Compulsory sports not the answer to anything

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.

3 responses to “Compulsory sports not the answer to anything”

  1. Richard Lucas

    I really do agree with this – my primary school days were made miserable by my total inability to kick or bat a ball in the right direction. So great was the fear it instilled in me that, on starting at Grammar School aged eleven, I refused to go to school on the day we were to have our first games lesson. My mother literally dragged me to the bus stop and I got off at the next stop. For days I pretended to go to school but hid in the local countryside. Fortunately we had, for the 1960s, a very enlightened head teacher. When he understood the problem he told my parent “If he dreads it that much he must not be made to do it”. I was given the task of working (and it was hard work) in the school gardens on games days; later I was allowed to work in the gardens of neighbouring elderly people. Physical exercise is essential. But it does not have to be competitive or involve kicking a ball.

  2. Briany

    just how do you force a child to move in a certain way? I used to wonder about this. Mostly I ran up and down the field, looking as though I was doing something. teaching children to handle failure because we fail exams and job interviews – a laboured comparison and nothing to do with fitness. I hope the kids rebel. What is wrong with dance, much more control over the body needed. Fat and unfit people play competitive sports, too much hard running and pushing in early years leads to arthritis in later life. Sports carry an injury risk and are an open invitation to legitimately injure other people – rugby and hockey. Hated it never used it, never needed it, fit and healthy, reasonable weight in my 60s. could it be the big sporting companies are behind this?
    Just what is Cameron going to do with those soppy kids who like dancing and tai chi? Going for a walk or a swim and not caring who is “best”. Will they get asbos or be excluded – Oh I know, we can bring back competitve caning; some of the male teachers in my school were very good at that…………

  3. Ed Archer

    I cam across your blog after googling “Sport is not the answer”. This search is in line with our belief that children should be encouraged in the development of natural human movement skills and emotional control before being thrust into a competitive physical environment.

    I thought you might be interested in this quote from a wonderfully progressive, boat-rocking sports coach in the US, Diana Cutaia:

    Reed: How do you respond to people who claim your approach is too soft, that we live in a competitive world and that we need to focus on teaching kids how to beat their opponents?

    Cutaia: Well, I’d ask, how’s that working out? How’s that playing out in terms of economics and our relationships with other countries?

    – See more at:

    Thanks – I’ll be in touch with more thoughts on the mythical 2012 legacy…

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