Time for a reality check in school sport

| March 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Greg Wilmot

In South Africa, I believe that one sporting event we do better than any other nation is school Derby Day clashes. From U9s to 1st teams and all the way down to E, F and G teams, ancient and bitter rivals vie to claim honour in the pool, on the court, the astroturf or the pitch.

Throngs of learners, parents and old boys and girls flock to these mega-events on Saturdays while school cheerleaders have spent the week practicing and choreographing war cries. Personally, I recall sleepless Friday nights tossing and turning thinking about tomorrow’s cricket match, playing through shot selection and fantasising about successes.

At a glance, this makes for a heady mix of blood, sweat, adrenalin and high hopes for young up-and-coming sportsmen and women who dream one day of making it big! However, scratch the surface a little and it soon becomes apparent that the current climate of school sport could be having a detrimental effect on children staying physically active throughout adulthood.

Scary stuff

The statistics on obesity and sedentary lifestyles in South Africa make for scary reading:

  • Nearly 50% of men and 60% of women aged 25 to 34 live physically inactive lives. 1
  • Three million South Africans currently suffer from diabetes, the majority of which is Type 2 diabetes. 2
  • More than five million people in South Africa are prediabetic. 3
  • Of the BRICS nations, the women and men of South Africa suffer the highest and second-highest rates of heart disease respectively.4
  • 29% of men and 56% of women are obese.5

29% of men and 56% of women are obese.5 Firstly, I am well aware that correlation between variables does not automatically imply causation. However, it is surely a contradiction that on the one hand, as a nation, we are ‘sports mad’ but on the other, the majority of our sports participation is from the comfort of the couch. What are we doing wrong? Why don’t our children stay physically active for life? Is there something wrong with the setting of sport and school derbies?

Setting poor examples

Recently, the sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, lambasted our national soccer team, Bafana Bafana, for a more than lacklustre performance at the African Nations Championship that resulted in their premature exit. He described the team as “a bunch of losers”.6 Indeed, we usually expect great things from ‘professional’ athletes but we also, wrongly, expect ‘professional’ performances from ‘talented’ school-level athletes.

We expect greatness from those carrying our own hopes, dreams and ambitions but don’t consider the potential impact of our expectations. A host of recent sport psychology research tells us that the ‘motivational climate’ we construct as parents, coaches and schools has a large role to play in determining our attitudes towards sport and exercise.7

Sport is a common language that transcends boundaries, barriers and backgrounds, but how we as South Africans talk about sport and sporting success or failure will contribute greatly to both adults’ and children’s attitudes and beliefs about sport. Several years ago, I had a close encounter with an emotionally over-invested hockey coach in a warm-up match between two U16 girls’ teams. Midway through the first half, one of the opposing team players made an attempt to stop a ball on her ‘weak’ left side instead of the ‘strong’ right side, which she would have easily achieved with some deft footwork.

Having now conceded possession, the visibly frustrated coach aggressively questioned the already dejected player from a few metres away: “Do you know why that happened? Do you know why? Because you were weak!” The statement left me chilled to the depths of my soul.

Coaches must communicate with caution

The messages we broadcast to young sportsmen and women from the sidelines will have no less of an impact than the messages they encounter from parents, teachers and peers in the home or school academic environment. A young athlete, on being told they were ‘weak’, may withdraw completely from all sporting contexts.

Surely, by now we know that it is poor practice for parents or teachers to amplify mistakes, faults and weaknesses in the home or classroom? Why then do we assume that it is permissible to call any athlete, professional or not, a “bunch of losers”? Unfortunately, there is the belief that communication and interaction within sport is fundamentally different and it is just part of the game.

As Newton stated in his Third Law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”8 On the hockey or rugby field on a Saturday, we don’t always consider the equal and opposite emotional reaction of children and adolescents to excessive pressure or poorly chosen words from parents, coaches, peers or the spectators at large.

They’re schoolchildren, not sports stars

Recent research done at schools in KwaZulu-Natal found that two-thirds of schoolboys believed it was acceptable to take steroids and that such performance enhancement didn’t constitute cheating.9 Quite simply, my view is that the taking of supplements and steroids is a literal ‘arms race’ to get bigger and stronger faster than a rival to be competitive on a stage where the pressure to win extends beyond a child’s psychological skills to cope with the demands. What alternative choice do they believe they have?

In the last decade in South African school sport, there has been an explosion of media coverage, particularly of rugby, cricket, netball and hockey. Online media, magazines and newspapers frequently report sports results and profile rising stars with a few assorted articles and a well-known sponsor.

I often describe this professionalisation of school sport to friends and colleagues as a “runaway freight train”. The facts that Derby Days and tournaments are getting bigger, sponsorships are increasing and that school sport is broadcast across various media are all factors we cannot easily rein in. However, there needs to be a crucial shift in developing schoolboys and girls that can cope with the demands they encounter at the sharp end of a Derby Day match, but who also understand that these contests are not life or death events!

A valuable departure point for schools is to review and realign the personal, institutional and social importance they attach to the successes of their team, school or child. It is not acceptable to project unrealistic hopes, wishes and fantasies of athletic success onto young sportsmen and women.

How you play the game

If winning is everything to a coach and mistakes are met with belittling comments, children will berate themselves and their peers who fail. The gap between the potential of an athlete and the expectation of a coach, parent or school ethos can quickly become a chasm of disappointment for young sportsmen and women. Coaches at every level of school sport need to become experts in communication and self-reflection. 

Greg Wilmot is a counsellor and sport psychologist at Health & Sport Inc., in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. This article first appeared in Grocott’s Mail on 7 February 2014, and appears here with the author’s kind permission.

1. See, for example: http://www.cookingfromtheheart.co.za/index.php/about-theshift-4-health-project/.
2. See, for example: http://www.health24.com/Medical/Diabetes/Aboutdiabetes/Diabetes-tsunami-hits-South-Africa-20130210.
3. Ibid.
4. See, for example: http://www.gems.gov.za/default.aspx?ZTWjuMz9O0sRVfJXEH4BRg==.
5. See, for example: http://www.mrc.ac.za/chronic/cdlchapter7.pdf.
6. Molobi, T. (2014) ‘Fikile Mbalula hits out at Bafana’s “bunch of losers”.’ Available at: http://www.citypress.co.za/sport/fikile-mbalula-hits-bafanasbunch-losers/.
7. See, for example: http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2003-01605-009.
8. See, for example: http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/u2l4a.cfm.
9. To learn more about such studies, see, for example: http://www.606v2.com/t39712-ped-s-rife-in-south-african-school-rugby and





Category: Autumn 2014

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