Olympics, children’s sport, and competition

I was not a sporty child. I was the sort of person who would much rather curl up with a book (good book for preference, but any book would do) for the whole of breaktime than run around outside. I hated tag. I always ended up being ‘it’ and could never catch anyone. But it wasn’t just, or even primarily, that I was bad at exercise that made me hate school sports. (Take me up a mountain and I’d hike for hours.) 

I think my real problem with school sports was that I’m a naturally uncompetitive person, possibly because I have a great dislike of any form of confrontation. Even things I’m good at and enjoy in other forms, I hate doing competitively. It’s always a hugely uncomfortable feeling of pressure and obligation for me to be in any zero-sum situation. I once thrashed my husband and his cousin at Scrabble, quite comprehensively, and didn’t enjoy even that.

It was a huge relief to me to get into the sixth form at school where we could choose our own form of PE from a wider range of activities. I chose kayaking (mostly in the swimming pool, with the occasional outing to the local river, and one weekend trip away), along with about half a dozen others, and loved it. There was no competition, no trying to beat anyone else; just getting the hang of steering this boat and building up strength.

I discovered the gym a bit over a year ago, after many years of comparatively little activity, apart from walking to work. I do a little interval training for cardio, but spend most of my time and effort on the weights – strength training is apparently better for you than hours of running or jogging, in terms of both general fitness and fat loss. I find I actually enjoy it: I wouldn’t say I get an exercise high, but I do feel satisfaction from noticing that I’ve gone up a weight, or feeling my muscles ache afterwards.

To be honest, I don’t even really need to use the weights for a lot of it: I can do quite a few exercises against a wall, or on the floor, or on the monkey bars in the park. I just find it easier to stick with it if I have a routine with a certain place I go to for my workout.

I’m definitely a lot stronger than I was a year ago. And the only person I have to beat is myself.

Which is why I’m rather concerned by David Cameron’s promise to make competitive school sports compulsory in England. I cannot think of anything better designed to put the sort of child I was off exercise for life. In fact, I nearly was.

Britain has done incredibly well in the Olympics. We are currently third in the total medals table, behind the USA and China. By population, we come twenty-second. If we had as many top-class athletes as might be expected from our population, we’d have maybe five or six medals. So honestly, I don’t think we need any more encouragement of athletic kids – we’re doing quite well enough there already.

At the same time, an increasing number of children are growing up unfit and obese. These are the ones we need to concentrate on. An Olympic medal might get an athlete a sponsorship contract for a few years. Giving someone the motivation to exercise and become fit, by finding the activity that works best for them, might well save their life. Not to mention the savings to the NHS of that person avoiding obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

For too many people, exercise is synonymous with sport, and sport is synonymous with competition. When my workplace decided to instigate a scheme to encourage people to exercise, as part of the Healthy Working Lives programme, I was insistent that it should be something co-operative, not competitive. I suggested a scheme where (self-reported) time spent exercising earnt you miles on a map, and everyone’s miles were added together so we could ‘travel’ to places – and celebrate each destination reached with a ‘healthy lunch’. But people couldn’t seem to comprehend the idea of something so uncompetitive, and we ended up adding in a prize for the ‘winner’ of each section: the person who had done the most exercise in that ‘leg’ of the ‘journey’.

I agree that there should be (large amounts of) compulsory time set aside for physical activity at all ages in school. But I honestly don’t see anything wrong with that activity being something like Indian dance (good cardiovascular exercise, and training in both gross and fine motor skills). Or even good old-fashioned pushups.

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