My overriding memory of primary sports day is the ice cream stall – that, and the three-legged race that my best friend and I used to train for all year. We were undefeated champions for four years running, marking the peak of my sporting achievements to date.
Sports days as a teacher are fun but frenetic, involving lots of cheering, stomping around with clipboards and explaining to hopping seven-year-olds why the starting line is not an ideal place to request a trip to the toilet.
The sports day at the end of last term was different, though. It was my first as a parent which, it turns out, is far more relaxing. The primary is a large one and the field was teeming with excited small children and their doting spectators. It could have been chaos but, amazingly, it wasn’t. In small groups, the children moved seamlessly from one activity to the next whenever the whistle blew.
There were quite a lot of activities that left me at leisure to observe the foundation stage children in their natural habitat. There was the ubercompetitive child: alert and raring to go, watching the headteacher’s whistle-holding hand like a meerkat.
Then there was the more relaxed type. For these children, sports day was something that happened to other people. They seemed happy to be outside, picking daisies and practising the odd cartwheel. But every time a teacher gently suggested that they might take a break from waving at their parents to wriggle through a hoop or carry a beanbag a few metres, they simply looked baffled.
Another type I categorised as “effortlessly talented” – the ones who were naturally sporty but didn’t seem to notice. I saw them balance tennis balls, throw and catch, outrun their classmates and still not grasp that the first-place sticker meant they had to do it all again in the final.
We had just finished the final sprints when the headteacher invited spectators forward for a parents’ race. “I didn’t know they did that any more. It looks like you’re up,” I said to Mr Brighouse, who was already emptying out his pockets, the light of battle in his eyes.
“Come on,” said a friend and fellow mum jogging past me. “Be a good role model for the girls.” Before I had time to protest, I found myself on the starting line with an ever-increasing number of mums who were ditching their flip-flops and toddlers to compete. One mum, who had given birth just weeks previously, was still clutching a half-finished bottle of formula as we giggled and chatted.
The dads’ race was an entirely different beast: a wall of testosterone, which turned into a stampede that shook the ground.
My daughter later admitted that the parents’ race had been her favourite bit. “I’m very proud of you,” she told me. “Even though you didn’t win, you tried your best and that’s important.” They were precisely the same words I’d heard after my first ever sports day – 35 years and zero progress.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands