Promote fun over winning

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Anne Pirrie is a reader in education at the University of Paisley

Gordon Brown has said that "we need to put school sport back where it belongs, playing a central role in the school day... we need to make taking part in sport a national characteristic".

He went on to say that "whatever their natural ability and whatever their age, sport and activity can make our children healthier, raise self-confidence and self-esteem. It develops teamwork, discipline and a sense of fair play, values that will stand young people in good stead in the years to come".

Targets are not for the high-jump. Vaulting ambition is still very much in the frame. It is surely no coincidence that the 2012 Olympics are nearly always mentioned in any public debate about the fact that three in 10 boys and four in 10 girls are not meeting recommended physical activity levels, or about levels of obesity in children, or the paucity of medal-winners in international competitions.

Furthermore, my reading of the small print after the short sprints suggests that some senior sports administrators have yet to pay heed to Mr Brown's pointed reference to the importance of participation in sport, whatever a child's natural ability. The origins of this reluctance lie in an erroneous and counter-productive association between competitive sport and elitism. The fact is that competitive sport particularly at school and club level need not be elitist.

I was reminded of that when I attended the 20th Scottish Schools' Athletics Association primary schools cross-country championships in Kirkcaldy in April. More than 1,500 P6-7 pupils from about 100 schools took part. There were eight races in all, eight torrents of 10 and 11-year-olds jump-started by a man wearing a red blazer and a white cap and holding a pistol.

Then I read the small print. The information put out by the SSAA on the event states that "each school may enter one team per race... five runners may be nominated for each team, all of whom may run on the day, but only the highest placed three runners will count for team awards. If a school does not have enough competent runners to enter a team, one or two individual athletes may be entered... Only pupils who have experience of running the champion-ship distance (1,600m) should be considered for entry".

This begs a number of questions. What is a "competent" runner? Why can schools only enter one team per race? Why do only the highest placed count for a team award? Why is experience of running the "championship distance" a pre requisite for entry?

My point is this: learning to be an also-ran is an important lesson in life, and it can be good fun too. We do not all have to be "ambitious" and "excellent" at everything that we do. We just need to do it.

Furthermore, it is not entirely self-evident that focusing only on "competent" athletes pays dividends, even in terms of future sporting glory.

Take the example of football. The FA Premiership talent scout Alphie Apps reflects on a coaching session for 15 and 16-year olds that he was watching at PSV Eindhoven: "The kids at PSV were having fun."

Winning seems to be more important than having fun in this country. As long as this is the case, it is unlikely that kids will overcome their physical illiteracy and develop the confidence, ability, fluency and decision-making capacity that will make the game of life that little bit easier.

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