Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Pay attention! I might not be completely crap!

I’ve written before about the tragicomic history of my early sporting career. As you’ll know, I never really seemed to find the same wavelength as my peers during school sports – the ones who knew things about football and seemed to drift effortlessly between a rugby XV in winter and a cricket XI in summer. I watched this happen from a distance as I erratically swung an ancient cricket bat around on the tennis courts (considered a safe containment venue for fourth-stream games lessons), or happily churned up the ‘cabbage patch’ rugby pitch reserved for the derogatively-named ‘Recreational Rugby’ group. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) rugby, was actually a half-decent runner and even showed some promise as a swimmer, I happily resigned to being in this sub-class of sporting types and found other things to focus on.  As I’ve written before, I logically settled on considering myself ‘not sporty’.

It wasn’t until my peers started becoming teachers and witnessed the factors which influence this sort of thing, however, that I realised that my logical self-labelling may have had less to do with objective assessment of ability and more to do with snap decisions, ingrained habits and good old fashioned laziness. In the wake of London 2012 and build-up to Glasgow 2014, I am frequently seeing statements from numerous female athletes professing a desire to boost participation rates among girls in PE lessons, which is doubtless a worthy cause. But my own experience makes me feel I should champion the cause of greater nurturing and support for the potential of all students. Allow me to explain.

It is the first Wednesday of the new school year at an entirely fictional grammar school in the late 1990s. 121 new boys, drawn from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and primary schools, are assembled in their arbitrarily-assigned form groups on a rugby pitch, wearing brand new and slightly-too-big rugby shirts, shorts, socks, boots and gum shields still fresh from the previous night’s moulding. A large crowd of teachers – all male, all impossibly tall and broad compared to their 11 year old charges – are corralling boys into groups and starting simple drills laid out in squares; passing, dodging, running, you know the sort.

Within a few moments it is apparent who has played rugby before. Not long after that it is clear who is a natural sportsman and is adapting skills from football or other pursuits. It is also clear who is far, far out of their comfort zone. Perhaps 70 boys are caught between these two extremes.

The following Wednesday, 121 boys are assembled on the rugby pitch again but this time in groups according to ability, which had been published on a noticeboard earlier in the week. Group 1 have important training to do – it is only a few days until the first U12 clash of the season, against another entirely fictional grammar school. Luckily they have all played rugby before and are raring to go. Group 2 likewise, as there will be a B team and probably a C team fielded for the same fixture. Some of them have some learning to do, but are fast movers and eager to pick up new skills. Groups 3 and 4 are less frantic. Group 5 doesn’t have quite enough rugby balls to complete their basic drills, and their training is naturally progressing a little slower. Group 6 are not allowed to practise full contact yet.

Fast forward seven years and it is the end of the season. The first XV, a group of strapping 17 and 18-year-olds who have recently discovered shaving, are celebrating a handsome win. They reminisce about the day they met on the rugby pitch in their second week at school. As you might have guessed, all but one or two were assigned to Group 1. The head coach pats himself on the back for having so quickly and efficiently made his selections in the last millennium.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Is the coach a visionary, a genius who can pinpoint future potential from 121 children in a matter of minutes, and therefore make most efficient use of his valuable coaching capacity over the coming years? Or is he a man of tunnel vision, who focussed on a core of 20 or 30 boys for the best part of a decade, never thinking to source and nurture talent from a pool of the other hundred?

My point is not that the other hundred were ignored because of their lack of rugby prowess – many other sports were on offer. But it will not surprise you that those same 20 or 30 sporty boys tended to also feature in starting squads in cricket, basketball and athletics – with just a few notable exceptions added to the mix. They developed relationships with the coaches and PE teachers - it was only natural that they should be called on to represent their entirely fictional school in other sports.  I used to be baffled as to how people got into teams. When were decisions made? Who should I talk to if I wanted to be considered? Was it already too late to ever get an opportunity? I fictionally discovered that one of my fictional friends at this fictional school had an hour's one-to-one coaching with the head of games every Friday night, to perfect his technique at the hammer throw. I had no idea how this came about, but I felt with total conviction that there would be no way I could access anything similar. Was my haphazard performance at my first ever rugby lesson to blame?

