If it’s not about the winning or the taking part, what about the enjoyment?

Since the Olympics delivered an unprecedented haul of shiny prizes for Team GB, followed by hand-wringing over the future of sports education in schools (seemingly boiling down to point-scoring between the Tories and Labour over who sold off the most playing fields), I’ve read some interesting blogs which got me thinking about my own experiences with sport at school and beyond.

Of course my experiences are just that – mine – and I don’t presume to prescribe what teachers should or shouldn’t do, and nor do I want to turn this into a poor-me rant (though it’s tempting…), but there are some things which have stuck in my mind down the years and might be worth sharing.

When I was at primary school, I was the classic geek child who was picked last in sports – or if not last, usually second from last. I could never hit the rounders ball (though I wasn’t bad at catching), and in netball, I was invariably made to play Goal Keeper, the most static position on the court, because I was tall for my age (then, not now, sadly!).

Fine, I was selected for the position I was most suited to, and at least by playing the same role every time I had a chance of improving at it, I suppose. Better to be really good at one thing than average at many, perhaps. Maybe that was the teacher’s rationale.

However, if I was tall, why not give me a chance to be Goal Shooter at the other end of the court? I had a netball goal in the garden at home so I had practice at scoring goals. Or let me be Goal Attack for a change, who has a similar function to Goal Keeper but can move around the court more freely?

It seems very odd, from this distance, that the teacher always put the same people in the best positions, or chose them as team captains every week – meaning they picked their friends first and me and my friends last. Didn’t it ever cross the teacher’s mind to let someone else take a turn at being first? Or did they assume that because I was quiet and bookish, I wasn’t interested in taking my turn at picking teams?

At the time, it felt horribly like the teacher (who was not my form teacher, by the way, but a local mum who came in purely to teach P.E.) was playing favourites. Or that those of us who were a bit more introverted were somehow invisible to her.

I don’t think making me team captain once in a while would suddenly have transformed me into an outstanding sportswoman, but it might have done wonders for my self-esteem. I didn’t particularly aspire to be good at sports, or feel motivated by the idea of winning games or scoring goals, but I desperately wanted to fit in with my more popular (naturally, sporty) classmates.

So to those, like the Tories, who sneer at the ‘all must win prizes’ mentality which they claim has pervaded British schools, I say – it’s not about prizes or winning, it’s about giving every pupil a chance to be in control every once in a while. Inclusiveness should mean just that – not a false level playing field so all participants can ‘win’, but making an effort to include those who are obviously and clearly being pushed to one side. No pupil should be made to feel, as I was, that they may as well have not bothered turning up.


Hmm. So much for P.E. What about outside school, though? If I’m not motivated by competitiveness (apart from pub quizzes) or the prospect of winning, what else could stimulate a teenager like I was to take part in sport? I had – and still have – one great resource at my disposal: my bike.

My faithful old Raleigh bike

Riding a bike had huge plus points over other sports – I could do it by myself, I could go to new places whenever I wanted (living in a village surrounded by pretty country lanes in a flat county was a great advantage. I’d do very well if I lived in Holland, believe me), and above all, it gave me time to think. I used to ride and ride every weekend, and think and think, and it was my absolute favourite thing in the world. I was working through ideas in my head, putting the world to rights and daydreaming (whilst keeping my eyes firmly on the road – I’m not that dippy, folks), and all the while, my legs were propelling me onwards. It was wonderful.

You’d think a girl on her bike on a quiet country lane would be doing no harm to anyone, would you? <gets a bit ranty here, sorry> I was minding my own business on a bike ride once when I heard a vehicle close behind me. I tried to pull over, but it was a narrow lane with a verge and deep ditch on my left. I tried to pedal faster, but the vehicle seemed to be getting closer. I turned back to have a look and realised what was happening – the vehicle behind me was a van, and the occupants were laughing at me, and trying to drive me into the ditch.

I managed to pull onto the verge without going into the ditch and shouted a few charming words in their direction as they sped past, still laughing. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to memorise the number plate, but I was shaken up and not really thinking straight. I do still remember, folks, that it was a British Gas van they were driving. If I had taken that number plate I would have done my best to get those scumbags fired, believe me.

All these years later, I still remember that moment with resentment and bitterness. I wasn’t trying to compete with anyone. I wasn’t trying to prove I was better than anyone else or show off. I was cycling by myself for pure enjoyment, and yet somehow I was still pigeonholed as a geek and sports no-hoper who deserved to be mocked and run off the road.

Fortunately, it would take a lot more than that to put me off cycling – these days, my main deterrents are London drivers and the ongoing saga of TfL/City Hall’s refusenik attitude to cycle lanes and general cyclist safety. I am not scared of being laughed at any more – adulthood has thickened my skin – but I am scared of accidents, and so my bike rides are restricted mainly to local parks where I can do circuits in peace, bar the odd roller blader or child on a scooter.

I’d like my daughter to be able to ride her bike without fear or restriction, but I fear she, like me, will mainly be confined to parks. She won’t have the freedom I had as a child to roam the fields or cycle cross country – so I hope when she does start school, there are still playing fields for her to play on, and if she turns out to be quiet and bookish like me, I will be making damn sure she has a chance to take part in sport without being laughed at, even if she’s not first across the line. We can’t all be winners, but we can all be part of the team.


2 thoughts on “If it’s not about the winning or the taking part, what about the enjoyment?

  1. Interesting thoughts on school PE lessons. I was distinctly average at just about any school sport so was never the first picked nor the last however my abiding memory of PE lessons was the sheer number of sports I got to try. Football, rugby and cricket were the norm but we also did athletics, hockey, handball, badminton, tennis, gymnastics (including rings and pommel horse which are so hard to master), softball, volleyball plus a few others I’ve probably forgotten.

    No doubt there were people in my class who had the same experiences as you but the sporting experiences PE gave me were great and I just wish I’d kept up with a few of the sports I got to try.

  2. My primary school was fairly conservative, in the ‘boys play football, girls play netball’ mode, so it was only when I got to secondary school that I got a bit more choice. Can’t say I enjoyed hockey or women’s rugby much on a freezing cold day in skirt and hockey socks, but I do think an important part of education generally (not just P.E.) is being taken out of your comfort zone and trying new things. I had similar experiences doing Scouts and outward bound courses – didn’t enjoy all of it equally (caving…argh!) but loved trying new things.

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