I see the head of the Girls Day School Trust is keen to advocate competitive sport for all (link). She claims it builds confidence and resilience.
Physical activity for all is obviously right – being a couch potato isn’t good for any of us. As an adult, I’m pretty poor at taking physical exercise other than a bit of walking and riding my bike, but I do know I ought to, and I can definitely see it needs to be included in school. But that is uncontentious, I think. The issue is the emphasis on competitive sport.
I’m going to refer back to my own experience again here, where competitive sport was, by and large, what you did for physical exercise throughout most of school life. As a singularly clumsy and uncoordinated child with poor eyesight and the reaction time of a sloth, I was, inevitably, the last to be chosen for any team. I am not denying that being so appallingly bad at something taught me some valuable lessons (though I learnt equivalent ones in Art and Music) and probably developed my resilience, particularly in dealing with my team-mates’ fury when I did something spectacularly dumb yet again. I would, however, most strongly deny that it did anything at all for my confidence. Going out week after week to inadvertently let the side down in hockey or netball, or to fail to give anyone an adequate game of tennis (specimen performance – attempting to serve, and ending up chucking the racket over the net and dropping the ball on my head!) made me feel a rather miserable specimen of humanity. Additionally, since I equated “PE” with “hockey/netball/tennis/rounders”, which in turn equated to humiliation, I came to feel that I disliked physical exercise. It was something of a revelation when there was a policy change in the fifth form, and we tried other physical activities, to find I actually enjoyed and had some competence in some of them (since you ask – putting the shot, judo and weight machines & stationary cycle on a multigym).
Now I know I’m probably an extreme example, but I am not alone. Yes, trying and not succeeding, playing and losing etc is good for us. But if in my maths classroom a child continually tried and never succeeded, that would be pretty miserable for them – it wouldn’t develop their confidence, that’s for sure. If they were always obliged to compare themselves with others in the class, and know that they were the worst, that wouldn’t be too pleasant either – of course kids have some sort of an idea where they are in the pecking order, even if we teachers try to conceal it from them, but being forcibly confronted with that all the time is a very different matter.
I may be sounding like I’m entirely anti competitiveness. I’m not – I’m horrendously competitive about some things myself, for a start! But limit how much time is spent on competitive activities. Whilst I do have occasional activities involving competition when teaching maths, it would be ridiculous to have them every lesson or even every week. Why should it be different for physical activity? By all means run as many teams as you wish on an extracurricular basis, and include some team games in lessons, but not so many that you put off those who competitive sports do not suit from taking any physical exercise.
I note the article also claims that a very high proportion of female executives believe that sport made them more competitive in their careers. Is this an unalloyed good? Work isn’t a zero-sum game – cooperation often has benefits over competition – we shouldn’t be trying to outdo our workmates all the time. (For more on this, see this article).