Bad at games

Earlier this week I blogged about all the positive things about getting older, but omitted one crucial benefit to being 42 – when you’re 42 no one ever ever makes you play hockey in the rain. Or netball. Or makes you run for miles across the frozen countryside until you think you might throw up. Or die.

And by ‘no one’ I mean PE teachers. TicTacGirl DID try and make me join in a football match a little while ago, but I was able to ignore her and loll around on the grass reading the Guardian, which is a sport I can REALLY throw my heart and soul into. She did try and make me feel bad about my refusal to join in this game later by writing a very cutting poem about it but it takes more that a few rhyming couplets to get me to play in goal.

There are a lot of wild claims made about team sports and the positive effects that they have on Character and Fitness. I don’t think that many of these claims really stand up to close scrutiny. For example, the idea that team games are the key to reducing obesity and increasing fitness. To encouraging young people and adults to be more active.

Hmmm. Really? If anything, the way PE was taught at school was – to a very great extent – responsible for a very strong aversion to exercise that lasted for many many years after school had ended.

I hated school PE. Truly loathed it. And I know I am not alone. I was once on a Mumsnet conversation thread, started by a woman who confessed to writing her daughter a note excusing her from Cross Country because of a non-existent injury. Far from receiving the kind of vicious kicking she expected for this act of dishonesty, and for which Mumsnet is famed, countless people weighed in with their support, saying the same thing: school PE was hideous, I had a miserable time and learned that sport isn’t for me.

The key here, I think, is the conflation of team sport, or at least competitive sport, and exercise. If you aren’t talented on the sports field then, to be honest, PE can be a soul-destroying experience. The narrative of being picked last for games – it’s a cliché because it’s true. The horror of that shivers down the decades.

And it isn’t just about the wildly untalented and unfit, and what a miserable time they have. Although they do. I was, in fact, not without a little aptitude in some areas. I was a very strong swimmer for example. I used to love swimming, improving my strength and endurance. I loved swimming for long distances. And so I was looking forward to going to a secondary school with a swimming pool on site – pretty unusual back then.

But all my joy in this was pretty much kicked out of me by the insistence on RACING. No more swimming for fitness and fun – we must race to WIN. And, for most of the hour, sit shivering on the side and watching the long minutes tick by while other people raced each other.

If the purpose of forcing students to do PE is to teach them about how to stay fit, then why is the emphasis so much on winning, on the talented? If it’s really about fitness and participation for all,  then why aren’t there zumba classes, yoga, pilates, Step? Maybe, I don’t know, country dancing, which certainly can build up a sweat?

So what about the notion that all children MUST play team games otherwise they will never learn to be competitive, never get that crucial killer instinct and will never succeed in life?

Well, I am not sure about that one either. Competitive sport is only a viable option for learning the killer instinct if you win, or at least have winning within your sights at some point. If you are untalented, or playing with people more talented than you, the killer instinct can start to wear a little thin after a while.

For some reason, allowing children to suffer humiliating defeat at the hands of the more talented is only considered desirable in PE. Well, if it’s character building to have a little competitiveness in school, then why confine this to sports’ day? Why don’t we have Spelling Day, when all the students have to spell increasingly difficult words in elimination rounds until only the best spellers are left and get a big medal. This obviously has to be in public, perhaps broadcast on big screens so we can celebrate spelling success, and of course have a good hard look at the less talented and their fumbling, humiliating attempts to spell ‘menagerie’.

Then the same for Calculus. Or a bit of descriptive writing? Yeah, let’s see your smudged attempts at algebra, in public. In front of the class, in front of the school. Then have a little tootle of Frere Jacques on your recorder, next to this girl with Grade 7 violin.

It will be Good For You.

In our culture, in our schools, if you’re good at sport we all get to hear about it. Celebrating talent and team work – nothing wrong with that. But if you are a very talented writer, or scientist, or musician, or artist – I would like the opportunity to give you a big round of applause too. And let you have your day of glory, with the medal round your neck, and all of the other people who AREN’T as good as you, and never will be, clapping you.

You think that person, that excellent mathematician for example, won’t want the glory? The applause? S/he’ll be embarrassed by being the best? That’s a cultural assumption you’re making. If that’s the case – if the culture says we can applaud the best footballer and not the best at sums – then it’s the culture needs changing. Both require a combination of talent and hard work; they’re equivalent, so let’s celebrate them in an equivalent way.

And actually, when the circumstances are right, people who are good at things DO like to have them recognised. They are, even the geeky ones, spurred on by a little edgy competition.

