Beautiful game's double speak

Harvey Grout & Gareth Long

If I win, it's because I'm talented. If I lose, it's because the referee is an idiot. Harvey Grout and Gareth Long tackle attribution theory.


The academic theory side of PE can be a struggle for some pupils skilled at the practical. That's why they chose this subject, after all. But, PE teachers can deploy practical tasks to give them some pointers.

For example, pupils have to learn about attribution theory. This looks at the reasons we give for winning and losing, categorising the factors as internal (within your control, eg, your ability), external (out of your control, eg, luck, or the difficulty level), stable (factors not subject to change in the short-term, such as your ability) or unstable (factors subject to change, such as luck or the effort you put in). So, when we lose we might blame the referee (external), but when we win it's because we are good (internal).

A way to demonstrate this is with a "football challenge" game, requiring a football for each pupil, a microphone, a video camera and a prize. At first, don't tell your pupils the lesson objective. Explain that a prize will be awarded to the person who completes the most number of continuous keepie-ups, ie, keeping a football in the air for the longest time. Each pupil has two attempts, and all of it is filmed.

Line up the pupils in the order they finished and recreate a Match of the Day post-match interview. Start with the pupil who finished first - the one who came last - and ask why he or she thought that was. Then continue with all of the pupils, up to the winner (who kept the ball up longest).

Show the video of the football challenge, complete with each participant's reasoning. They are likely to follow the attribution model. Winners tend to provide internal, stable reasons for success while losers provide external, unstable reasons for the result.

A good extension task to this is to see how the professionals apply attribution theory. Watch a real Match of the Day with post-match interviews with the players and managers. What reasons do the managers give for the team's performance? Slot their reasons into the "attribution theory" model.

Harvey Grout and Gareth Long are lecturers on the PGCE PE degree course at Southampton University and University College, Plymouth, St Mark and St John respectively.

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Harvey Grout & Gareth Long

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