Reassessing success in school sport

| April 10, 2017 | 0 Comments

BY CONAN OLIVIER

At a time when school sport is receiving more and more attention (often for the wrong reasons) and with rugby matches being shown on television, scholars being caught using performance-enhancing drugs, and schoolboy ‘stars’ becoming teen idols,1 it’s time to assess what role sport should play in a scholar’s education.

Regardless of the age of the participants, research has shown that children primarily play sport to have fun.2 In independent schools, where holistic education is a commonly used phrase, we sometimes take our eyes off the ball (pun intended), focusing on results (winning a league, or increasing our national ranking) rather than processes. In the same way that academics should prepare a child for life, rather than to pass matric or to gain access to a tertiary education, school sport should encourage a love of physical activity, towards being active for life, where winning matches is a by-product.

Focus on the process

I contend that if coaches focus on preparation (fitness, ball skills, teamwork and strength) and everyone in the team is committed to these process goals, the result will (generally) take care of itself. In other words, I suggest goal-setting at the start of the season should not revolve around “We’re going to win the title” or “I’m going to make the provincial team”, but instead should focus on “We’re going to lower the number of missed tackles, from A to B” or “I’m going to increase my passing accuracy” or “improve my speed over 20 m, from X to Y”.

And, given that most independent schools subscribe to the Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) model,3 which is processbased, the emphasis should be on incremental goals. This won’t necessarily mean that you win all your matches, but there should be an improvement in results, unless teams are totally mismatched – in which case they shouldn’t be playing each other anyway. Further to this, results-based goals (trophies, ranking tables, etc.) imply using extrinsic motivation to achieve the end result, whereas sport psychologists (and, indeed, leading sportsmen and sportswomen) contend that intrinsic motivation is far more effective in maintaining motivation.4 Am I then advocating scrapping leagues?

Certainly not, but when league results become more important than scholars’ welfare, there is a problem. Arranging school sport into leagues should have as its main purposes ensuring that there is good organisation, that fixtures are formalised, and that schools which subscribe to a similar ethos and are of similar standard play against each other. Once it becomes more than that, we often see issues – such as the abuse of performance-enhancing substances and the poaching of players – coming into play.

School sport can enhance academics On the opposite end of the spectrum is the view held by some parents and teachers: that school sport is simply a means to rid scholars of excess energy. In a changing social environment, where the responsibility for raising and disciplining children is increasingly abdicated by parents in favour of the school, sport can play an important role in several spheres that are increasingly neglected, and seldom taught in the classroom:

• learning fine and gross motor skills

• crossing the midline, an important skill in reading and writing, and depth perception

• improving self-esteem

• improving mental health

• loyalty and teamwork.

In addition, several studies have revealed a positive correlation between exercise and academic performance.5 This is not to say that scholars who exercise are necessarily going to perform better academically. However, it does mean that sport is not a barrier to academic achievement. I leave you with a few points to ponder:

1. Are our coaching methods and objectives always in the best interests of our scholars?

2. Bearing in mind that not all scholars are naturally “sporty” and inclined towards team sports, should we not relook our physical education programmes?

3. Is there a need to revise curricula and timetables to include sport, given their myriad benefits for our scholars?

Conan Olivier is director of sport at a leading independent school. He has written this article in his private capacity.

References: 1. See, for example: http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/30/high-schoolconcussions- a-serious-issue-is-receiving-serious-attention/. 2. See, for example: http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/5596415?q&sort= holdings+desc&_=1484636259153&versionId=41249291. 3. See, for example: http://www.saschoolsports.co.za/national/long-term-athleticdevelopment. html. 4. See, for example: http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/motivation-in-sportspsychology- 35892. 5. See, for example: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/ 00336297.2016.1150864?src=recsys&journalCode=uqst20. and http://heapro.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/03/11/heapro.dau010.full.

Category: Autumn 2017

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