Winning, losing and building character

Winning, losing and building character

The Intercol competition is on us again. The Intercol is a great competitive institution in South Australia and, arguably, one that is both most hotly contested and anticipated among the participating schools. It’s an appropriate hook on which to hang some comments in respect of the role of sport in education.

Promoting participation in sport raises a fundamental question; why do we play sport at school? Is sport there for recreational purposes or there as part of the education of a student? These basic questions easily extend further.
Is being competitive ‒ i.e. winning your share of competitions ‒ critical to the school’s overall reputation? And if, in some years, your student enrolment features no sporting ‘stars’, is it right to import, say on a scholarship, a sporting star or two?

I stand firmly on the side of sport as one of the tools available to an educator. Sport teaches young people many things. There are the obvious dividends of course, for instance, improved fitness and health but also how to be a member of a team. In life, we have much to say about the importance of teamwork but it most easily and naturally manifests itself on the sporting field. It’s often the predicament or needs of a team which drives an individual beyond what he or she believed they were capable of doing. The greater good is a powerful motivator.

Humility is an attractive character trait in all humans. Sport has an uncanny way of teaching that lesson; ask the beaten favourite, ask the second-place getter, ask a team which tried hard and acquitted itself with honour, but which finished out of the placings. Not winning is not necessarily the same thing as losing when it is done with pride and dignity.

Sport also teaches us how to win. Celebrating an achievement, a championship, is fine. Triumphalism and hubris are unattractive and, in some ways, demeaning. Sport can also promote risk taking. I’m not referring to unacceptable risks, the kind where say, inexperienced surfers tackle dangerous waves for which they’re not ready. Rather, perhaps, it may be an attempt at an ace on a second serve in a critical tennis match; or a long, ambitious pass in soccer, or an attempt at a previously un-scaled height in the high jump competition. Oxymoronically, you might describe these as safe risks.

And, of course, sport ‒ within a school context ‒ should not be viewed in isolation. It is part of the wider curriculum and an element of the educational experience. It is part of rounding a character and potentially helps to transform a young life.

I asked earlier whether it was important for a school to win its share of competitions and whether failure to do so over a period negatively affects the perception of the school? I would like to think not but, in sports-mad Australia, I suspect it does, at least with some people. Given that, is it then acceptable say to offer a scholarship to a young sports ‘star’ in order to bolster a school’s chances of a win at, for example, the Intercol? And, if you do, is it any different from offering a scholarship to an exceptionally bright student to up your school’s academic averages? Personally, I think a school should take its chances. The pendulum always swings back and forth and, over time, your share of wins will come.

The invincibility of the Australian cricket team with the likes of Warne, Gilchrist, Waugh and Hayden came to an end. A winning streak always ends and, conversely, so must a losing streak. In time and for a time, all schools will unearth exceptional athletes.

To contrive a win is, surely, disappointing? The most important, perhaps the only important thing in sport is to compete.

So, bring on the Intercol and may the best school win.

First published on in April 2012.

Has school sport lost its way?

Has school sport lost its way?

We regularly hear stories that would lead one to believe that school sport has become more than just a game, but rather “win at all costs”. A girl’s primary school in Bloemfontein has introduced a parents’ code of ethics. Two of Durban’s biggest schools will not play first team sport against one another this term following accusations of unethical sportsmanship relating to overage rugby players amongst other issues. A 17 year old rugby player tragically died from a suspected neck injury sustained during trials in January. ….  who thought school rugby was a winter sport! …… And following an increase in the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs among teenagers in schools, the SA Institute of Drug-free Sport (SAIDS) has launched a new drug testing programme within schools in an attempt to root out the use of steroids, stimulants and diuretics.

It would seem that the pressures put on school boys in particular to perform at an early age has spiraled out of control forcing them to engage in any activity necessary to enhance performance, whether that be taking perceived performance enhancing substances, arguing with officials to achieve a better outcome in a match or lying about their age amongst other behaviours. Unfortunately, these behaviours seem to be endorsed by parents, coaches and the schools themselves. To quote Dr Glen Hageman, President of the SA Sports Medicine Association, “Unfortunately, people judge a school on its rugby results, as opposed to its academic results.”  Even scouts and agents can be held responsible for the pressure they exert in the form of potential contracts and academy opportunities that they promise if the performances are up to “standard”.  It would be good to remember that only 24% of boys who play provincial rugby at U13 level, go on to play at the Craven Week U18 tournament (Durandt et al. SA Journal of Sports Medicine, 2011).

So what can be done to assist all stakeholders in managing the challenges that our youngsters face without destroying their dreams? Education of parents, coaches, teachers, schools and players is a key factor in encouraging teenagers to play by the rules.

It is well recognised that development into a competent sports man or woman is a process that takes time and patience to master the skills necessary to succeed either as a participant or a competitive athlete. Each child is unique and will develop at his or her own pace. There is no quick fix. Children under the age of 18 do not need any form of supplementation if they are provided with a balanced diet consisting of 3 meals and 2 snacks per day of a variety of healthy foods. In the long term, “magic” drinks and pills cannot replace the consistency of hard work, discipline, skills development and a positive attitude.

Parents should communicate with their children about their goals, their feelings and reason for playing sport. How often do we encounter parents who are living their own failed dreams through their children’s success? Recognise and reward your child’s progress and efforts and not just the results, because there is no correlation between winning at an early age and later success. Research has shown that kids with a balanced approach to their sport, school work, family, friendships and other activities perform more effectively in all spheres of their lives.

Sport at school is part of the educational journey that children are embarking upon and the lessons they learn from both winning and losing are an extension of the classroom and a window into understanding the challenges of life.

