Saturday, 14 February 2009

Competitive Sport and Self-esteem

I must confess that I was rather surprised to read the headline Competitive sport 'humiliates pupils' claims leading headmaster. As is so often the case, the substance of the article was much more balanced that the eye-catching headline would suggest. Keith Budge, Headmaster of Bedales and himself a former Oxford Rugby blue, argues for a broader vision for School Sport:

"For some, careering around the rugby pitch is absolutely fine, but there will be a lot of people who find it totally miserable and humiliating," he said.

"I think that for some highly competitive individuals, team sport is going to be very important. Where I take issue with it, is that in order to produce 15 people, say, who go out onto the rugby field to represent the school and uphold the school's pride, it means you have to have another 400 who are going out and trudging around the field like an article of faith. I don't see that as a very enlightened way to do things.

"I question how much it is in the interests of the individual student sometimes to have this heavily competitive approach to sport. Apart from anything else, what often seems to get squeezed out are the sports people are more likely to pursue in later life as part of a healthy lifestyle. You are unwise to play rugby for any great length of time, but playing badminton, swimming, using the multi-gym and playing tennis a more sensible investment."

I will nail my colours to the mast from the outset. I believe in competition. I believe that it is a good thing. Competition gives focus and impetus to striving to do one's best and thus is a driver for improvement and progress. Competition helps young people find out where their true talents lie. Competition prepares young people for what is an increasingly competitive world. Competition teaches young people about success and failure - how else will young people "meet with Triumph and Disaster" and learn to "treat those two impostors just the same"? I believe that it is an important component in a young person's education. Educationally it matters not whether that competition is a National sporting final or participating in the Choir in the Inter-house Music competition, but clearly competitive school sport has an important role to play here.

Schools make compulsory what they regard as important. If Sport is to justify a compulsory place in the curriculum, it needs to be educational. Clearly the image of the 400 being cannon-fodder for the 15 falls outside this definition. Competitive sport needs to be just that - competitive - there can be no place for mismatches for this is when sport can deteriorate into a "miserable or humiliating" experience. Directors of Sport bear the responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.

Most independent schools have embraced the broader vision for school sport for which Keith Budge is arguing, at least in the upper part of the school. It is increasingly rare for the major games to be compulsory in the sixth form and a range of sporting and fitness-related activities are available at this level. Independent schools already have an established reputation for their contribution to elite sport, but we are also are well placed to take a lead in the wider health and fitness agenda.

I believe that every child should have some experience of competitive sport, be that in a house match or representing the school in the Under 12 D team. There is something magical about a well-contested school derby or the intensity of a house match. These are occasions that build and shape a sense of community and of belonging. Sport builds character and it fosters friendships.

Ultimately, competitive sport is just one component of a good education. We must not forget that the most valuable thing that young people can get from their time at school is self-esteem. If a leaver can look at him or herself in the mirror and be happy with the person looking back, then a school has succeeded in one of its most important tasks. This is done by encouraging a young person to find at least one activity in which he can excel - something on which he hang his hat. It does not matter whether that be Rugby or Lacrosse, playing the violin, completing expeditions, doing the lighting for school plays, visiting a home for the elderly each week, or whatever. It is vital that schools provide positive experiences for young people throughout their formative years. I believe that competitive school sport continues to do this and has been the "backbone of Independent Schools" for good reason.


  1. Dear Mr Steed, interesting reading!
    I agree that children should experience some kind of competitive sport and it's great to see kids full of enthusiasm and committed to their chosen sport. However, I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that in some cases, this 'competitive' enthusiasm maybe short lived. For example, my son's chosen sport is Rugby which, as you know, is currently only played for one term throughout the school year - no sooner are the boys fired up, fit and often even winning, the term is over and it's time to change over to! As he isn't a contender for either the A or B football team and you currently don't offer any C team fixtures, my son therefore decides to waste his Saturday mornings (during the football playing term) 'in his 'stinky pit'.

    Wouldn't it be great for him, and boys like him, to have the chance to continue their chosen sport into the following term, not only will it further develop their skills, which undoubtably puts them in a stronger position to win their matches, it also keeps them off the streets, or in my son's case, out of his 'smelly pit'.
    Thanks for the opportunity of adding my comments to your post.
    Fran Martin
    (Ed's mum - Greenes)

  2. I do support competitive sport & despair of the “no losers or winners” attitude that has dominated many schools approach to sport. Equally I abhor the “winning at all costs” attitude which dominates a lot of sport – particularly team sport. And that’s the crux of the matter - ATTITUDE! Having a “no losers or winners” approach avoids the need to teach children to the correct attitude - it’s much more difficult to teach children how to challenge themselves, how to encourage & support team mates & how to win/lose gracefully. Equally the “winning at all costs” attitude does no favours for most children as the majority are not hugely talented & so are made to feel they make no contribution, sadly by both coaches & more talented “team mates” – the “your’re only making up the numbers” attitude.

    Schools (& sports clubs) need to regain the balance. As the partner of a dedicated local club rugby coach I’ve seen boys, & girls, grow in confidence & ability when these issues are addressed alongside the skills development – sadly I’ve also seen children with talent give up through lack of encouragement or develop into arrogant little **** because these issues weren’t handled. Maybe teachers/coaches need to spend a little more time on attitude & a little less on ability?