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Matt Williams: Be careful not to scare your kids off sport and life

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As I write this I am flying in an aluminium cylinder somewhere high above the Indian Ocean.

My father served in the Australian Air Force during the second World War. Whenever I fly, I am reminded of his words: “At 30,000ft there are no atheists.” I may not have a Japanese Zero fighter plane firing a cannon at our craft like his generation did, but his point remains valid. Flying is a calculated risk.

As a father myself I am taking the calculated risk of flying to Sydney for a good reason. I want to spend Christmas with my children.

Risk and reward is as old as humanity. Taking calculated risks is how we learn to overcome our fears to make life such a joyous ride.

As a small boy, I was deeply afraid of the ocean and feared that the rip currents would drag me from Sydney to New Zealand. But my father, the old aviator, promised me that out there beyond the crashing waves, there was a beautiful place. And if I was brave enough and trusted him, he would take me there. He told me: “It’s a bit dangerous, but it’s great fun.”

Holding my hand he showed me firstly how to jump over the small ripples that trickled on to Sydney’s golden beaches. Then, as he secured me with his firm grip, I learned to dodge the power of the foaming water by holding my breath, going into that other world under the surging white wave. I had to take the risk and trust that the wave would wash over me, leaving me untouched as I emerged on the other side.

The biggest fear of all was the feeling generated when for the first time the ocean lifted your toes off the sand and you were literally out of your depth. Trusting that you could survive beyond the waves, out the back, in the deep water, well, all of that took time.

But my father was patient. He helped me to cross the sandbar. The place where the shallow water forces the waves to jump to their highest and hit you the hardest. The place where your fears had to be tamed or you were condemned to stay on the shore with the timid and fearful. Safe and secure but not fully living life.

Once we swam beyond the sandbank, out the back, with risks taken and the fears controlled, the power that Mother Nature provides was there to be harnessed.

Bodysurfing waves was a childhood delight. In learning, I often failed. The waves spun and twisted me like a baggy pair of underpants in a washing machine, ending with a nose full of water and shorts full of sand. The reward was cracking a wave with the saltwater spraying off your chest like the bow wave on a poorly designed tug boat. All the time laughing with my brothers and father.

From the deep water to grassy fields I had the great joy of being encouraged to play contact sports and to feel fear. Wise coaches taught me the lesson that being scared was natural but to never allow those fears to become your master.

Plato said: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” I learned more about myself from sparring a two-minute round of boxing against an opponent who wanted to knock me to the ground than I did in a year in the classroom. In that ring, you had to make the conscious decision to run or lift your hands and defend yourself.

I was not a champion in any of these sports. That was never their purpose. Participation provided the preparation for the challenges and fears that every life’s journey must encounter.

I am heading back to Sydney, where both of my parents and two much-loved brothers are buried. When we were kids surfing and playing our rugby, we wrongly thought our time together would never end. While our journey held great joy and we understood life had risks, we all assumed we had more time. We were wrong.

Last summer a friend told me: “If our lives are a game of golf, we are on the back nine. The problem is we don’t know if we are on the 12th or the 17th.”

I am deeply grateful for all the waves I have surfed that went wrong. For all the washing machine chunders that Mother Nature’s powerhouse has spun me through. I am thankful for the bruises, cuts, broken bones, scares, heartbreaks, life-affirming experiences and lifelong relationships that rugby has given me. It has been so much more than the child who held his father’s hand on that golden beach could ever have dreamed of.

So I intend to keep taking calculated risks and give that lemon of life another big squeeze. I am sure there is a drop or two left inside.

In a few days I will go to the same beach where the old aviator taught me to bodysurf and with my adult children I hope to swim across the sandbar and into the deepwater, out the back. Free of gravity and out of our depth. Enjoying being in a place where we learn life’s most profound lessons.

So, be brave and let your kids play sports so they can encounter fear and experience how it can be overcome. Let them fail, get bruised, have sprains, possibly gain a scar or two and have water spurt up their noses. Then let them get back on their feet, give their bruise a rub and encourage them to go and do it all again.

Life is far too short to allow our fear to be the master of our children’s future.

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