Competition is part of life. As Darwin explained, it is the most competitive, aggressive and smartest who survive and thrive in the great evolutionary struggle. So while primitive humans threw spears at woolly mammoths in the hunt for food, by the time the ancient Greeks came along and were flinging discuses at Olympia, the urge to compete and the instinctive need to win was well and truly hot-wired into our brains.
It’s no surprise then that the criticism levelled by Judy Murray against the dying of competitive sports in schools was so widely welcomed. As the mother of Grand Slam champions Andy and Jamie, she argues convincingly it was their desire to win in the school sports field that turned her boys into world beaters.
But for every winner, there’s a loser and no matter how much you adhere to tough love, the howls and sobs of your child when they miss out on the mini medal are hard to endure.
Again Judy is on the money here when she insists the losing is just as important as the winning. Children need to know what it feels like to lose. Failure is crucial for the development of social skills needed to cope in the real world.
The logic is irrefutable. The “winner takes all” ethos breeds success through both winning and losing, whereas “just taking part” simply celebrates mediocrity and robs those with sporting potential of the opportunity to shine.
However, it is important to understand why many schools have gone down the non-competitive route in the first place. A large part of their thinking must be driven by the need to protect those less sporty pupils from playground taunts.
And for this, I can appreciate their impulse to make children who will never win the race or swim the fastest feel included.
Experiences of failure don’t always lead to eventual success, but instead make losing the norm, conditioning in young minds feelings of low self-esteem that will hang over them throughout life.
So perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. One radical solution is that presented by explorer Craig Mathieson as featured in the BBC’s Artic Academy. As founder of the Polar Academy, he takes secondary school children to the wilds of Greenland away from their “bubble-wrapped” lives and creates memories that stay with them.
But it’s not the top performing pupils or the disruptive ones that are his focus – it’s what he calls the “invisibles”. The children who lack confidence and pass through school almost unnoticed.
It’s fascinating and at times difficult viewing. Sure, not all schools will have a professional adventurer to hand, but it just proves what can be achieved by giving pupils who have fallen off the radar the extra attention they crave, while also avoiding the equality trap and stifling the prospects of more capable ones.
Judy is right, let the sporty children enjoy their big day, but at the same time, let’s make sure the “invisibles” get a chance to taste success in their own way too.
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