The Telegraph: Sports Day is a nightmare for parents…

Competitive parenting can lead to torn hamstrings, bloodied heads… Alice Smellie writes for The Telegraph, 6th June 2015

It may seem ridiculous that the first broken bone of my life was sustained aged 41 and playing in a parents’ charity match at school. But frankly, that event was more like a gladiatorial fight to the death than a gentle fundraiser. And now, with half-term behind us, we are about to enter the high season of competitive – and dangerous – sporting events for parents, as they are released from the touchline and allowed to take part themselves.

Playing fields up and down the country will soon be littered with the wounded middle-aged, moaning and checking their private health insurance policies after taking part in summer sports days. In fact, a recent survey suggests that around 50 per cent of physiotherapists treat clients who have been injured on school playing fields.

“During early summer we are all accustomed to the sheepish faces of parents with strained muscles,” agrees Bupa physiotherapist Simon Fairthorne, who specialises in sports therapy. “It’s a fair assumption that anyone working in the field will be treating such patients.” “Those aged 30-50 do more gentle regular exercise – such as jogging and swimming,” points out physiotherapist Lynne Cantwell at London chain Six Physio ( “A sudden burst of activity which stretches the body beyond its normal limits can cause serious injury –
a strain or even a tear – leading to months of pain and rehabilitation and sometimes surgery.”

This doesn’t surprise me in the least. In the course of my research I have heard tales of horror: snapped Achilles tendons, bloodied heads and even a punctured lung. You can’t go from desk sedentary to Olympic standard simply by putting your name down for the egg-and-spoon race the day before. “Ideally, spend at least 5-10 minutes warming up, even just doing the activity at a slower pace. Then gradually build up your speed,”
advises Lynne.

Simon adds that often parents are so embarrassed by their injuries that they don’t seek treatment for weeks or even months. “For some reason, hurting yourself at a school event is seen as shameful. Fathers in particular appear to think that unless the injury is sustained during a six-week non-stop run across the desert it doesn’t count. This delay can exacerbate problems. From your late 30s onwards, recovery is slower. You may have less muscle strength than a decade ago, and, in general, the older you are, the longer tissue takes to heal.”

My exercise regime consists of jogging, Pilates and swimming. Not only do I consider myself to be reasonably fit, but I used to play netball at school (though I remember my key talent was skiving). Surely I ought to have been fine on the netball court?

“Your brain may remember, but your muscle and tendons will have become deconditioned,” says Simon. He points out that this is a classic error. “Just because you once played a sport, it doesn’t mean that you are still able to do so. Even if the body is fit, it doesn’t transfer from one activity to another. You could be a yoga guru but unable to sprint.” As I viewed my finger injury as a war wound, rather than a shameful problem (and I love
drama), I went to our local accident and emergency department the next morning.

“How strange,” said the nurse performing the X-ray. “We’ve just had someone else come in with a netball injury.”
“Same school, I expect,” I said somewhat absently. “No, no,” she shook her head vigorously. “It was a man.”
“Yup. Left leg?” I vaguely recalled seeing a tall chap limping off the court.

They were surprised at the mini-influx of walking wounded, but as I now know, the most gentle of mothers turns a blind eye to personal safety when presented with armour (in the form of a goal attack tabard) and a battlefield (netball court). The resulting bellicose behaviour can be very off-putting. My friend Lana used to play in an all-female netball team for her children’s primary school near Amersham, but stopped because of the aggression.

“The other mothers were like smiling assassins,” she recalls. “Every week somebody was sent off for being too violent. There were injured hamstrings, bloodied knees, and I even had an on-pitch pushing fight with a friend.” Another mother, Annabel, who lives near Oxford, was limping for a week after her sports day last year.

“There were lots of mothers in sports bras and trainers, and I had to run barefoot as I was only in flip flops.” As she hurtled over the finish line she was “accidentally” nudged by another mother and grazed her elbow badly. “I also twisted my knee. But I won.”

Such aggression comes as no surprise to consultant psychiatrist Dr Adrian Winbow at BMI Fitzroy Square Hospital. He has treated successful sportsmen whose intensely combative nature can be a problem in family and social life.

“Usually you mingle with other parents at drinks parties, but once faced with any sort of competition, then you are fighting. In this instance there is extra incentive as you’re often battling it out in front of your children.”

Without wishing to malign the charming fathers at our school, I couldn’t help noticing that they underwent a particularly Hulk like transformation. I saw one crash to the ground and rise – dripping blood from his arm – to carry on playing.

The man who threw the ball so hard at me is a gentle and intelligent businessman by day. As wing attack (on the same side) he was more Raging Bull. I can hardly blame him for my injury, not least because anyone with a smidgen of reflex might have actually tried to catch the ball.

“When you have men and women together in a sporting event men will behave like a pack of wolves,” Dr Winbow tells me solemnly. “We are beasts, Alice.”

Unfortunately, due to the tricky nature of my fracture, I ended up having to have a wire inserted to hold the bone together under a local anaesthetic. “Not many people see the inside of an operating theatre,” chuckled the hand surgeon as he drilled deep into my little finger. I smiled thinly back at him, and vowed never to go anywhere near a parents’ sports event ever again.

Fit for purpose?

  • A study has suggested that reaction times may start to decline as early as the mid20s. Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada tested the reflexes of more than 3,000 volunteers aged 16-44 while playing video games. However, they suggested that the experience of age may compensate for this loss of speed.
  • Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass with age. This starts around the age of 30 and is much worse in the inactive – who can lose as much as five per cent per decade – but regular exercise will help to rebuild it.
  • NHS guidelines recommend that adults do 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly, but a 2013 University of Bristol study of one million found 80 per cent of us failed to meet the government target of taking moderate exercise at least 12 times in a fourweek period. Better-off and better-educated adults were most likely to exercise.

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