When the personal, professional, and academic merge

Reflections on academic identity and football

Alongside being a teacher, a researcher, a co-guest-editor of a journal (and so on), I am also a parent to a little footballer.

He's only 11!
He’s only 11!

These identities are usually distinct, but now and then they somehow get tangled up.


Something has happened recently that has brought all of these identities together, and I’m trying to harness each identity to make sense of the same social event.

This is what has happened.

My 11-y-o plays for a local amateur football team. There have been accusations of bullying by some of the children and some of the parents. There is also an undercurrent of distrust and antagonism between the parents (and their children) and the coaches about all kinds of  decisions (strategies, positions, refereeing, etc.). The coaches (also local parents) are currently dealing with these issues.

Bearing in mind that we – parents and children – are all dealing with the same event, what I am finding intriguing is that there are 3 broad reactions to this same event:

  1. Those who are distrusting tend to have the following reactions:
  • they don’t accept that their child may have done anything wrong;
  • they get annoyed when any given decision is to their disadvantage (as opposed to weighing up whether it was a fair or reasonable decision in light of other reasons);
  • they assume that if we are playing away from home there is an underlying conspiracy by the coaches to ensure that nobody gets a Sunday lie-in;
  • they resent any re-configuration of players and positions;
  • they are suspicious of new-comers.

2) Those who are trusting tend to have the following reactions:

  • they would be mortified to know that their child was bullying another;
  • they openly acknowledge any unfair advantage to their team and praise the other team’s successes;
  • they accept that given the complex web of league games that take place across a county over the time available, scheduling matches can involve an uneven distribution of games at home and away;
  • they are oblivious to any wrong-doing (even where there is some);
  • they are open to new players and to giving each player a chance to play in different positions.

3) Those who just don’t get involved and either withdraw their children or turn up for games, but leave quietly at the end.

So, what do my different selves have to say about this same ‘event’ and how could each perspective help to bring a resolution to what is essentially ‘conflict management’?

My personal self: I see this football moment in my son’s life as a time of fun, happiness, friendship-building and friendship-negotiating, exercise, and to learn some pretty impressive skills. I also see it as a pain-in-the-neck for myself. I wish that the team culture were one of cooperation, trust, and awareness that it is a team, not a collection of individuals all vying to be top-dog. On the bullying issue, I have serious misgivings about what each one of us perceives as bullying versus unpleasant/annoying/rude behaviour (I think I am aware of the difference: I’m just not sure of the extent to which everybody else is. I also notice that different children react differently to the same aggressive behaviour, so part of the solution also lies in learning how to respond to a bully, and not simply how to ostracise one).

My professional self: pretty much the same as my personal self, but with the added insight that it is possible to get on as a team without actually having to like the people you work with. Once you know your role and remit, basic rules of politeness and respect for diversity should suffice. Such rules can also ward off – even prevent – a major blow-up.

My academic self: there is an issue here of what the purpose of being in a junior football team actually is. Is it to just have a kick-about and have fun; or is it to be a really good team with ‘aspirations’ (or both/other)? Either way, it is always about behaving and thinking as a team, as a whole. I see teams, understood as wholes, as being real entities that have properties which transcend their individual players, and that sometimes what is good for a team is not necessarily good for the individual. So, for example, to take an Archerian perspective, what can be meaningfully said about an individual cannot necessarily be meaningfully said about a team (ie an individual can be a bully, a team cannot). At whatever level, a football team, is a team. A coach needs to disentangle what is going to benefit the team as a whole vs the individual (with respect).

Not sure what to do with these reflections now … my next football fixture is Thursday. We shall see.

2 thoughts on “When the personal, professional, and academic merge”

  1. Hi Julia,
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. It does sound like a tricky ‘event’ and I hope that writing it up in this form for sharing in a different context was helpful for you. I especially agree with the bit about responding to vs ostracising bullies.

    I’m just glad that my 6-y-o daughter only has a good kick about and doesn’t play for a team.

    As frustrating as the line between academic and non-academic texts/style/… can be, it doesn’t reach the same complications as parenting…

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks Bella – let your daughter kick about as freely as she can for as long as she can! My son only started playing for a team 6 months ago, so all these complex social interactions are new for us both. I think I posted this here because I am realising how the combination of being a teacher and grappling with the process of doing research is awakening dispositions in me that I am drawing on to make sense of this particular event: on the one hand, I am being calm and pondered, trying to disentangle all the variables; on the other, I’m getting pretty annoyed that all the fun of playing football is being sabotaged! I’d be a rubbish ethnographer! I’d be getting far too involved with my participants 🙂

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