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 twenty-four 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 of an all-rounder. 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 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, regardless of type.
ONE: No jewellery. At all. Not a stud earring, a signet ring, a bracelet or god forbid, a piercing, and if you arrived for a dance class, a hockey match, 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 but more importantly, you began to realise that it was a rule well-intentioned for safety purposes, to prevent any ornamentation causing injury 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 the ballroom.
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, but the obvious fact 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 still but because it’s completely disrespectful.
THREE: Decorum. 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. It was a hard lesson in acknowledging that I might not actually have been wrong in what I said but it was how I had said it that 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 too. Respect, politeness, decorum. They’re important.
FOUR: Graciousness in defeat. This was always a hard one because 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, but there is 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 runners up. It must be torturous to be so publicly second best and yet to show dignity in defeat during the post-match interview while still politely holding on to your trophy.
FIVE: Self-discipline/discipline. The most difficult rule of all when you’re young, high-spirited and seemingly invincible. For who wants to be told what to do by old fogies 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 too 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. Seriously, they get such a battering in most sports. I’ve never had a manicure in my life but I take good care of my squash court hammered tootsies!
SEVEN: No spitting. Hands up – this was not actually a rule. I’m only adding it in here because I can’t stand it and it’s pretty disgusting to watch.
So, those were some of the rules of nearly half a century ago, some of which I adhered to begrudgingly thereafter and others, not quite 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 extra ‘thing’ that makes the difference between good and great. Despite that, I have had age 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 complaining about any of that though. Nowadays I’m back on the squash court adhering to the covid guidelines but I’ve also found pickle ball (in the tennis dome, Wallace Park), 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 all 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.
Lynda Tavakoli’s poetry and prose are widely published.