Monday, 4 May 2009

A sporting chance

My seven-year-old daughter is a bookish little bluestocking in a society that loves sport. Like her mother, M just doesn't have much ability for things sporty.

M first discovered her lack of sporting ability when she was five and had just started school. She came last in her first school race and was dismayed. She was reading a book about the nervous system at the time, and she described the race thus: 'I made my brain tell my legs to go faster - but my legs wouldn't listen!'.

Time hasn't improved matters much. M continues to come last and continues to get sad. And because the school cross country is next week, every school day means another run, and another experience of failure. I feel so sad for her. I was pretty useless at cross country myself - but I always took comfort in the fact I wasn't worst of all. To my relief, that ignominy belonged to another geeky kid.

M and I have discussed this a few times. We talk about how people have different talents, and cross country gives those kids who are good runners a chance to show their abilities. M is fine with other people winning. She just doesn't want to be last. And sadly, the rather public embarrassment of always being last has taken any possible enjoyment out of running for her.

I don't have much right to feel sorry for myself here. My daughter does well academically: some kids spend every day of their school lives struggling and discouraged. It's those kids, and their parents, that I really feel for.

But what I wonder is this: is it possible to recognise and encourage kids who are good at sport without making those who aren't so good feel stink?

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'd say the best way to encourage the sporty kids without making the non-sporty kids feel bad is to not make sport compulsory.

Violet said...

Forget about sportiness - your daughter is a genius.

hungrymama said...

I was one of those kids and I still shy away from almost every form of physical activity because of it. I think we have to decide as a community whether we want sport to be something that is reserved only for the talented elite or if keeping the whole population fit and active should be more of a priority. If it's the latter we need to take a LOT of the competition out of school physical education and get our kids moving for the joy of it instead.

anna c said...
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anna c said...

Another of those kids. I think lessening the competition element is part of it - I remember being very annoyed that all the cross country times were put up on the noticeboards, but we were not even allowed to tell our classmates our academic results.

But it's also about the type of activity - it's very telling that not many adults do participate in competitive team sports. I had the added complication of undiagnosed dyspraxia and at some points medical issues which made the type of physical activity compulsory at school particularly difficult, which led to it making me miserable and eventually just not turning up, but even aside from that, running and ball catching/kicking/hitting team sports just aren't for everyone. It's only now, approaching a decade after I last did school sports, that I'm realising that I actually enjoy exercise when it's the right sort in the right quantities - not without becoming really unfit in the meantime though.

anna c said...

Oh, and keeping weighing out of school sports would really help too...

hendo said...

God, I was that kid. I feel for M. You'd be surprised how many people just don't get it. I described it once as 'any activity which involves physical aggression or even confidence - I just deal with it by opting out completely - the way I did at school'. One of my friends, who was also that kid, gets it, but other people don't. You just don't get over constantly getting picked last, or knowing the feeling of relief because your best friend is captain and you know they'll choose you willingly, even if you suck at bloody chasing a ball around a field.

There should be less competition and more variety (I have always been a good dancer but this was not really encouraged at school). It always bugged me that you could be shit at maths, but nobody made you stand up in front of the class and stumble over your maths problems. But when you run last in the race every time, *everyone* sees!

Trouble said...

I was the unsporty kid too, but there was always a couple of others worse off. What I think would have helped is decent coaching. Just as kids who have trouble with maths and reading often need extra tuition, I think kids who have trouble with physical skills could benefit from extra help. Coaching shouldn't just be for the sportingly gifted. Good teachers can help kids of all abilities - I don't think I ever had a PE teacher that fit that criteria.

Deborah said...

I'm another unsporty person, but I was left out of sports teams, even though I wanted to play. so no netball for me at primary school because then the other girls in the playing teams might have had to deal with the experience of losing.

And my schools celebrated sporting success, but never any other type of success. So the fact that I competed very successfully at the local speech and drama competitions (yes, I know, very nerdy), was never once mentioned at my school, but other girls' sporting successes were always mentioned at assembly, even if they weren't playing in school teams. No no no - I'm not bitter at all. In all seriousness, I have long since gotten over it.

Our girls aren't all that sporty either, but we make a joke of it in our house. So when our Miss Ten came last in her race at the school sports day, I cheered her on and congratulated her, and told her I was proud of her. She was fine with that.

Cactus Kate said...

Explain to her that the kid who wins the cross country will not go on to become an Olympic athlete, will not make one cent from running and therefore they can beat her all she likes as she will have a better degree, job and career prospects than the winner of a bloody cross country.

If that doesn't work then write her a note excusing her from a silly running race.

While it is important to stay fit and healthy there's no point in engaging students who don't wish to, in a race over smelly dirty muddy grass to see who can get to the finish line first.

Random lurker said...

This is a poorly thought out suggestion but I'll throw it in there anyway. Include a judging component to the standard win/lose events so that kids who appear to put the effort in get to win as well. With this approach you still have losers (which I think is important) but it need not necessarily be the kid that finishes last. I'm assuming that kids are rubbish enough actors to not be able to fool the judges. This might be difficult to pull off in practice, or not, I don't know - it hasn't been thought out.

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That said, I'd like to suggest cricket as a path to explore. There's room for lazy fat people (Inzamam-ul-Haq has been known to catch forty winks during the game), Brainy academic people (Monty Panesar has a post-grad in Mathematics), tall people, short people, fast people, slow people, muscley people, skinny people, people with elbow deformities, loud arrogant people, quiet humble people, conservative people, flamboyant people, musicians, lawyers, soldiers.. you get the idea.

Anna said...

Really interesting comments ... I think it is important both to encourage kids who are good at sport and to give everyone a go at learning skills that will be enjoyable and beneficial to their health.

