Children shun competition in school sport

Roger Titcombe's picture
This is the title of an article in the Independent of 22 April 2014:

"A study of 1,000 eight to sixteen year-olds and a similar number of parents reveals that mothers and fathers are often more anxious about the results of school games than their children are."

The report was based on an investigation by the MCC and 'Chance to Shine', the cricketing charity which promotes the game in state schools.

However, almost two out of three children would either be relieved or “not bothered” if the competitive element were taken out of school sport.

This has caused me to reflect on my own experience of out of school sport during my childhood on a huge south Birmingham council estate in the early 1960s.

As soon as the clocks went back, and throughout the summer, many weekday evenings were spent playing football on Daisy Farm Park about a mile away. Large numbers of boys from the estate would travel to the park on bicycles, with some of the older ones on small motor bikes and motor scooters. The age range was large and teams could contain any number of players. If there were enough of us we would play on the park practice pitch. This was full size but had a slope and no nets. The rest of the park was filled with flat pitches used every weekend for local league games. If there were fewer of us then a smaller pitch would be created with piles of clothes for goalposts. There were no touchlines. The main hazard was dog turds, a major blight on my childhood.

We hardly ever played cricket and only then in the street with a tennis ball.

Team selection first involved the identification of two 'captains', usually the two best footballers (by easy universal agreement). These then took it in turns to pick the players for their team. If there was an odd boy left at the end he would be allocated as an extra player to the team whose captain had 'second pick' at the start. This ensured well matched teams that would result in a good game. This was much more important than which team won or lost. Both teams would contain boys whose ages ranged from 11 to 16/17. Older boys were not overly rough with the younger ones, but it was always competitive in a muscular sense, despite no-one being too bothered about which team won. The games would often continue until it was too dark to see the ball.

The council estate girls never played football either on their own or with us boys.

When it came to spontaneous games of football we were never bothered about winning or losing, always valuing a 'good game' over which side won. The MCC survey suggests that nothing has changed.

However, when it came to support for professional football clubs it was a different matter entirely. Almost all of us were regular attenders at First Division matches from the age of about 13. I was often accompanied by a girl who lived in the block of flats opposite. She was as keen a fan as any of us boys. We made our way to matches on Birmingham Corporation buses without adults. Support was split between Birmingham City followed by Aston Villa then West Bromwich Albion. This largely reflected the distance from our south Birmingham estate to the stadiums. The entry price for a child to the Holte end at Villa Park was one shilling (5p). From there, transfer to the Trinity Road stand could be made for sixpence. We were passionately loyal to our teams and great (but temporary) ill feeling could be generated especially after local derby matches.

The contrast with school sport was considerable. In the local park we all played football together, grammar and secondary modern boys alike. We all loved playing football regardless of individual skill levels, which varied considerably. At school, the 11 plus selective schools all played Rugby Union and the secondary moderns all played football, so there was strict sporting apartheid. In games lessons at my school at the start of the Autumn Term the Rugby teacher head of PE would supervise the pupils' choice of sports for the Games Afternoons. Except that it was not a free choice. First, the teacher would read out the names of the boys he wanted for the Rugby squad. Then the remainder could choose between various other mildly sporting activities staffed by teachers of other subjects drafted into the timetable slot. No-one much cared what these groups did, except that playing football was strictly forbidden.

I played Rugby for my school team and football for the council estate team in the local junior Sunday league, when I could get a game, as I was not one of the best players. I was very clear where my true loyalties lay.

What light is shed on the issue of school sport by my personal experience? Probably not much, except that when it comes to pupils' true preferences and attititudes, little seems to have changed.

I am rather pleased about that.
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Oliver Williams's picture
Thu, 24/04/2014 - 11:47

I would just like to say that I enjoyed this autobiographical evocation of a particular time and place as much as Roger's fascinating accounts of the importance, as a core goal of schooling, of extending very child's cognitive abilities. Both are a pleasure to read.

Nigel Ford's picture
Fri, 25/04/2014 - 19:24

Didn't play cricket despite not living too far away from Edgbaston!

The shame.

Good thing so many Asians came over and set up home in Britain's 2nd biggest city to bring some sporting culture.

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