by Matt Holdback
As far as I was aware I had a pretty normal childhood, we started off just me and my older brother who is about 18 months older than I am. Then about 3 years later my younger sister arrived and everything was great, the perfect family.
We lived in a nice big detached house in a small village in Leicestershire (Burbage), my dad ran his own business supplying welding and engineering supplies and my mum helped with the admin and accounts for the business. Looking back, we never wanted for anything really, there was always food on the table and toys to play with.
I have fond memories of playing in the garden with my siblings and the local neighbours. I remember He-Man sword fights, playing cowboys and Indians and then of course playing football. My parents were very sociable people and I always remember them having friends around for coffee and dinner.
It is from around this time my memories are quite fuzzy, I have no idea what changed but when I hit approximately 5 years old something changed. I always remember being a confident chatty child but when I was at school I went quiet. When I say quiet I mean I stopped talking to teachers, friends, dinner ladies, basically anybody!
It was a weird thing that I started doing, and I don’t know why. I remember sitting in the classroom with the teacher doing the register, I was shaking and sweating at the possibility of being made to answer in some format. I would try and just get away with a nod of the head or put my hand in the air, anything but make a noise. This anxiety soon transferred from the classroom and in to the playground it escalated as time went on and even through the transition from infant to junior school.
My Mum said “It was very worrying and when he was at the junior school I was called in to see the nurse. I remember sneaking into the school, praying that Matt wouldn’t see me because I didn’t think I would get him back to school ever again if he had seen me. The nurse asked a lot of questions about what he was like at home and what he was like at school, was he worried about anything or could I think of any explanation for his behaviour. I had no answers. At the end of the interview, she said that as he was talking at home, there was nothing that needed to be done. I just had to hope he would grow out of it.”
The more people started referring to me as ‘the kid that didn’t speak’, the harder it was for me to start again. If I made a noise I would be surrounded by a group of children in the playground dying for me to make more noises and start talking, but this had the adverse effect and sent me back into my shell and made it even harder. I remember standing on my own in the playground against the wall, I remember the dinner ladies coming over and holding my hand walking me around the playground with them.
I remember my older brother in the school bringing me over to play football with the older boys. Barry even to this day tells me of how his friends were intrigued as to why I didn’t talk.
Deep down and in my head I was desperate to talk, I just wanted to be a normal boy with close friends and even have my own opinions on things. Instead I was alone and stuck in a comfort zone that I just could break out of. Back then there was never a label for this type of thing and only years later, watching a TV documentary on Selective Mutism, I had three separate calls from family members saying to watch the show now as I was exactly the same when I was younger.
The only thing I can potentially put it down to was around the same time my parents split up and went in separate directions. My dad spent time in Spain and we moved across the village to a new home with my mum. Although my dad lived in Spain, we spoke regularly, and we visited him often too. My mum did an amazing job at bringing us up and installing high morals and good manners to everyone, I can’t thank her enough for what she did for us. My dad tells me a story of one time being at the local swimming baths and for no reason I just started crying in the water and telling my dad that he didn’t love me, this was very far from the truth, but as a child I must have been a bit lost in my own head.
I was a completely different child at home to what I was at school, in my Mums words “They just couldn’t shut you up!” My brother and sister remember me just being a pain in the arse at home, probably down to the fact that I hadn’t spoken all day and just came home and released all of that built up energy and frustration.
I loved playing football, at this age football was everything to me. I played with my brother and his mates at school, I played at home with the neighbours and even in the house with whatever I could use to implement as a ball. Football was an escape, it was a place I could express myself and lose myself in a game. Yes, it was a game but to me it was far more than that. My dad saw that I enjoyed playing so much and that it was good for me. He saw that it was a way of communicating with others. Even though I still didn’t talk I used body language and movement to communicate with my team mates. My dad went and persuaded the caretaker at our junior school to set up a school football team to get me involved even more.
I now see this as the biggest and best tool that I used to help bring me out of my shell without even realising. I went from using body language and gesturing to making the occasional noise, (it was more of a ‘urh, urh, errr! than actual words). But, the more I did this the more people would pass me the ball. I soon progressed into words and then my confidence grew. I still don’t know to this day when I started making conversation with people and when I was able to open up at school as I would at home. I can only put it down to a gradual progression from around 8 or 9 onwards.
