Every loser wins
Competitive sport has been chased out of Britain's schools.
In the UK today, serious competitive sport has been all but chased out of Britain’s schools. School sport or physical education is seen as a way of building self-esteem or teaching healthy lifestyles. Real competitive team games have been sidelined to an after-school activity, out of sight of those less able.
Back in May 2003, education secretary Charles Clarke and Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), lambasted Maney Hill Primary School in Sutton Coldfield for replacing its traditional sportsday with an activity-based model, from which parents would be banned.
Maney Hill headteacher Judith Wressel said that competitive events could prove ’embarrassing’ for students who don’t do well (1). A spokesman for the government responded: ‘It is time to kick into touch the idea that competitive sport is wrong and to call time on the idea that it damages children’s sensitivities – it makes them more robust.’ (2)
But for at least the past 10 years, the government has itself promoted the idea that students are fragile creatures in need of protection from failure – a view that the teaching profession has largely gone along with. The result is lessons that fail to challenge students for fear of damaging their self-esteem.
Sport England (previously the English Sports Council), which is directly accountable to Tessa Jowell, is critical of traditional sports days and has produced an inclusive ‘Primary Schools Sports Day Toolkit’. Sport England says that: ‘The model uses zoned activities in a circuit format as a way of ensuring that pupils are included.’ (3) The different zones comprise distance, endurance, problem-solving, height, and so on, in which students work at their own particular level. If this is the model prescribed by England’s top sporting body, it should be no surprise to find that schools are following suit.
This attitude pervades school sports. Andrew Parker, director of the Centre for the Study of Sport in Society at the University of Warwick, observes that: ‘The negation of competition has crept in over the last 10 years in primary schools.’ (4) Students are often told that they are competing against themselves. In athletics, it is common for students to be told to focus on personal improvement, not on other students. So running a race becomes a race against oneself instead of against one’s peers.
Admittedly, ‘cooperative’ activities like parachute games – where everyone holds on to the edge of a large parachute and various tasks are performed under, on top of or around the parachute – are still, in my experience, a small part of PE in most schools.
And certain aspects of PE lessons have been improved. Whereas in the past students might have been sent out to play a game of football or hockey and told to get on with it, today there is a greater focus on skill development. As a result, the quality of games coaching in the UK has improved both in and out of school. But this focus on skills is at the expense of competitive games. Sport England initiatives like Top Play and Top Sport, designed to improve the quality of competitive games in schools, are sold as games broken down into skills. The competitive game part of the lesson becomes an afterthought, or just a bit of fun.
It is a culture of competition that drives students towards success. As many gym-goers will testify, it requires significant self-motivation to maintain a consistent personal fitness programme. Competitive events are an opportunity for students to prove their worth and potentially become the best. It teaches them to be ambitious, to strive for success and self-improvement, not in terms of self-reference, but in relation to others.
Competitive sports also teach teamwork. In competitive situations students can learn that they’re performing not only for themselves but for the team. There are few other situations at school in which students will experience this kind of collective accountability. Even when producing joint GCSE or A-level projects, slackness by some individuals in the groups is covered up by the harder work of others. On the field, mistakes, lapses of concentration or poor effort are apparent for all to see, and can potentially determine the outcome of the game.
Team games also breed leaders. Through hard work and superior ability, students earn respect from their peers, and they are then able to put pressure on other individuals.
New-style PE lessons run the risk of pandering to students’ whims and weaknesses. The PE National Curriculum programme of study for 11- to 14-year-olds suggests that pupils should ‘learn to take the initiative and make decisions for themselves about what to do to improve performance. They start to identify the types of activity they prefer to be involved with, and to take a variety of roles such as leader and official’ (5). Of course, if students are allowed to make decisions for themselves, many would end up behind the bike sheds lighting up.
Another section in the curriculum provides examples for ‘managing emotions’. These include ‘providing positive feedback to reinforce and encourage learning and build self-esteem’ and ‘selecting tasks and materials sensitively to avoid unnecessary stress for the pupil’ (6). These lessons are focused on understanding students’ feelings about sport and physical activity, rather than spurring them on to greater achievements.
Competitive sports are frequently confined to after-school clubs for those who are keen or more able. This ‘not-in-front-of-the-children’ approach patronises the rest of the students and restricts their access to competitive sport and the lessons it can provide. Even these clubs are not immune – a newly qualified sports teacher once confessed to me that he did not know how he could pick some students and not others for the football team, because ‘they all wanted to play’.
The UK’s attitude towards school sports is in danger of producing losers and whiners rather than winners and leaders.
Meanwhile, my local newspaper here in New Jersey continuously runs stories about school students achieving basketball or athletics success. And in my neighbourhood park, five-year-olds armed with baseball bats and helmets slug it out in the junior leagues striving to become the next Mo Vaughn (of the New York Mets). This kind of winning mentality breeds a can-do attitude – something that has been long-lacking in the UK.
Alex Standish was formerly a teacher in the south east of England, and is currently carrying out postgraduate research at Rutgers University, New Jersey.
Offside, 22 May, by Duleep Allirajah
(1) ‘School Bans Sack Race’, Birmingham Evening Mail, Tony Collins, 19 May 2003
(2) Clark Backs Competitive Sport, BBC News, 23 May 2003
(3) Sport England, Active Schools programme
(4) ‘Sports Day Argument Rages On’, Birmingham Post, 20 May 2003
(5) National Curriculum for Physical Education Key Stage 3
(6) National Curriculum for Physical Education, support materials, Inclusion: Providing effective learning opportunities for all pupils
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