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.

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