This week I took part in a Poetry Slam at school, when some amazingly talented writers read out their work to an audience of other poets and others there just to listen. The atmosphere in that room was incredible – an amazing combination of competitive and supportive. They cared about the words, but they cared about the scores, too. It inspired a level of creativity that was breathtaking, magical.

So, how about we supplement the annual sports day with an annual Poetry Slam? I’ll make the medals and bring the half time oranges. TicTacGirl, you can read that poem about me being lazy and useless at football.

And no, put away that note from your mother. You all have to come, and watch, and applaud.

And, if it rains, at least we can all stay indoors.

About number6

I am not a number, I am a free woman. More or less.
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17 Responses to Bad at games

  1. Richard says:

    I was the best at maths in our school so don’t you forget it :-)

    Agree though. Competitive sports at school did rather beat all the fun out of it. I only really liked Rugby (for getting very muddy) and track and field (which avoided all that tedious teamwork rubbish).

    • number6 says:

      Ha, we’ll never know now, will we? I mean, if only we had had a COMPETITION then we could have known for sure.
      I would happily give you a round of applause though for your Maths wizardry, and a warm hand for your coding. (Sorry.)

      • Richard says:

        Mock exam percentage points missus ;-) OK technically a single point result may not be statistically significant…

        • number6 says:

          So, let me get this straight… Richard ‘I don’t remember anything from school’ remembers the PRECISE % marks from a mark exam we took in , what, 1985?? It’s impressive, and gives the lie to the idea that only team sports can make you competitive :-D
          What WERE those scores on the doors….

          • Richard says:

            I can’t recall if it was one of the pure or applied papers but I do recall getting a 98% and topping the class on one of them. I also recall once pointing out an error in Mrs Deeth’s workings for a particular question…

            My moments of triumph were few enough to remember. My moments of shame less so

  2. Ruth says:

    You’ve brought it all back … the utter hideousness of being bad at PE throughout 12 years at school. I did, however, manage to get over it by my early 20s, and actually enjoyed playing netball for a while (though I was still fairly bad at it but it didn’t seem to matter so much by then). And, yes, I wrote my stepson out of PE for a whole half term earlier this year, based on a relatively minor injury, because I know he hates PE as much as I ever did.

    On the plus side, I was in the unusual position of being able to be in a school maths team. Yes, we really did have a maths team, and we were really good – we won the whole competition (which was basically all the posh schools in London and Home Counties) when I was in year 12 (or lower sixth as we called it back then, of course). And a bus load from the school came to watch us in the final and we got in the local paper. And we got silver cups. One each. Quite small, but my very own cup. The only one I ever had. That did make up for the PE, just a little bit.

  3. TicTacGirl says:

    In my defense I was trying to help you get down with the kids and a bit of tomffoolery and self mockery never goes amiss as far as that’s concerned. Personally though I’m quite a fan of PE, and the football game to which you refer was very good fun, even though we were let down by those of you on the sidelines, head stuck in the G2.

    • number6 says:

      Ha, well I would definitely not describe the prospect of playing football with a massive crowd of young people a quarter of a century younger than me as ‘very good fun’. I would call it ‘a recipe for humiliation and almost certain injury’ which hasn’t been my idea of ‘very good fun’ for a while. If you want tomfoolery, how about a rowdy game of Scrabble? (That DOES make me competitive.) Or perhaps Speed Origami?

      • Richard says:

        Is the double f in tomffoolery one of those unnecessary spellings that posh people use? Like Fforde or Fforbes?

        Speed Origami I can get, but how one would play a rowdy game of scrabble? Rude word scrabble however where you get double points for swears is always good ffun :-)

  4. number6 says:

    Oh and if you use the expression ‘down with the kids’ EVER again I promise I will steal your TicTacs and hide them where you’ll never find them.

  5. Willowy Soprano says:

    In my sixth form, my school realised that no-one was interested in PE so they allowed us to (1) go swimming in the local pool with flumes and all sorts (a bit like Coral Reef); (2) ballroom dancing (in the day before Strictly!), although this is quite amusing in an all girls school!; and (3) (my favourite by far) self-defence. This one was a very skill to learn and I Kicked-Arse!!!

    I like the idea of competitive sport but why not keep this as extra curricular for those who want to take part and have self -defence, yoga, salsa dancing etc as the compulsory exercise?

    Ps I’m trying to picture you in your gym clothes playing football and am now worried I’ll have nightmares with that image tonight!!

  6. number6 says:

    Hmmm, not quite as disturbing as the idea of you Kicking Arse?
    Also, surely you should have been in Remedial Running :-D

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