There have been countless noble moments in sporting history. Moments when physical skill and endeavour have captured the hearts and minds of competitors and spectators alike, lifting them to a transcendent plane far above the mundane and the everyday, where beauty is found in movement and purpose. Where we witness true poetry in motion.
Then there’s me and my lot in our Friday afternoon activity slot at the leisure centre. Where we witness gibberish in neutral. Where there are actual attempts to capture people’s hearts, by trying to claw through the opponent’s rib cage (and that’s just when it’s table tennis). Where physical skill and endeavour are employed as a last result in favour of brute force, tantrums and a blatant disregard for the rules of the game. The students aren’t much better either.
My FE alternative-provision crew descend on Hall 4 and their sports tutor and support (myself sometimes included) perhaps foolhardily provide them with various clubs and projectiles in the name of attempting to enhance their skill in a chosen pursuit (which they will invariably try to persuade us should be football. Every single week). And then we get to it.
And it gets messy.
I’ve had 6ft 2in boys jump on my back whilst playing basketball, and I’ve had to try to throw them off like it’s a rodeo. I’ve seen kids go headfirst, smack-bang into goalposts while checking their phones on the run. We’ve had some near-misses with heat exhaustion as a few have refused to take off their coats after an hour of volleyball (“man is hot”). We’ve had bumps and bruises, some very choice language at times, and perhaps one of the most destructive sliding tackles I’ve ever seen from a girl who’d normally not say boo to a goose (it’s that table tennis again – gets the blood up).
And I wouldn’t change it for the world. Despite mercilessly taking the Michael out of the sports department for their tiny, tiny shorts, I honestly believe in the power of sport to bring people together, whether it’s at the highest level or whether it’s … well … us. In my particular role, relationship-building with young people is a complicated process, but sport offers us a shared language. And with students with backgrounds that can be very unlike our own, this shared experience is a significant one.
I’ve had a fair few breakthroughs on the court. (Doesn’t mean I’m ever letting them win at badminton, mind. I didn’t gain glory in my Year 11 doubles championship through pity.)
As well as emphasising the importance of sport as a vocational pathway, many colleges offer a number of extracurricular sporting activities. These are sometimes understaffed. I know we’re busy, but maybe, if you can, join in. You might see a different side of your students and they might see a different side of you. This education lark doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Maybe you can school them with a few moves. Just watch out for those sliding tackles.
Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the North of England