Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Lib Dem Says Loose and Quit

Liberal Democrat MP, Sandra Gidley in a caricature of her over-prescriptive, hater-of-excellence, all-must-be-mediocre, far-left self has called for an end to school sports days. She says schools fail to consider the feelings of children with little sporting ability... school sports days publicly humiliate children who finish last.

What a wonderful example of a socialist solution. Some fail, so no one can be allowed to succeed! All must be prevented from excellence so that no one's feelings will be hurt.

Apparently Gidley's feeble efforts on the school sports track left her so bitter that quitting was not enough. All must quit.

A right-of-centre solution focuses on individual freedom. I would insist on the right of children to refrain from public sports just as others choose to compete. I would also encourage participatory games that are more fun for the less competitive.

And perhaps more important for parents, teach children to enjoy participating in a variety of activities with different levels of proficiency. Win with grace, loose with dignity. Respect your opponents, give your best, develop character.

Coming last on sports day is not a humiliation. Sulking all the way to Parliament is.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the right honorable member of parliament hasn't realized that to be competitive there has to be more than one participant and as soon as there's more than one participant someone has to lose. It's the nature of the beast.

Ian said...

All must be prevented from excellence so that no one's feelings will be hurt.

Er, actually, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that even kids who excel in competitive activities suffer distinct negative effects as a result of the competition.

There is equally a lot to suggest that the best way to destroy someone's interest in the activity they are performing is to introduce elements of competition or reward.

Alfie Kohn has published extensively on these ideas, drawing on a vast array of peer-reviewed research. He's well worth investigating.

Ian said...

To bolster my argument, may I refer you to the opening line of Sajid Mahmood's piece in the Guardian?

"I think it was Kevin Keegan who said that the glow you get from winning is never as deep as the disappointment of defeat..."

Onyx Stone said...


Sajid Mahmood also said of facing the competitiveness of Gilchrist et al, "It's situations like that which help you grow and learn as a cricketer." Many would say competition and team endeavour provide opportunity to grow as a person.

To counter your arguement I would reference Brave New World by Huxley. (Which I'm most of the way through right now.) They built a utopia by removing the possibility of hurt. No passion, no loss, no need to struggle.

As I said, I'm all for the right to not compete in sports. I'm also in favour of a moderate approach, avoiding over-emphasis on serious competition for youngsters. These are a practical measures so that children can learn real mental and emotional skills of competition and teamwork that are useful for life without being overwhelmed.

True story: Last night I played football in a social team. We've played for the last three years - loads of fun.

Recently we've started winning much more than we lose. We've also been joined by a couple of new skillful players. They also argue with the ref, start fights with the opposition, and throw trantrums when they get fouled. (Grown men!)

Chances are, they act the same way at work and in their families.

My perception of the problem is that they never learned emotional skills of competing. They were unsuccessfully coached as boys, and are unreasonable today.

These human skills can be taught on the sports field. This is the traditional English sportmans ethic. Build character.

Jeremy Jacobs said...

"These human skills can be taught on the sports field. This is the traditional English sportmans ethic. Build character".

Couldn't have put it better myself. Sick and tired of these whinging liberals. If I had it my way, sport would feature on all schoolchildrens curriculum 3 times a week - minimum.

Ian said...

Onyx Stone, this is developing into a very thoughtful and enjoyable discussion, thank you for triggering it.

You said Many would say competition and team endeavour provide opportunity to grow as a person. I'm sure they would; what if, though, we substitute the word "cooperation" for "competition" in that statement? Whilst I wouldn't wish to put words into your mouth, would it be fair to say we are agreed that teamwork is a vital skill to have? I just wonder whether teaching this through cooperative rather than competitive activities might not have considerably more benefit.

The example of your new team-mates is fascinating, especially as you imply that they are more skilful players than others in the team. If I have understood you correctly, you're arguing that their coaching has concentrated on their technical rather than their emotional skills.

I would tend to agree that they are likely to behave in a similar manner in other areas of their lives, but I differ in that I think this is a direct consequence of their sporting prowess: they have learned (or been taught) that petulance and aggression give them a competitive edge, which brings them success. Those are the "emotional skills of competing" which actually get imbued, regardless of the Corinthian ideal.

