The value of sport… and the values of it.

A couple of years ago, just before the London 2012 Paralympics, a former British soldier who had lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan was speaking of his experiences. He said: “I had survived, but I thought my life was over. Until they introduced me to sport. That changed the way I saw myself… and thought about myself. Now I’ll be competing in the Paralympic Games in front of millions of people. How amazing is that?”

There is no doubt the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games had a huge impact on the British national mood, if not the way we view the role of sport in our society. (It’s a pity the World Cup never quite does the same… but that’s another story…)

Now at the forefront of political debate, at least for the moment, are questions of sport – how well it’s taught at state schools versus private ones, how much we should protect school playing fields, do we make team games compulsory in the school curriculum and should teachers should play a greater role in promoting competitive sport?

Participating in sport is a great way to improve health, well-being and self-esteem. It can also help children acquire some important values such as learning fairness, justice and sportsmanship – how to accept loss gracefully and success with magnanimity.

When children participate, particularly in team sport, they can therefore learn values that will remain important throughout their lives.  Being part of a team can give kids a great sense of belonging and can challenge them to dedicate themselves to a goal, commit themselves to hard work and play not just ‘for themselves’ but ‘for the team’.  Sport can create a strong sense of camaraderie and even community. Nicola Adams, the first woman Olympic boxing champion said she wanted to bring home a medal so that her “mum, the people of Leeds and Great Britain could be proud” of her.

There’s even evidence that participation in sport improves children’s educational attainment – though to be honest, I’m often sceptical about “evidence” in education…  Apparently, children who take part in regular physical activity are more likely to grasp and retain new ideas and improve their problem solving skills along with their ability to interpret and react quickly to all kinds of situations.

So if only half of this is true, shouldn’t we as teachers not only encourage but insist that children take part in regular sport? And not just sport, but competitive, team sport?

But what about those of us who aren’t athletic and don’t enjoy competition?

Competitive sport particularly the “win at all costs” attitude that is so pervasive, can put a great deal of unpleasant pressure on children. Regular failure can lead to low self-esteem among children who are not as physically fit or as naturally athletic as their peers.  Low self-esteem early on in life can have a deeply damaging impact on an individual into adulthood.

Some of my friends actually hate sport and can’t even bear to watch it on tv. They blame their teachers and their school experience of it for that. What’s more, some girls, and boys, simply have no interest in sport – their passions, just as intense, might be musical, artistic or technical. And who would blame them when as a society, we have celebrated the so-called role model status of the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney far more than we have the likes of Rebecca Adlington, Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis.

So there is a huge dilemma for teachers encouraging children to take part in sport.  Physical fitness and activity is important for children’s health and development. But it’s not just the value of sport that’s important for children – it’s the values of sport, particularly the values of team and competitive sport that cannot be ignored. They can have a huge potential impact – both positively and negatively – on the way children learn to see themselves and the way we see ourselves as a society.

Nearly twenty years ago when I first became a head teacher, I was challenged by an application to admit a very sickly looking ‘delicate’ eight-year old boy with severe physical disabilities. The school buildings weren’t designed to accommodate his needs and few of us saw beyond his physical disabilities to the potential of the boy himself. But within weeks, the kids in the playground had discovered that while he couldn’t yet run, he could bowl. He quickly became a favourite to be one of the first to be picked for playground cricket. Soon after, the kids realised that he could bat too. They eagerly volunteered to ‘run’ for him. Within twelve months, that boy was indistinguishable from any other child in the playground – bowling, batting, running, jumping in playground football matches like the best of them. I realised he had ‘arrived’ when he was sent to me one day for punishment after pushing someone over in the playground!

That is my story for the value of sport.  And for the values of it.

What’s yours?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

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