For as long as I can remember, I have always liked sport. The reluctance to learn that she displayed in the classroom rarely stuck its head out on the hockey field or on the track field, and while she was never going to be an elite athlete, she had the determination and resolve to be a reasonable person. So it follows that in 1973, after taking my A levels and performing particularly poorly, I chose a path that was better 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 who already played for their country and were exceptional in specific sports, and then some like me, more versatile. But it wasn’t a walk in the park. If I had thought (and probably did then) that life in post-secondary school was turning into a breeze of easy lessons, sleeping all day, and studying little, I was completely wrong. In fact, it was like the continuation of a school life that I thought I had left behind, with records taken at the beginning of lectures or teaching sessions, and rules, rules, rules. How much it bothered me. How I appreciate, now, the value of what he instilled in me.
So here are some of the rules, most of which I still think about while watching the current sport, regardless of the type.
ONE: No jewels. Absolutely. Not an earring, a signet ring, a bracelet or God forbid, a piercing, and if he arrived for a dance class, a hockey game, a swimming session with any of the above, they would send him immediately to pack. Shame in front of his peers meant that he rarely did the crime again but more importantly, he began to realize that it was a well-intentioned rule for safety reasons, to prevent any ornamentation from causing injury or distracting your performance. Today I wonder what my teachers would have made of tennis players donning dangling earrings on the court that are probably better suited to the ballroom.
TWO: No gum. Never mind that it was considered the height of bad manners if he chewed his way through a conversation with his instructors, but the obvious fact that it was dangerous. I once saw someone nearly die when they choked on gum that got stuck in the back of their throat during a game. It was not funny. It is something serious. I wish players didn’t, especially during a national anthem, and not because they necessarily drown while standing, but because it’s completely disrespectful.
THREE: Decorum. I was kicked out of a netball class once for turning the cheek. I thought I had made an innocuous comment on a teaching point that I disagreed with, but my teacher thought otherwise and ostracized me for a week. It was a difficult lesson to acknowledge that I may not have been wrong in what I said, but it was how I said it that got me into trouble. Of all the lessons I learned at UCPE, this was probably the most valuable and also the most transferable to life outside of sport. Respect, courtesy, decorum. Are important.
FOUR: Grace in defeat. It was always difficult because nobody likes to lose. It’s crushing to be on the receiving end of a long and close competition, especially if the end result has been terribly close, but there’s nothing worse than a sore loser. They taught us that if we won an award of any kind, we should be proud of the achievement, as long as we had done our best (it might not have been the case if we hadn’t, I suppose). Wimbledon is a good example of the commendable conduct of the runners-up. It must be torture to be so publicly second and yet to show dignity in defeat during the post-match interview while politely clinging to his trophy.
FIVE: Self discipline / discipline. The hardest rule of all when you are young, cheerful, and seemingly invincible. Because who wants to be told what to do by nebulous old folks who think they know more than you? I certainly didn’t and needed to be restrained many, many times, much to my disdain. I am now a retiree, so there aren’t a lot of people telling me what to do anymore, but I’m still trying to handle that. Sometimes the only solution for self-discipline or discipline in general is time.
SIX: Take care of your feet. Seriously, they take that many hits in most sports. I’ve never had a manicure in my life, but I take good care of my hammered feet on the squash court!
SEVEN: Not spit. Hands up, this wasn’t really a rule. I’m only adding it here because I can’t stand it and it’s pretty disgusting to watch.
So those were some of the rules from almost half a century ago, some of which I reluctantly adhered to thereafter and some, not so much. I graduated in 1976 during an extremely turbulent time in Northern Ireland and ended up as a special needs teacher at a beautiful school in Armagh, but sport remained a necessary focus in my life. I started playing squash (one of the few sports that I hadn’t really cared about much in college) and have played it ever since. I’d love to say he was a talented player, but I never had that extra ‘thing’ that makes the difference between good and great. Despite that, I have been the age on my side because I got 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. However, you won’t hear me complain about any of that. Today I am back on the squash court following Covid guidelines, but I also found pickle ball (at the tennis dome, Wallace Park), which is the most wonderful fun sport for anyone of any age and ability.
As I write this, I remember where my love for the sport began and that it was always going to be Portadown College, the school that shaped me in so many ways. After all, it was the school where in my sixth year, former student Mary Peters, won gold at the Olympics. I have a lot to thank my former principal, Mr. Woodman, because in the year-end reports he never failed to find some positive words about my athletic 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 suppose it still is, Fortiter et Humaniter. It is not a bad maxim to live, regardless of race, creed, color, gender, culture, etc.. ‘With courage and courtesy. ‘ The most defining rule of all.
Lynda Tavakoli lives near Hillsborough and was born in Portadown. She divides her time between Ireland and the Middle East, where her Persian husband works. His poetry and prose are widely published.