First published on in March 2013

 Inappropriate Aggression in School/Youth Sport

 Inappropriate Aggression in School/Youth Sport

Over the past number of years we have witnessed an increasing level of aggression on our sports fields involving all stakeholders in the sports participation process. There is a wide variety of examples – a water polo player being punched in the face, deliberate fouling in the front row of a rugby scrum, a parent or coach verbally berating or even physically hurting young athletes for a poor performance, a coach arguing with a referee for missing an error in play or a school turning a blind eye to over aggressive sportsmanship in order to ensure a winning result.

Whatever the nature of the aggression, this type of behaviour is unacceptable in youth sport and without a firm stance from all stakeholders it will continue unabated. It can result in severe physical and/or psychological damage to the child which may have lifelong consequences.

So what are the reasons for this behaviour?

  • With the ever increasing professionalism and commercialisation of sport at younger and younger ages there is an over-emphasis on winning at an age when children should be having fun and learning the fundamental movement and sports skills that will ensure sporting success at later stages. This emphasis on results and winning increases the expectations and thus pressure placed on young sports people to perform. In a survey conducted in the UK in 2013 amongst 1,015 kids aged 8 – 16; 87,5% felt under pressure to win, 64,3% indicated that they had witnessed team mates fouling, diving or time wasting and 54% said they had witnessed cheating in games of which 37% indicated that their team mates didn’t care if they won by cheating. This “win-at-all-costs” attitude is permeating our sporting environment.
  • From research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2008 it appears that the control orientation of parents leads to ego defensiveness which in turn leads to anger and aggressive behaviour.
  • And coaches? They are under constant pressure from schools to achieve the results that will bring “glory” and new students to their school. In the words of Dr Glen Hageman, past president of the South African Sports Medicine Association, “Unfortunately, people judge a school on its rugby results, as opposed to its academic results.” In addition, coaches themselves are driven by the need to achieve so that they can move on to bigger and better positions and what better way to prove your worth than by a winning record.

In order to begin to address this aggression by a minority but that affects the enjoyment of sport for the majority we need to put sport participation into perspective. According to Cote and Hancock (2014), the 3 goals of sport participation are:

  • Participation,
  • Performance, and
  • Personal Development

In addition, it should be remembered that only 1% of sport participants progress to the elite level and only 0,5% become professional sportsmen and women. Research conducted by Durandt et al showed that only 24% of U13 provincial rugby players in South Africa played at the U18 provincial tournament. Furthermore, sporting success is a combination of both genetics and practice, despite the popular belief postulated in books such as Outliers and Bounce that sufficient practice alone can ensure elite performance.

It needs a committed effort of all stakeholders (players, parents, coaches and schools) working together to rid our sports fields of inappropriate behaviour. Sport is competitive by its nature, but winning doesn’t need to be achieved by aggressive sportsmanship.

Guidelines for reducing overly aggressive behaviour on the sports field·

  • Schools must develop and articulate a philosophy towards sport based on sound developmental principles and in line with the schools’ values
  • Parents should be educated to understand their role in their kids’ sporting lives and that once on the field they have very little or no control over what transpires during the competition and should therefore control their own emotions
  • Coaches should be trained to focus on a process vs scoreboard orientation to competing allowing kids to learn from their mistakes and continuously improve
  • Kids should respect the nature of sport and understand that success comes from internal motivation
  • Adults must be appropriate role models for their children or students and set the example based on values
  • Terms of Engagement covering all aspects of sports participation and applicable to all stakeholders should be developed together to ensure commitment and buy-in and schools should have an obligation to implement these agreed terms and enforce compliance to avoid the status quo remaining. 

Victory for working athletes

Victory for working athletes

Claude Moshiywa (38) became the 1st South African male since 1992 to win the “Up” run (from Durban to Pietermaritzburg) of the iconic 90km Comrades Marathon on 2nd June 2013. What made this run so extraordinary is that Claude in not a full time athlete unlike most of the leading runners who compete in events of this nature. He is in fact a full time employee in the catering division of a leading South African Bank. The 2015 women’s race was won by Caroline Wostmann, a chartered accountant, management accounting and finance lecturer, wife and mother of 2!  Proof that it is possible to have dual career aspirations and succeed in the competitive world of professional sport.

To achieve in both his careers, Claude and his family have had to make a number of sacrifices but with victory in June 2013 these sacrifices paid off. It takes a great deal of discipline to get up at 3am most days of the week to train before completing a day’s work and then train again in the evening. Planning and time management are integral to getting the balance right. In addition, there is a support group with whom athletes work to achieve their goals so teamwork plays an important role. Other key attributes that contribute to this kind of achievement are perseverance, motivation, patience, flexibility, self-control, performing under pressure and mental toughness. All of these competencies are sought by organisations seeking to employ dedicated and committed employees, so the lessons learned on the road are easily transferred to the work environment and both parties benefit.

International research has shown that a balanced approach to a sporting life enhances success on the sports field and there is an increasing trend towards professional athletes from across the sporting spectrum engaging in education and/or work whilst simultaneously pursuing their sporting dreams.

For parents and coaches of kids who show sporting potential there is no longer a need to choose between a sport and alternative career – it is possible to manage them both simultaneously. It takes desire, discipline and self-management to get it right, but the long term benefits are immeasurable. A sports career is in essence “temporary employment” and usually ends between the ages of 30 and 35 and in many instances earlier than this due to injury, lack of desired results or burnout. …..And after that there is a need to enter the job market. If you have planned for this during your sports career you are able to participate in an industry of your choice without having to go through a learning phase.

For more information on how PSC can assist your athletes in establishing a career off the field, click here. (Link to Career Coach service).

First published on 3rd June 2013, but amended on 2nd July 2015