Kids are getting more competitive at school sport? Good.

Posted on April 4, 2013

There has been a lot of hand-wringing today about new polling by the Chance to Shine cricket charity which found that children are increasingly competitive when it comes to sport.

The charity itself speaks critically of a “pressure cooker” environment in school sport and a negative-sounding “win at all costs” culture.

But why is anyone worried? The return in recent years to competitive sport in school – and the corresponding move away from “prizes for all” policies – is without doubt a good thing. Sport is meant to be competitive, and for children in particular it is a useful channel for other pressures. When schools shied away from exposing children to what the educational establishment considered to be the trauma of losing they were betraying their pupils instead of preparing them for life.

Learning to work together as a team in order to succeed, learning that hard work and commitment comes with rewards and learning  that sometimes in life you will face defeat and disappointment are essential processes to ready any child for the grown up world.

Consider the famous scenes played out on the X-Factor, Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and so on over the last decade. Someone auditions. They are awful – perhaps even troublingly awful. The judges predictably say: “You are awful at singing/dancing/training dogs”. The candidate bursts into tears, stamps their feet and – occasionally – attempts to assault the judges. How could this be? My family all told me I was great? I know I’m brilliant and you don’t have any right to tell me otherwise just because you are an expert blessed with ears that work.

It’s a pathetic sight, to see someone who can’t accept and learn from failure wailing like a toddler. Sadly I suspect that many of the people in question had never been told “that isn’t good enough” or “try harder” in their lives. Simon Cowell and “Nasty” Nigel before him did our country a service in smashing the illusions that prizes for all had built up, but it should never have been allowed to evolve in our schools in the first place.

It is interesting that when the charity’s pollster asked children what the source of the pressure was, the options were only “me”, “other children”, “teachers”, “parents” or “coaches”. There was no option to acknowledge that it is in the nature of competitive sports that there should be a desire to win – ie that it is a stupid question. When 46.9% of respondents say “other children including team mates” exert pressure to win and 21.9% say the pressure comes from themselves, they are in fact acknowledging that the whole point of competitive sport is your team working together to succeed.

The results do find that large numbers of children have experienced cheating, which is more troubling. But if kids were perfect when they emerge from the womb, we wouldn’t need school at all – it is the job of teachers, coaches and parents to teach them that cheating is wrong. Even with the doom-laden headlines, the polling shows that over 90% of children already ┬árecognise that winning by cheating is unfair.

Again, the choice of possible answers to the questions on cheating is revealing. The pollster pre-supposes that cheating is due to pressure exerted on children by those around them and fails to even give them the option of identifying cheating by famous sports stars as a factor in how their peers choose to behave. How accurate are the results which supposedly prove the existence of a so-called “pressure cooker” in school sport if they don’t even acknowledge that kids watch Premiership Football?

Sadly it seems that someone designing this poll set out to tell a negative story about what is in truth a good thing. I for one am delighted that 9/10 children feel pressure to win at sport. That means 9/10 children are starting to learn how the world works in a safe environment, rather than being brought crashing down to earth as pampered, fantasist adults. They are being educated, rather than lied to – at last.



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Categories: Opinion, Politics


3 Responses

  1. Ben Everitt:

    Thank goodness competitive sport was banned when you were at school. At least you didn’t have the opportunity to embarass yourself both inside and outside the classroom. Remember that time you went skating in Streatham….terrifying.

    16.04.2013 11:20 Reply

  2. James Clark:

    Another aspect to this is that competitive sport provides a path to self-esteem for kids who might lack this in other areas of their life. If you come from a difficult background, sport becomes that way out. The “every child gets a prize” policy robs these children in two ways. Firstly if everyone else gets a prize, what’s the point of try? And if everyone gets a prize how can a child measure their own improvement in a meaningful way. The self-esteem a child experiences as they display improvement (as well as the genuine validation they receive from others) makes an enormous difference.

    16.04.2013 13:11 Reply

  3. Foursteps:

    Competitive pressure is a fact of life – for good or bad. What I do think is important for school sports is that they be used to develop kids and show them where they can make improvements – rather than as an opportunity to humiliate someone and lower their self-esteem. I agree that we should be realistic – some of the X factor contestants do not seem to be that “grounded” or able to objectively assess their own talents.

    17.04.2013 13:31 Reply

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