• Caroline Matthews

What sport at school taught me

Physical education at school is intended for several very specific purposes. Most notably, to encourage exercise and the health, but also to develop additional skills such as teamwork, empathy and sharing. But what else can we take away from school sport, that only the benefit of hindsight might bring to the fore? As somebody who vehemently disliked PE, you might expect the advantages of this somewhat negative early relationship with sport to be minimal. But in fact, it is quite the opposite. What I have taken away from weekly PE lessons might differ somewhat from what the curriculum intended, but in my opinion it makes just as valid a case for sport in schools as some of the more direct advantages. Not least of these discoveries are; Success doesn’t require public acknowledgement While it is nice to receive acknowledgement for physical achievement in sport, sometimes the greatest compliment you can receive is self-recognition. It is a realision that stems from the memory of a school sports day win...that wasn’t quite a win, so to speak! When preparing for a running race in sports day, aged around 8, my mum advised me to ‘just run as fast as you can to the line.’ Following her instructions literally, I did just that, stopping just short of the ribbon and not realising that you actually have to run through it in order to win. By the time I got the gist of where I’d gone wrong, another little girl had over-taken me and cross the line that I’d been stood so triumphantly next to for a good 30 seconds already. And so, while I had lost on a technicality, I had actually won in terms of being first to the finishing post. From an adult perspective, I can see that this event was an important lesson in the importance of self-recognition, and the secondary importance of public or peer affirmation. Team playing isn’t for everyone Sport in schools is typically very much team orientated, with a high value placed on the ability to work with others in groups or pairings. This is all very well, but the message that being physically active is interactive may, however, be somewhat misjudged as a foundation for physical activity in adulthood . Personal fitness does, after all, rely on a certain degree of ‘going it alone’ (whether to the gym/running etc). From this stance, a child's nonchalanace for PE is not necessarily indicative of laziness, nor a high potential for a sedentary lifestyle in adulthood. If nothing else, the comparative provided by the school sports experience might be fundamental in helping a child realise a preference for a more independent approach to exercise, if such is the case. 

The importance of context There are times in school sport, when children come to learn that slow and steady (as opposed to speed and agility) is what wins the race. Take the egg and spoon race, and the bean bag race, for example, where children will come to learn the importance of adapting their approach to one less familiar in a sporting context. It’s a lesson that is applicable throughout life, that concentration and focus are equally important to success as some of the more outward physical manifestations of determination and desire to win. Simple pleasures When you win at sport in school, the tangible rewards are negligible. A sticker at least, or a plastic medal or trophy at best. Still, to the triumphant youngster, these awards are a big deal! Ultimately, the gifting of only small token rewards helps impart realistic expectations for the recompense of future successes, sporting and otherwise. It’s the little things, after all, and this is an ethos which is embedded at a young age with these small, simple tokens of success. The importance of a thick skin Being picked - or not being picked such as the case may be - for a sporting team will probably be a child’s first experience of popularity or rejection. In either case, children learn the importance of putting on a ‘polka face!’ in terms of preserving their street-cred. It’s a skill that is not only invaluable at school, but also growing up and in adulthood where there is certainly just as much currency to cool.