Competitive sports: making it compulsory is futile

We’re having a lot of fun in Britian with the 2012 Olympics, and especially here in London.  That’s rather wonderful in its own right – but as usual people are using the occasion to push forward their political agendas.  And the obvious agenda to push is funding for sports, and the promotion of sport in schools.  Any number of half-baked ideas are being floated, including by our Prime Minister, David Cameron.  In particular Mr Cameron thinks that the focus that his school (Eton) had on team sports would be a good idea for everybody. Compulsory competive school sports would be just thing, apparently.  But my scepticism comes from the fact that I endured a private education system almost as privileged as Mr Cameron’s – and I don’t think its emphasis on compulsory sport did me any good at all.

One of the many problems with competitive sports is that they are almost by definition elitist.  Prestige comes from winning.  Winning only goes to those with certain mental and physical aptitudes.  If you don’t fit, and almost by definition most don’t, the whole thing is painful.  You just become fodder for other people to show off against.  This was pretty much how things were for me at my prep school in Ealing.  I used to hate “Games”.  I still have an affection for pouring rain since this meant that Games would be cancelled, and I would be spared the humiliation and risk of getting hurt.

It is at this point my story takes an unusual turn.  In 1969 my father was seconded to Jamaica for a couple of years, and I went to school in Kingston.  This was another privileged institution (The Priory School – I think it’s still going strong), with a very strong American slant.  There was no compulsory sport, and I was very happy about that.  I joined in the odd game of football on a voluntary basis, though not very successfully.  But my parents enrolled me in a swimming club, not linked to tschool at all – one that trained me to a competitive standard, including (very unsuccessful) participation in the Jamaican junior swimming championships.  As something outside the hateful apparatus of compulsory school sport, and with a supportive and encouraging coach (how unlike school sports!), I was happy to go along with this.  Returning home and back to one last year in my prep school, I continued to keep up swimming, at Ealing Swimming Club.  This made me very fit.  I astonished my school teachers by picking up the gold medal for the 440 yards race at the school sports day, along with another gold for the relay team (taking the final leg) and a mere bronze in the 100 yards.  It was less of a surprise when I picked up the Victor Ludorum at the school’s swimming competition.

I then moved on to my secondary school, the “public” school of St Paul’s.  I did not find Games any more agreeable here, with its major emphasis on rugby.  Meanwhile at the swimming club I worked my way up the various grades until I hit the stream where people at the top were in Commonwealth Games contention.  And I was firmly stuck at the bottom, in spite of quite mind-numbing and exhausting swimming sessions.  I felt I had better things to do with my time (like assembling Airfix kits) and gave up.  There was to be no more sporting glory for me!

This has left me deeply suspicious of compulsory school sports.  Coaching resources are limited.  It is natural that they should concentrate on the most promising cases.  If you are not judged (rightly or wrongly) to be in that category you are going to have a miserable time, and won’t get anything out of it more than a fear and distaste for participating in sport.  And most of the people who succeeded in sports at school won’t have much idea what I’m talking about.

If the alleged health benefits of sport are to be realised, then it needs to be voluntary and enjoyable.  There’s nothing wrong with competive sports – and anybody that wants to take part, or even try it out, should have the opportunity.  I would back funding for that – though let’s recognise that this doesn’t have to be schools, and is often better outside.  But making it compusory is a blind alley.

And there’s something else.  If sport is voluntary then those running it have some incentive to make sure that people are enjoying it – instead often being nasty bullies.  Things may be better nowadays, but when I was at school bullying in team sports was rife at schools – and this carried through to the professional game.  We don’t want to go back to those days.

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5 thoughts on “Competitive sports: making it compulsory is futile”

  1. I think the real message coming from the Olympics is – or should be – that to succeed at whatever interests you – you need to show real committment. That’s a lesson for life.

    The problem as I see it with sport in schools is that a school cannot cover the entire range of sporting interests of their pupils. Forcing a child to participate in a particular sport in which they have neither interest nor talent seems utterly pointless. If the majority of school pupils were able to develop an interest in a particular sport through involvement of local sports clubs with all the schools in the area then we might have at least a fitter generation, hopefully strength in depth in more sports and hopefully an understanding of the value of doing your best at whatever takes your fancy – sport or otherwise.

    Not entirely in agreement with you about the issue of elitism in competitve sport. Life’s a competition and children need to get used to the idea.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes – I hope that people take that message away.

      I think your thought on schools working with sports clubs is on the money. State primary schools (from my experience as a governor) can’t afford much specialist skill in sport without dropping the ball on literacy and numeracy – which really are more important. And school playing fields are a difficult asset for a school to extract full value from, if they can afford them at all. But by working with other schools and clubs something more interesting can be put in motion.

      Take your point on competitive sport…though sport is by no means the only place where children can learn competition. And people can do sport for the shere fun of it, even when the standard isn’t that high. Elitism strikes as soon as you want to advance beyond this, though.

  2. Life is not an competition!

    There are areas on life where the most talented would rather help the weaker, than take personal advantage. This can happen in sport too, of course, but sport, especially in the media, is bad a teaching this lesson. I have seen images on tv of sports winners celebrating raucously while the losers are hanging their heads only a few yards away – this is shameful behaviour in my book.

    If competitive sport is to be for all (doing it, rather than watching it) the competition must be taken out of it, and the emphasis put on personal bests, and enjoyment.

    My personal experience of school sport was not so good. I had moderate hand-eye coordination, but was never good enough for the school teams. I never joined a club outside school. The only consolation was a 5-a-side soccer muck-around in the evenings which I enjoyed greatly. When I tried the same at university I discovered that with grown-ups it was too rough for me, and I gave up after getting a few stitches in my chin. Now I love to cycle, but not against the clock. At one stage I began to time myself on one of my regular trips, but after a while I asked myself ‘why?’ After that I settled down to simply pushing myself exactly as much as felt right, which I think is better for my enjoyment and my overall health.

    I agree entirely with Matthew’s prognosis, about sports clubs away from school. They have the great advantage of not being age limited, so once joined can become a life-long habit.

    The time in school can be better used to teach responsibility and kindness. Cooperation is so much more life-affirming than competition.

  3. The thing which bugs me is the compulsory team aspect. In reality this will mean that 99% of schools will teach only football and related games, as it satisfies the largest demographic.

    Personally I never have found any enjoyment in these kinds of team games, and there forceful inclusion in school had the effect of completely putting me of sport for life. Restricting it to such a narrow sighted view is utterly ridiculous as there are many other aspects of sports besides competitive team games that many people find far more enjoyable and fulfilling.

    For anyone even slightly different from physical and neurotypical, the school system is already a complete disaster as it is. The goal should only be to allow people to progress what there own strengths are, treating everyone the same helps nobody.

    In any field, you will find that the most successful people are not and have never been typical.

    1. It’s funny that you mention the way school sport is so down on the not so physically tough and skilled, right on the opening of the paralympics.

      Sadly, you are absolutely right.

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