A few years after that first Wednesday, the winter sports options list expanded. There was tennis, judo, hockey, golf and probably some others I've forgotten, most either lightly-supervised or run by external coaches. I stuck with rugby because I enjoyed it, and thought I was reasonably good at it - perhaps a mistake as I could have taken the opportunity of a blank slate. Our sporting trajectories were now firmly set, with many still wanting for any individual attention or support to develop their athletic potential, even if some of them genuinely still harboured a desire to succeed. In this category you would have found me: a slightly-above-average rugby player, perhaps decent runner, reasonably competent with a tennis racket and vaguely committed to tae kwon-do outside of school, but never a star at anything. And staying that way.

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about.
I don’t want this post to sound like a rant or a complaint. Far from it. In rereading it I sound petty and jealous, which if I ever was then I certainly am not now. What I am is filled with regret that I didn’t do something – anything – to attract a PE teacher’s attention, although now I think about it that would have been difficult. Having been set on the path of mediocrity at the age of 11, and finding myself in low-ranked lessons, my ‘coaches’ were spare members of staff whose role was little more than to crowd-control these groups –teachers with little or no training in sport science or coaching. How are children with little or no previous sporting experience supposed to realise their potential if they are given the least-talented staff, the duff old equipment and a dozen other signs that they are only participating in sport because it is a government requirement? A useful analogy would be to transpose this situation onto any other subject: imagine for instance that the most promising English students are coached for debating tournaments and short story competitions by the head of the department, an Oxbridge graduate with decades of experience, whilst those struggling with the subject are given battered copies of Harry Potter to read under the supervision of a spare art teacher. There would be uproar. And rightly so, as no-one could justify those extra-curricular activities for the few draining mainstream resources away from the many. The same is true, I put it, for competitive sports training during school hours.

Don't believe me? Here are some examples:

  • My ‘recreational rugby’ sessions were run and refereed by a man (whom I deeply respect as a teacher) who often made shocking decisions because he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the game. If a breakaway run didn’t suit his capacity to give chase and perhaps award a resultant try, he would call a knock-on or offside to bring the game back to where he was standing.
  • My sixth-form swimming sessions were entirely unsupervised – we were not improving our skills in the sport or targeting progress or even measuring activity, but rather splashing about as if visiting a pool on an idle Saturday afternoon.
  • Cross-country squads – to my recollection - were chosen by a simple race of all 120-odd boys at the start of the season. One year I finished 20th, a position that got me an invitation to a whole-school handicap race the following week. I had no training or advice or guidance of what to expect. I finished somewhere in the anonymous middle of the pack, having started the race eyeballs-out and faded quickly, not even knowing what distance it was or how long I should expect to be running for. That was it – I was clearly not a runner, and was forgotten about as I did not merit further attention. In retrospect, after five marathons of varying pedigree, an arduous ultra, a few decent PBs, a University vest and thousands of miles on my trainers otherwise, I dare to disagree. 

I understand that my school (any resemblance to this entirely fictional school is completely coincidental) is one of the better-respected of its kind for sports provision.

So yes, by all means, encourage girls to participate in PE lessons. But for goodness’ sake – don’t limit any child’s potential to succeed through laziness, favouritism or a resource or staff deficit. Think of all the talent being wasted, all the confidence-boosting, self-esteem raising opportunity that sporting success could offer.

All this campaign needs is a snappy name and a celebrity endorsement, but for now we'll stick with 'Pay attention! I might not be completely crap!' and, for what it's worth, the endorsement of my intense and faintly vitriolic regret.

Happy running


2013 to date: miles run - , races: 5 and a bit, parkruns: 1, miles biked: 47, metres swum: 1300