David Cameron has announced that competitive teams sports will be made compulsory for all primary school children. Apart from the fact that it allows the government to claim a “legacy” from the London Olympics, I can’t see what this move will achieve at all.
There is clearly a big problem in the UK with obesity and people lacking fitness, and this needs to be tackled, starting from an early age. However, forcing all children to do competitive teams sports is not the answer. It may be great for the ones who are good at sport, are always picked for the school team, score all the goals and are cheered by their classmates. But the ones who are not so capable at sport face misery and humiliation. The experience could well put them off physical activity for life, and yet they are the ones who need encouragement to take up exercise.
If the aim is to tackle obesity and declining fitness levels among the population, the answer should be to provide a wide range of physical activity in schools: both team and individual sports; both competitive activity and ones where people just try to reach personal goals to improve their fitness. Everyone should be allowed to keep fit in a way that suits them and perhaps that they even enjoy: after all, it’s important, as it’s their health at stake.
If the aim is to give children a taste of competition, then spare a thought for those who will either always be on the losing side, or who will be the last to be picked for a team and who will not contribute much to play, if only team sports are on offer. I don’t feel learning to be competitive is as important a goal as increasing fitness, but perhaps it could provide a useful lesson for later in life. If so, this can be achieved by other activities, not just team sports. If some children find they prefer to exercise on their own in the gym, why not allow them to learn to compete by playing chess, or in a quiz team, or through problem-solving exercises? If it’s only sport that is competitive in school, those who excel at academic subjects but struggle with physical coordination will be left feeling like losers, and no doubt will become social outcasts in their class. If classes or houses compete each year not only in sports but in a range of activities, it will teach pupils how everyone has different strengths, and they will come to value the classmate who is good at maths as much as the one who can run fast or kick a football.
And if the aim is to find more potential competitors for future Olympic Games, we need to be realistic. It’s true that there is an issue with such a high proportion of medallists having been privately-educated. Everyone should have a chance to discover they are good at a sport, not only the privileged few. However, I can’t see that making sport compulsory will enable this. If there is no money to improve facilities, it will still be those at expensive, fee-paying schools that have the most opportunities. I would also question how forcing children to play “sports such as football, hockey and netball” will help Great Britain to win medals in rowing or cycling. Perhaps the future Sir Chris Hoys will be put off physical activity after finding they couldn’t contribute much during a football match, and will abandon their bikes in their garden sheds and watch TV instead. It has to be said that while the media is full of praise for “Team GB”, very few Olympic medals are won for team sports. Most medallists compete primarily for their own glory – for their face on a stamp. Putting aside that I don’t think producing a nation of Olympians should be more of a priority than, say, producing scientists and engineers, I don’t think these proposals will do much to increase the medal haul at future games anyway.
Please let’s have a bit more common sense when developing a policy for increasing the amount of physical activity in schools. Let people have a choice when it comes to what form of exercise they take, and let competitions encompass a wider range of activities than just sports. There need be no expectation that everyone wins something, but it would be much better for the youngsters’ self esteem if there is at least the chance to try something they can be competitive at. Unfortunately I can foresee there being yet another generation of couch potatoes, people who when asked will say they hate participating in sport, ever since being made to pay football or netball at school in the freezing cold, where no-one even passed the ball to them. As that new generation of obese people sit at home and watch future Olympics on TV, it will be worth remembering that it’s not a legacy of the 2012 Games as such, but of David Cameron’s misguided policy.