In a race, there’s a winner and lots of losers. As in job interviews and school entrance exams – as in life. So what, asks one very competitive mother, do schools hope to achieve by championing non-competitive sports?
I recently moved my son to a new school and I have been thrilled with the approach and attitude as well as the impact it’s having on his happiness and confidence. But, as with any new relationship – a new lover or a new scholastic environment – when the honeymoon period wanes you begin to notice the odd minor blemish or imperfection and, sometimes, a character flaw that takes you completely by surprise and leaves you confused. Can we really be so different and this still work? You ask.
Cut to Sports Day. The classes and year groups are mixed and coloured bibs assigned to each team. A series of games are laid out in the playground: all old-fashioned sports day activities: cone flipping, mini hockey, ball catching in a round. The teams are timed and points are scored by the head. So far, so normal.
Then comes the prize-giving. Without prizes but with biscuits and stickers and an overall team win. “Go on you purples” we all holler and cheer. Team purple punch the air and grin into the long lenses that are requisite for parents at such events. The losers clap generously and munch dejectedly on their Rich Tea biscuits. All entirely sporting.
Then to the field for the races. I catch up with my son on the way. “Go for it. Remember, there’s a hero’s lunchbox waiting for you at the end.” I say, giving his shoulder a squeeze that we both know means: ‘You can do it. You can win.’ He stops and turns to me with a mixture of pity and disdain. “Mummy, that is not the right attitude. It’s not about winning.” Now I don’t know what he’s being taught at this school but, I’m sorry, get real.
Yes you are there to enjoy the activity, the bonhomie and the atmosphere. But if it’s not about winning then why race at all? Why not just host a family picnic and play rounders. Oh no, hang on… Sport is by it’s very nature competitive. Sports give the kids who excel in physical activity a chance to shine, where they may not be able to in the classroom. Their moment of glory.
So the kids line up group by group and take their races. Some have their eyes on the prize, others are looking into the crowd to check for their parents and wave. Incidentally, these are not the children who cross the line first.
Then it’s the mum’s race. No elbows are employed, no hair is pulled, but there’s a bit of we’ll-laugh-about-it-later-over-a-glass-of-wine adrenalin and jostling to get off the marks. It gets a laugh from the crowd. The dads are even more fierce: backslapping on the start line and serious game faces as the whistle blows.
And finally it is the teacher’s race. They huddle on the start line. Odd. Instead of elbowing one another to get ahead, they all join hands and walk together across the sports field in an excruciating show of… what exactly? It isn’t wrong to win. It’s wrong to win and gloat, tease the losers. It’s ugly to show off. But non-competitive sport strikes me as both pointless and impossible.
But what message the kids are meant to get from this unilateral losing is not at all clear. According to my son, his teachers ‘perhaps just didn’t understand the rules’. There’s nothing more absurd and ironic than a small school in a fiercely middle-class, affluent area adopting the pretense that competitive spirit is somehow wrong and to be discouraged.
Because alongside decent manners and clean pants, a competitive edge is pretty much all a 7 year old boy needs to thrive in rural Hampshire.Anna Roth has written this article under a pseudonym for fear of being snubbed at the school gates. Her son did win his race. She came second, which in her eyes is losing.