But the difference between sport and other bits of the curriculum seems to be that, in the other bits, we know that pitting kids in a competition with one another doesn't produce good learning.

At my daughter's previous school, the kids periodically did tests to measure their recall of basic 'maths facts'. Instead of comparing themselves with each other, they were encouraged to look at their own test results over time to see how they were progressing - every kid could take a bit of pride in their achievement. Is something similar possible with sport?

It doesn't help matters that PE teachers tend to be sports enthusiasts rather than teachers - and don't take the time mentoring kids with their basic skills as would happen in other parts of the curriculum.

And yes, Random Lurker, cricket is the sport of the gods.

Anonymous said...

I too was always the last to arrive in the cross country or whatever sporting event it was. I was bored more then anything and confused as to why running the fastest seemed to matter.

Most of my teachers were pretty unencouraging about my lack of sporting prowess. With the exception of my standard four teacher who once told the whole class not to be judgemental over people who came last in the running races. He said those that come last are often those who have to put the most effort in. It was sound advice and something that made others in my class stop and think.

Amy V. said...

It was certainly my experience that PE teachers didn't bother to actually teach skills. They preferred to concentrate on shouting at the less-skilled and less-interested kids, and praising the sporty kids. And those of us with ongoing health problems were just 'lazy' and 'naughty'. Yes, that's really going to produce a society full of adults who love to exercise.....

A Nonny Moose said...

In hindsight, I see my problems with school sport came down to the teacher to student ratio. There are some kids just not "seen" by teachers, no matter how good the teacher is.

I was a lurker, who didn't have much time for sports. Then suddenly one year, I started to find stamina for cross country. I thought I'd give it one good push, and was immensley pleased to find myself coming 3rd across the line - the top 5 would go to the regionals. Unfortunately that year, I was having troubles with an alcoholic teacher, who was one of the judges. She physically pushed me to the back of the line as the kids bunched up to receive their coloured sticks (showing their placing). I was too young and naive to understand what she'd done, so didn't argue. I never Tried again.

We also didn't have good netball or gym coaches(while the A team got the best). The b-grades weren't looked after, and if you had to have obvious dexterity/potential if you want to try anything different (like gym or cricket). How are you supposed to know what you like unless you've given the chance to try? PE was focussed on fitness and health, not trying out different sports.

Something to be said about volunteering/coaches/parents getting involved. My parents were involved with the reading programme, but sports volunteers only wanted to be involved with The Winners.

Jack said...

Surely the key is to have PE do lots of different sports? As a kid I sucked at soccer and rugby; but then our school started a water polo team and I discovered that I was reasonably good at it. Ditto in secondary school: cross country wasn't good for me, but I proved reasonably tidy at badminton. And post school I discovered weights and cycling, which are nicely physical but don't depend on your ability to locate and kick/throw something.

I'm all in favour of kids having to do PE, provided that they're provided with a good range of possible activities. The problem comes when the activities are running, soccer, or netball.

Moz said...

One thing we did at intermediate was the "run around the south island" thing where the whole class got out and ran laps at lunch time. It meant that everyone's laps contributed to the class total so even the slow kids were helping. And they got encouraged, because it's easier to get a couple of slow kids to do a few laps each than do ten extra laps yourself :)

We also had the whole class out running every morning one year. I strongly suspect the "round the block" course was chosen so that slow kids could take a shortcut and fast kids could run the "long block" and we all got back into class within half an hour. That particular teacher was great for that sort of stuff. I got to do a swimming certificate that involved a long swim (a kilometre or so) even though I swim really slowly... it took more than an hour and some poor girl had to sit there recording lengths while I swam. But at least I got to do it and not get shunted because I swim slowly (I was also gangly and did not float).

For PE we had one teacher who taught us a bit of Judo and got pretty much everyone involved, and in our final year almost everyone got to play indoor cricket, albeit very badly in some cases. Which didn't matter coz it was more social than competitive and indoor cricket uses different skills (dodging rather than chasing).

(admittedly I'm fit and somewhat coordinated but not at all social, so my problems with sports were more being bullied than actually playing the sport)

Azlemed said...

sports at school were torture, the worst was at high school where our pe teacher was a netball coach, if you were crap you wee ignored, yet the year before we had a pe teacher who used to be in the army, she rocked, had us doing alsorts of stuff that wasnt based on playing netball.

I didnt find sport again till recently when I have done triathlons, I am overweight, short and slow but I am competing against the clock and me so i enjoy it, my wee 5 year old loves it as she can do it and its all about finishing for her.

Anonymous said...

Jack, some people just hate -all- sports. The idea that everybody is interested in some sport or other... well, that's the sort of attitude I'd expect from a sports fan.

Why can't we treat sports like any other hobby, such as chess or orienteering, rather than something that one needs to be involved in in order to be a fully realised person?

Anonymous said...

@Cactus Kate - I think writing a note to excuse a child from "a silly running race" is the worst thing a parent can do in this situation. It is giving the child the message that if there's something they don't like they can choose to opt out of it at any time. What if I followed this and said I will not attend meetings at work because I can't be bothered replying to it. I will not cook dinner because I don't like doing it (I'm the only adult in my household by the way - my children would starve.) We all have to do things we don't like as part of a society. It's not the race itself that's important - it's following the rules. Later on the rules might be no drinking and driving, no stealing, no murdering..... Writing a note to excuse kids from following the rules only causes problems later.

I think it is far more constructive to praise effort - they don't have to be the best at anything, they just have to make an honest effort.

My daughter is not especially sporty and she is certainly not academic. But she is constantly being praised at school for being helpful, generous, considerate... These are qualities that will stand her in good stead in the future.