The benefits of being active, the challenges and the possible solutions

Jane Gandee

Headmistress, St Swithun's School

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Champions keep playing until they get it right
Billie Jean King
The more I practise, the luckier I get
Gary Player (among others)

I’ve chosen these quotes because they encapsulate one of the many lessons that we learn from playing sport – what makes the difference is not so much the raw talent but the mindset. And that is of course applicable across every aspect of our lives, but often a hard truth to swallow. How tempting it is to tell ourselves that we can never be as good as ‘X’ because the stars were aligned when they were born, rather than accept that it is commitment not talent that makes the difference.

Setting to one side the issue of whether we do or do not want to be world-beaters, sport is deeply satisfying in so many other ways. The human body is designed to move. Indeed it works best when it’s active – for many of us, a sedentary life is slowly leading to weaker muscles and stiffer joints.

We have recently been discussing the benefits of sport with our students. They say that they enjoy the endorphins that come from being active – the natural mood lifters that fill us with a glow of wellbeing – and the competition. They recognise that they can learn from disappointment or from tough physical challenges, perhaps in the cold or wet. They acquire the self-confidence to ‘tough it out’ in other contexts, secure in the knowledge that they have experienced worse and survived.

They love the comradeship, the shared experiences, the reliance on team mates, the sense of working for a common goal and supporting each other.

If there are so many positive aspects of sport, why don’t all young people enjoy it? Indeed, why don’t all adults look forward to getting involved in exercise? Although the vast majority of our students have taken part in a match against another school, there are some who simply don’t want to. Is it that they haven’t yet found their sport? Or that they have had a negative experience in the past? Or that they lack self-confidence? There is certainly more for schools to do to make exercise a positive experience for all. Whether this is about providing sports kit that is comfortable for all young people (for example, leggings and shorts that are actually designed for teenage girls rather than for boys alongside modest clothing), a more inclusive range of sport, better teaching or more comfortable facilities, we need to push for change.

‘If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation’ is a quote that has been attributed to a range of people and organisations. Regardless of its origin, I believe that we must do whatever it takes to create an exercise habit in all young people. That’s why we have introduced a series of programmes – Sweat, Velocity and Stride – designed to help encourage more students to get active and rewrite pupil perception and experience of traditional ‘fitness’. We want everyone to feel more inclined to get involved and enjoy moving, regardless of where they currently are or where they strive to get to.