Sports Day Dilemma

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Should sports day be non-competitive?

Every year there will be pockets of outrage being expressed by some parents that their school sports day is a farce because it embraces a non-competitive and inclusive approach that waters down competition to spiritless team games that are soft round the edges.

They are incensed that there are no individual moments of glory for 1st, 2nd and 3rd  and offended by the “it’s about the taking part” mentality.

You will hear parents say that non-competitive sports day is “absolutely ridiculous”, “airy-fairy”, “utter piffle” and “unfair on children who don’t excel academically”.

The idea of competition in PE and especially a competitive sports day brings out very strong emotions both for and against.

What’s The Score?

The National Curriculum is very clear on competition when it comes to PE stating,

A high-quality physical education curriculum inspires all pupils to succeed and excel in competitive sport and other physically demanding activities. It should provide opportunities for pupils to become physically confident in a way which supports their health and fitness. Opportunities to compete in sport and other activities build character and help to embed values such as fairness and respect.

Engaging in competitive sports and activities seems to be the norm for most schools because it reflects the real-world of competitive sport.

Some argue that competition is divisive and can humiliate the less physically able. Many schools avoid the ‘leaderboard’ mentality and make teaching all about personal bests as this focuses on learning to get better rather than results compared to someone else.

Just Do Your Best

Personal bests help children focus on improving what they can do, not what someone else can do and having an achievable target builds resilience. Yet, all competitive athletes have PBs and compete against other keeping an eye on their performances, so striking a balance is important. It is quite possible to mix team games and individual competition within the same sports day rather than go for an either/or option.

But schools should stick to their starting guns and do what is right for them if they can justify their decisions.

On Your Marks

Personally, I believe that healthy competition is something a school’s sports day can easily accommodate if the school adopts a similar approach as part of its other school activities. Competing is something children enjoy when managed with care and insight.

There is nothing wrong with competition, it is only when it turns ugly and is allowed to be extreme. Personal bests doesn’t mean getting personal with other people to their detriment. Getting personal works best when it fosters confidence, cooperation and positivity.

Children need to experience winning and losing individually and as a team. If we don’t compete then we are missing the opportunity to foster ‘sporting’ behaviour. If children watch the speeches after a Wimbledon final between two top-class athletes, you will witness the very best in sporting behaviour dripping in fair and generous comments.

Be A Good Sport

Healthy competition means teaching children how to handle winning without gloating and boasting and also being gracious in defeat but never giving up and trying harder.

Five reasons why experiencing competition is good for children:
  1. Competition teaches children how to win and lose in a graceful way.
  2. Competing teaches children to always ‘have a go’ and try their hardest.
  3. Children learn how to cope with not always winning and to learn from their mistakes.
  4. Competition teaches children to play within a clear set of rules and is good for self-discipline.
  5. Competition is fun because it is unpredictable. A match, game or an event can be won or lost and this is exciting and great fun.

Sporting behaviour across the curriculum can and should be taught so that we can teach children how to offer professional responses to their own performances and those of others. No one likes a sore loser and no one like a big head. Teaching healthy sporting behaviours such as kindness, politeness, respect and playing fair supports children by keeping their emotions in check.

Sports day is your chance to show the school community that you value competition as a healthy part of school life and children are able to cope and manage winning and losing.

Those that say, “It’s the taking part that counts” are right but then so are those that say “It’s all about winning”. This isn’t a tug of war – we need both and these can be fuelled by respect and learning the etiquette of true professionals.

Parents themselves can learn a lot by adopting sporting behaviours too – children notice and it makes them perform better. Being polite and making extra efforts to compliment other children and communicate without letting emotions get in the way makes all the difference.

We need to embrace competition and teach children how to compete.

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. I am the teacher without a tongue. www.johndabell.com

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