school I would never have volunteered to enter the ring but, because of my perceived thug-like qualities, my house prefects and indeed sports masters regularly entered me for tournaments. Which, because of my above-mentioned inner drive not to lose, I tended to win. Which then caused me to be selected again the following year, the next time said tournament came around. The bald truth is that my pure pugilistic skills were limited but my desire to win was great.
On one occasion, at the age of fourteen, I was picked for a school match against St Paul’s School. There had been a mix-up in the organisation of it and when our visitors arrived it turned out there was no opponent for me at my age/weight and that they had a chap of sixteen, nearly a stone heavier, who similarly had no opponent. I was asked if I was prepared to fight him for the ‘sake’ of the school match. I said yes, without even thinking about it – well, I was young in those days. As it happens, after the bout had been stopped in less than a minute, my opponent had to be carted off to the sanatorium with a badly broken nose. It was slightly embarrassing at the post-match tea in hall, to which by tradition each of our boxers escorted our opposites numbers, to make small talk with a chap sporting two black eyes and two strips of white elastoplast across his conk.
My boxing career ended, prematurely but thankfully, the following year when my school decided to discontinue the sport (there had been a campaign in the late 60s to stop boxing in schools). I can say that because, with hindsight, I can safely say that I would have lost my unbeaten record the first time I came up against anyone remotely competent at the Noble Art.
In the same vein, I played rugby seriously at school and afterwards until I was about twenty. I wasn’t bad at it but I was never going to be a great player, so I ‘retired’ for about eight years and only began playing it again, solely for pleasure, at about the age of thirty. I played my last proper game at thirty-seven and my final one at forty-one, having accepted an invitation to play in the inaugural match between my school’s Old Boys side and the school XV.
By that time I was still a reasonably fit forty-one year old (and former back), but they put me in the team at hooker in deference to my advanced years. About ten minutes into the game a maul developed after a tackle/breakdown, it became de-stablised, two or three guys fell on top of me … and I cracked two ribs. I had to be carried off and seen by the paramedics. I have never experienced pain like it, before or since. That was the end of my rugby career.
I gave up road-running, which I had taken up as a means of retaining general fitness, after completing four London Marathons [I wasn’t any good – never mind Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, I never broke the four-hour marathon(!)] having suffered on separate occasions a ruptured Achilles tendon in my right leg and two Morton’s Neuromas in my left foot (these necessitated an operation to remove two nerves from said article) and reluctantly deciding that enough was enough.
When bowling my military medium stuff, by then I was finding it increasingly difficult to bowl anything but full tosses.
In similar fashion, when fielding at my favourite cover point, I noted that – once the ball had been hit in my direction – by the time I had bent down in the classic fielder’s ‘receiving’ pose with my body sideways and my hands cupped, most often the ball had already passed me and my main contribution to proceedings was reduced to retrieving it from the boundary.
I played golf regularly most weekends for nearly twenty years with two pals but gave that up in my mid-fifties when I realised that I hadn’t being enjoying it for the about the last seven of them. It’s one thing when you aren’t really competitive anymore but you can still gain reward from the outing in the fresh air, the occasional satisfying or lucky winning hole and indeed the pleasant company.
However, it becomes quite another when – week after week – you can trudge around a series of picturesque 6,000-yard golf courses without playing a decent single shot.
Once that starts happening, no matter how splendid your friendships with your fellow competitors, it doesn’t take long to reach the stage when it finally dawns upon you that the only reason you are still putting yourself through the ordeal is the dread of the potential inner shame you might feel if you ever decided to ditch this traditional and important factor in your life.
And, when you’re only continuing to do something because of the anticipated senses of sadness and/or ‘letting the side down’ you might feel if you ever gave it up … I suspect you’re actually already at least two years minimum past the point where you should have.
Life’s a funny old game, isn’t it?