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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