Over that time, I remember certain times where I was knocked back and my confidence rocked. I remember being around 11 or 12 years old when I was playing football on the weekends for a club in Burbage. With my parents being separated I spent large parts of the summer holidays at my grandparent’s house in Derbyshire. I remember missing a lot of the pre-season training whilst we were away and the first Saturday morning back I rode my bike to the local park up the street where we had training. Before the session started the manager took me to one side and explained to me that I wouldn’t be part of the team that year as I had missed the training. I remember being devastated the entire session and then riding my bike home on my own in tears. Looking back on it now, who was this man to tell me I couldn’t play in a kid’s football team??
My dad recently told me a story of this same man that kept leaving me on the sidelines because I wasn’t vocal on the pitch and I was shy. I may not have been the best player and there may have been lots of other better players but at that age isn’t it about playing and giving kids a chance? It wasn’t Leicester City or any other pro team! I remember begging my dad on the way home from games not to say anything as I didn’t want anyone looking at me and judging me.
After leaving Burbage 84 I went on to play for another team, this team was another local team and a friend of mine, James, asked me to go training with him. As a team we were awful, I think we lost one game 10-0, but I couldn’t ask for a better group of lads that helped me to grow in confidence and start to develop people skills. After a couple of seasons, we picked up a few new players and moved into youth football with Hinckley United and things started to click a bit more.
The college I went to was typically a “Rugby” college so I tried my hand at playing a few games for the second team. Both the first team and seconds trained together, and it was a great time for myself as if there was any time you had to be in it together with your pals then that was the time. We were there to back each other up and grind out wins. Again, being on the field was my escape and a time that made me grow inside.
Even with this my passion was Football and our college sports teacher was about to fold the school team in my final year. I was part of the driving force that persuaded him to run the team for one more year. He did, and we went on to win the county cup that year!
A Fresh Start…
Even at secondary school and even later on at college, when I was far removed from that quiet lonely child in the playground and the classroom, I always remember that someone at the school would bring up the past and say something along the lines of “You were that kid that never used to talk?”. This would still send me back in to my shell and make me ashamed of being like that as a younger child. I always found that because I couldn’t explain it, that I was different and that I had something to be ashamed of.
Only when I moved away from my home town to University I was able to start afresh where nobody knew me as that person. I was able to start to find myself and start to develop my own personality and my own viewpoints on life. I naturally gravitated towards the football club at university and again using sport as a tool to develop friendships and unbreakable bonds with people that I can truly say are friends for life. I became a ‘yes’ man, when I was asked to do things I said yes! From running for team captain and taking training sessions, becoming a sports coach, to standing up in front of large groups and doing presentations. One that stands out more than most is in my third year at university where I bodged a presentation together last minute as normal and stood up and did a serious sports physiology presentation about WWF wrestling and how they would structure their training for their events.
I am a strong believer in living outside of your comfort zones now. It is only when you start to tip toe out of these zones that you grow as a person. I am not saying that I have always been successful at everything outside of my comfort zone, but I definitely learnt from every experience and became better for the next time. Even to this date I sweat and shake when asked to stand up in front of large groups and talk. I have even been known to go too far the other way and step over the line, coming across as arrogant, ignorant or even just plain showing off.
Even in recent years I find myself in a comfort zone and days and weeks seem to pass without pushing myself. I have to make time for self-development and put myself in an environment that scares me to a certain extent. Whether it is with training, work or even my home life, I have to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and only then can I move forward.
I never thought I was an anxious person, I was never one to put a label on things or even talk about how I feel. I am a guy after all! I have always put a brave face on and been that smiling fun guy that everyone knows. People sometimes don’t know the real truth about how you feel and why you deal with things in certain ways. Do I still struggle? Nobody would ever believe me but all the time! Anxiety when meeting new people, when it’s an important occasion or even when making big decisions. But I do know now how to deal with things in a better way, whether through exercise or not over thinking things.
It was only about 5 years ago after a messy break up with an ex-girlfriend that I had a meltdown and decided to seek help. Before this I always viewed counselling as a thing for weak people and never once did I think I would be able to tell anyone. This was actually the best thing I ever did, I was able to talk about my issues growing up and start to unravel a few things.
I launched Just Camps in 2009, where we deliver kids activity and sports camps to children aged 4-16 years old. I am highly passionate about what we do and the opportunities we offer children to develop their own personalities and grow as individuals. Sport and structured team games are an amazing tool that we can use to allow children to forget about all their worries, develop confidence and lose themselves for a short time within an activity.
© Matt Holdback 2018