The Case for Sport – 2.

I have personal experience of the brilliance of sport. By that I mean I’ve both felt and witnessed (and I’ll have you know occasionally been the origin of) daft-but-magic moments arising from running round the place/chucking or hoofing things, very often in the midst of some grinning or, okay, gurning pack of mates.

Now, what you will have to forgive me for calling my life’s work is absolutely centred on all this fizz. I really am privileged to be right in it, this lurv/sport/runrunrun-like-crazy vortex, where (for example!) the most perfect and comradely sharing often spins. So I know the invincibly good and penetrating and healthy and edgy stuff that grows here. (I’m aware too, in passing that bringing the L-word into this is ill-advised at best but do not withdraw it; I’m happy to postulate some dumb theory whereby love of people and of adrenalin becomes intrinsic to a trillion transformations.)

I also know that some are suspicious of (what they think is) sport’s adversarial nature. Some children being exposed or even damaged through failure before their peers – this does happen, this is important – but the failure is of coaching. Good coaches encourage a way through and skilfully re-calibrate what’s offered – how big the challenge might be. They make it appropriate and they lift the child through any difficulty. They splash in extra praise and make the thing (which may have changed) achievable; the ‘non-athlete’ joins the game and things bundle forward, before anybody clocks or judges the ‘fact’ that Johnny or Jess was momentarily lost.

This isn’t idealist nonsense. This is good coaching in Primary Education. Coaches facilitating the expression of talent – young, low or high, clunky or beautifully co-ordinated – coherent. Developing people as well as skills.

Every day I see this and I see children warming to allegedly less able mates as they clatter a ball off a tee; the former clapping and bouncing or high-fiving with proper joy and the latter arms raised in seminal triumph. No matter that the grooved majority can beast a bouncing ball around the park, the elation around Johnny clumping that helpfully immobile sphere with electrifying conviction is, in my experience, generally heart-warmingly shared. Indeed I am positive by nature partly because I see children sharing in somebody else’s triumph every working day. If that pleasure leaches through all manner of things in my life… how great must it feel for the suddenly emerging starlet?

I recently underwent further training on what are known as multiskills and wider skills to enrich and improve the link between my cricket coaching and the broader Junior Curriculum. Interestingly, one of the reasons for this training was because (allegedly) there is a perception amongst Secondary School sports teachers that new intakes of children have relatively poor sports/co-ordination skills. This may or may not be an accurate reflection of how things are – hard to know how meaningful such a general view might be? Hard to know if this is what Secondary School sportsfolks are always likely to say? – but if there is any truth in this notion, it ain’t good… and it ain’t surprising.

I have my own view on both a practical and philosophical level re- the state of sports provision in Primary Schools and maybe sometime I’ll share that. What I want to do here is reiterate my case for how MASSIVE it could be – how elevating, how life-changing.

Children learn to support/learn/calculate/share/plan as well as move, smile and co-ordinate in my sessions – and in thousands of other games lessons every week. We coaches are not solely in the business of cultivating champions or tweaking technical skills, though we hope, of course, for those things too. I am personally motivated at least as much by the aspiration to draw some tiny but also wonderful moment from a child who likely never ‘achieves’ at all in ‘class’ as to get some gifted child to smash the ball mega-miles.

I have a very clear picture in my mind right now of a wee fellah aged eight – sporting the worst home-shorn Mohican I have ever seen – so deep into listening and following a chasing and catching game and so bursting with the effort of breaking through into success that the phrase I occasionally fall back on – outliving himself – springs to mind. He’d simply gone somewhere new and ecstatic, like he’d shed a skin or thrown off some burden. He was living somebody else’s better life, blazing around a playground utterly into the game. Joined, essential to it, loving it, feeling every bit as brilliant as those good guys – the ones who always have their hands up in class.

I see these revelations almost daily and I cherish them. They make me ever more certain that the essence of what I do contains a valuable strategic purpose – to enthuse children towards new cricket teams – on the back of a truly healthy, civilised, populist impulse. What could be more generous or supportive or right than sharing some fun, building some confidence(s) and enabling better, fuller learning? Good sport coaching does all that… which is why I write to defend it… and extoll its virtues.

Okay here comes the deep breath/get real bit, where again, incidentally, despite monumental temptation I hold back from lambasting the suffocating reactionaries that may or may not be responsible for policy on this stuff… because the time will come, right?

I concede nothing is easy and sport is no panacea. And there are choices to be made on what money is spent where.
I do however maintain that substantial and intelligent use of games not only makes sense but is transformative in a way that may be hard to find elsewhere. If children’s ability to listen is central to much of school life – can’t or won’t listen? Fail – then dynamic games, challenging games can (and do) cultivate listening, whilst improving behaviour/attention span/problem solving.

Sport done well is a gift to many who may need to express unseen talents or (know what?) just run and smile a bit. Throw in the undoubted ‘social skills’ – sharing/toleration/patience/camaraderie and you’re getting pretty good value for your money. Maybe that’s something the Honourable Secretary of State might instinctively respond to?

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