For as long as I can remember, I have always loved sport.
The reluctance for learning I showed in the classroom rarely reared its head on the hockey pitch or athletics field and although I was never going to be an elite sportswoman, I had the determination and resolve to be a reasonable one.
It, therefore follows that, in 1973, after taking my A levels and doing particularly badly, I chose a pathway most suited to my abilities and attended UCPE (Ulster College of Physical Education), then newly-affiliated with Jordanstown Polytechnic. There were 24 of us that year, many of the girls already playing for their country and exceptional in specific sports, and then a few like myself, more all-rounders. But it was not a walk in the park.
If I had thought (and probably did then) that post-secondary school life was going to be a breeze of easy lectures, sleeping away the day and little studying, I was completely wrong. In fact, it was like the continuation of a school life I thought I’d left behind, with registers taken at the beginning of lectures or teaching sessions, and rules, rules, rules.
How I resented it. How I appreciate, now, the value of what it instilled in me.
So, here were some of the rules – most of which I still think about as I watch present day sport.
ONE: No jewellery
Not a stud earring, a signet ring, a bracelet, or god forbid, a piercing, and if you arrived for a dance class, hockey match or a swimming session wearing any of the above, you were immediately sent packing to take it off. The embarrassment in front of your peers meant that you rarely re-committed the crime. Importantly, you began to realise that it is a rule well-intentioned for safety purposes, to prevent ornamentations causing injuries or being a distraction from your performance. Nowadays, I wonder what my lecturers would have made of tennis players who don dangly earrings on the court that are probably better suited to ballrooms.
TWO: No chewing gum
Never mind that it was deemed the height of bad manners if you chewed your way through a conversation with your instructors, the obvious fact is that it was dangerous. I once saw someone nearly die when they choked on gum that had got stuck at the back of their throat during a game. It wasn’t funny. It’s a serious thing. I wish players wouldn’t do it, especially during a national anthem, and not because they’ll necessarily choke while standing but because it’s completely disrespectful.
I was once thrown out of a netball class for giving back cheek. I thought I had made an innocuous comment about a teaching point I disagreed with, but my lecturer thought otherwise and ostracised me for a week. A hard lesson in acknowledging that I might not actually have been wrong in what I said, but how I said it landed me in trouble. Of all the lessons I learned at UCPE, this was probably the most valuable and the most transferable to life outside of sport.
Respect, politeness, decorum. All very important.
FOUR: Graciousness in defeat
This is always a hard one. Nobody likes to lose.
It is crushing to be at the receiving end of a long and hard-fought competition, especially if the final result has been excruciatingly close. There is, however, nothing worse than a bad loser. We were taught that if we won a prize of any sort, we should be proud of the achievement, provided we had done our very best (it might not have been the case if we hadn’t, I suppose). Wimbledon is a good example in the laudable demeanour of the runners up. It must be torturous to be so publicly second best yet show dignity in defeat during the post-match interviews, all while politely holding on to your trophy.
The most difficult rule when you’re young, high-spirited and seemingly invincible. Who wants to be told what to do by old fogeys who think they know better than you? I certainly didn’t and needed to be reined in on many, many occasions, much to my disdain.
I’m a pensioner now so there aren’t many folk telling me what to do anymore but I’m still trying to get a handle on that one. Sometimes, the only solution for self-discipline, or discipline in general, is time.
SIX: Look after your feet
SEVEN: No spitting
Hands up – not actually a rule. I’m only adding it in here because I can’t stand it and it’s disgusting to watch.
Nostalgia and sport
So those were some of the rules of nearly half a century ago, some of which I adhered to begrudgingly thereafter while others – not so much. I qualified in 1976 during extremely turbulent times in Northern Ireland and ended up as a special needs teacher in a lovely school in Armagh, but sport remained a necessary focus in my life. I took up squash (one of the few sports that I hadn’t bothered much with at college) and have played it ever since.
I would love to say that I was a talented player but I never had that ‘thing’ that makes the difference between good and great. Despite this, I have had ageing on my side because I earned my first Irish/ Ulster Cap in squash on my fiftieth birthday, simply because there were fewer and fewer opponents left playing competitively at that age. You will not hear me complain about any of that though as nowadays, I’m still on the squash court. I’ve also found pickle ball, which is the most wonderful fun sport for anyone of any age and ability.
Writing this, I am reminded of where my love of sport first began and that was always going to be Portadown College, the school that shaped me in so many ways. It was, after all, the school where in my lower-sixth year former pupil Mary Peters won gold at the Olympics.
I have much to thank my old headmaster Mr Woodman for, because in end of year reports he never failed to find some positive words about my sporting achievements, regardless of my fairly consistent academic laziness. Unconditional encouragement and support like that can never be underestimated.
The motto of the school was, and I assume still is, Fortiter Et Humaniter. It’s not a bad maxim to live by, regardless of race, creed, colour, gender, culture et al. “With Courage and with Courtesy”.
The most defining rule of them all.