My thoughts on sport at school

Mark Boobbyer, St Columba's College DublinWhen I was a young teacher I used to think that whether my team won or lost on a Saturday was all that mattered and I would be depressed for a week if my team lost. It was what defined me as a teacher. As a Liverpool supporter I quoted Bill Shankly:

Some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. It’s much more important than that.

Happily I grew out of that. But what is the purpose of sport in schools? Is it to hire all the England Under 16’s into the Lower 6th in order to have an unbeaten season, to win at all costs, or is it to teach the importance of teamwork and to develop resilience of character? Does one develop resilience by being thrashed every week and getting demoralised? Or by trouncing the opposition every week and never losing a single game? How does one learn to treat the two great impostors of triumph and disaster the same if one only ever experiences victory or defeat? The Victorians who codified all the great team sports and introduced them to the public schools were under no illusions:

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame

But the captain’s hand on his shoulder smote

‘Play, play up and play the game.’

It was not about personal glory but about something much greater…the team, the honour of the school, playing the game in the right way, rather than just to win. Unfortunately the next verse makes it clear that this was merely the ideal preparation for young men going out to slaughter natives in the colonies, so let’s not get too idealistic about it:

The sand of the desert is sodden red

Red with the wreck of a square that broke

The Gatlin’s jammed and the colonel’s dead

The regiment’s blind with dust and smoke.

The river of death has brimmed his banks

And England’s far and honour’s a name

But the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks

‘Play up, play up and play the game.’

(Sir Henry Newbolt)

One could argue that nowadays we live in an age of professional sport that could never have been envisaged by the Victorians and it is our obligation as educators to prepare our pupils as best we can for whatever careers they wish to pursue, including professional sport. They need to learn that success does not come without hard graft, that there is no gain without pain. They need to have an outlet for their aggression & energy and where better than on the sports field. They need to learn to work with the limitations of others and to work to the strengths of their team. Is there a better feeling in life than being part of a really good team? And if they happen to be good enough to turn their passion into a professional career, then surely that is a good thing.

Yes. But there is an increasing tension in school sport. Gone is the schoolmaster who taught Homer till lunch time, practised with the choir after lunch, then put on a tracksuit and ran a training session till dinner. He was competitive but still viewed the sport as part of the whole picture of educating a young person. Winning was great, but losing was not terminal. Now all good sports schools employ external professional coaches. They are not school teachers, with a wider perspective, and they want to win at all costs. They are not looking at the bigger picture but at winning the next match. How their team behaves is less important than the result. The crucial role of sport as a creator of character has been outsourced. It is bound to make a difference.

Captaining a rugby team at school is no longer considered a prerequisite for governing a large part of India or Africa. However being a team player is still seen as vital in almost every career that I can think of and that is why public schools have always placed a greater emphasis on the team sports than the individual ones. Playing in a team teaches you to work with others. That is a great thing.

Even in a cynical age, which justifies cheating to win, everyone loves it when someone displays true ‘sportsmanship.’ It is as if we all know, in spite of ourselves, that there is a better way to do it. Bunny Austin, who was the last Brit to reach the men’s singles final at Wimbledon prior to Andy Murray, was a friend of my parents. He told a story about playing in a big match, when he hit the ball onto the sideline. The umpire called it out but his opponent graciously intervened and said that the ball had been good and the umpire changed the call. After the game Bunny was furious with his opponent, despite the call having gone in his favour. He was angry because his opponent’s action had undermined the authority of the umpire and made him look silly. Really. Don’t you love it when a golfer calls a foul on himself,  which no one else has seen, or when a batsman walks when he is give not out? And don’t we howl in derision when a penalty is given when the player dives. The TV pundit then says, ‘well he touched him, so he had every right to go down.’ We know what is right, even if we rarely see it. Just imagine if Thierry Henry had turned to the ref after his double handball against Ireland in that World Cup play-off and said that actually he had handled the ball and he did not want to his team to qualify in that way. He would have saved France total humiliation in the tournament and he would now be considered the greatest sportsman who had ever lived. But no…he didn’t. The end justifies the means.

So what is the end of school sport? I would argue that it is to play as hard as you can, to teach your pupils to respect the referee and the opposition, to be gracious in defeat and humble in victory, to make friends and to learn the importance of the team.

When I was taking the 1st XI cricket at Wellington College we played Rondebosch Boys from Cape Town. They were very strong and won comfortably. In the post-match speeches their coach said, ‘going on tour is all about beating people.’ I wanted to rebut him publicly but I was decent and gracious and congratulated him and his team. But he was wrong. Totally wrong. Going on tour is about making friends, having new experiences and learning.

One year I coached the 1st XI at Ivanhoe Grammar School in Melbourne. Before the first game there was a cap presentation ceremony and they were given out by a former Australian captain, Graeme Yallop. I can still remember what he said because it was so awful and so against everything that I believed in. He told these young boys that they should not let anyone get in the way of fulfilling their dreams…that they should elbow aside anyone who got in the way…that they should be utterly ruthless and selfish to get what they wanted, by whatever means. I wanted to object but as I looked around the room the parents were all nodding with approval and I was just a Pom on a gap year and I couldn’t afford to lose my job…so I kept quiet.

Sport at school is about many things, but above all it should be about teaching values, teamwork, resilience and respect for others. I may be very old-fashioned but I still think it is about learning to meet with triumph and disaster and to treat those two impostors just the same.

Mark Boobbyer, Warden at St. Columba's College