Does competitive sport build character? Well, to come back to that Keegan quote, it seems winning means less than losing. Life offers plenty of knocks for us to take without us actively seeking them out. Eating less is no preparation for a trip to a famine-hit area. I don't believe competitive sport strengthens our ability to cope with difficulties, and at worst it could undermine it.

Ian said...

Oh, Jeremy, there I was remarking on the thoughtful nature of this discussion when our comments crossed.
What exactly is it that you object to in my, ahem, liberal whinge?

Onyx Stone said...

You suggest (I think) that competitive sport has fostered an ugly petulance in my new team-mates. I agree - in this case. But I think this is a problem within (though not exclusive to) English football.

As a rugby fan I suggest that the enormous focused aggression on the field is even more remarkable for the absence of off-the-ball aggression. Jonah Lomu's autobiography shows a young man on a very dangerous and violent path being rescued by team sport. He is now (in my view) a respectable and humble man. The sport of boxing has many similar success stories (Mike Tyson not withstanding...)

Both competition and cooperation are important. They are complementary. Though sometimes one is more necessary than the other.

I observe a feminising of our schools. (Bear with me here.) When I was at school, we had men and women teachers, the headteachers were men. My kid's school today has no male staff! From headteacher to dinner-lady, they are wonderful, caring, committed women. It is undoubtably the case that traditionally feminine skills and qualities are more highly valued at school. In subtle and explicit ways, the children are taught and rewarded in categories like cooperation and empathy. I am not saying this is bad or even 'girly'. It's good, but it is easier for the girls to do well. While the girls sit in a row and raise their hands to answer questions (being made of sugar and spice...), boys are bouncing off walls with pent-up energy of a different kind. They need their time in the playground where they can fight and compete and try their arm, I think. Apologies for the obvious generalisations.

Of course boys and girls benefit from learning cooperation, etc. Just as boys and girls benefit from learning to put their footdown, take a stand and be non-cooperative when occasion demands. I hesitate to use the terms masculine and feminine for these qualities I am talking about (because both men and women have them), but there is some association with gender, I think.

It's nice having a red-head, woman MP who wants children to "skip and dance". (Oh, the stereotypes are getting to me.) But some kids are not wired that way.

There is less and less room for traditionally masculine strengths such as valour, independence, competitiveness. I think this is making it harder for boys to find a place in this western culture.

Ian said...

Onyx Stone, I hope you and yours had a very happy Christmas. I'm afraid this is going to be a long response, but it's not all in disagreement.

I would agree that there are problems in football at all levels, and it would be interesting to understand the reasons why this sport should be particularly affected. If Jeremy should happen to return to this debate, it would be interesting to hear his perspective as a sports broadcaster on this.

I think rugby union tends to get an easier time, both because it generally gets less media attention than the round ball game, and because many sports journalists, at least at the bigger papers, played it themselves at school, and so there is more of a tribal loyalty that emphasises the good aspects of the sport. (Disclosure time: I also played at school, but I have no interest in it now).

In both sports,I have to wonder what happens to the children who have been told they could be successful if they apply themselves, but who don't in the end make the big-time. I can't help thinking that the closer they get, the more a failure to break through will damage them. By definition, for every Federer, there will be hundreds of Smiths. What happens to them?

It may surprise you to know that I share your concerns about the way schools are organised and run, and also about the lack of positive male role models in contemporary western culture. I don't know if we have space in this discussion to explore the subject in any great detail (I think it needs a thread of its own to do it any justice), and I risk simplifying enormously, but I am not sure that the answer is to return unquestioningly to older norms of masculine behaviour. I think particularly here we see the value of martial arts clubs, such as the boxing clubs you mention, in providing a "safe" space in which boys can explore their strength.

But the point I really wanted to respond to was your contention that there are times when competition is more appropriate than cooperation. Surely, the very time at which cooperation skills are most important is when there are apparently opposing goals. If a child has confidence - through experience - in their ability to negotiate their way to a mutually acceptable outcome, then they will try to do so in more difficult circumstances rather than simply falling back onto entrenched positions and fighting it out.

Liz said...

Just before Christmas our local schools said they were banning matches between schools because of the health and safety issues involved in getting the children to another school. Madness.