It was Sports' Day at our primary school this week. In fact there are two - one for each key stage. The one for the younger children is labelled a Games Afternoon, presumably to distinguish it from what is held for the older ones. The emphasis seems to be on taking part rather than winning but stickers are given out for the first three places and points collected to see which house is best so there is an element of competition.
The fashion over recent years has been to make the day less about winning and more about fun. I can kind of understand the thinking. Not everyone can be good at sport. I never shone on the sports field. I wasn't bad : never the first to be picked for a side in those awful line ups but never the last either. I would cringe when it got down to the final two or three children. They would stand waiting, either pleading with their eyes not to be left until last or pulling at the hem of their top, eyes cast down, longing for the humiliation to be over.
I don't know if they still choose teams like that. I'm sure they don't at our primary school. However, it seems to me that in trying not to damage the self esteem of the youngsters in their care, the school is overlooking some major issues. Firstly, not everyone can shine in the classroom. Some of the children find their talent on the running track and yet, for fear of not upsetting the ones that are less able, they are reigned in. Can you imagine if they did that in lessons?
"I'm sorry Janie. I know you are the best story writer in the class but today you can only use words with less than two syllables that begin with a t."
It would be ludicrous wouldn't it? And yet that's exactly what happens to a talented athlete?
The second issue is the inconsistency that having a non-competitive Sports' Day brings with it. For the rest of the year, sport is actively encouraged and sporting success in football, cross country or swimming is encouraged. Photos of smiling team members are printed in the local press and the trophy cabinet takes pride of place in the reception area. But on Sports' Day, lights need to be kept firmly under bushels for fear of upsetting the less able. Confusing.
And of course what about the rest of their lives? Life is, whether we like it or not, one long competition. Learning to deal with that is an essential life skill. Of course, we can't all be good at everything and it is important that children learn that as early as possible. They also need to know how to be gracious in both victory and defeat if they are going to be successful. Our focus should be ensuring that their self confidence is strong enough for them to deal with life's ups and downs rather than shielding them from failure.
At the end of the day, Sports' Day should be fun for as many children as possible. If the range of activities is wide enough, then every child should have an opportunity to do well. The egg and spoon race, for example, tends to favour the quiet, thoughtful child who is able to focus on the task in hand and is not tempted to run. At the same time however, give those who are genuinely gifted races that really test them and let them compete amongst themselves.
I rarely won anything at Sports' Day and I think I've turned out OK. Kids have far more sense than we give them credit for.