The wrong sports

sportsIn our schools, we teach children to play sports. Invariably, this means team sports. In Britain these might be soccer, rugby or cricket. In the US, perhaps football or baseball. These are precisely the wrong sports to teach our children.

Team sports are said to teach so much more than just exercise – leadership and teamwork for instance. This might be true if you’re in the first team, especially if you’re the captain. In my case, as for 90% of kids, sports lessons taught us to stand around waiting for something interesting to happen, hoping that we wouldn’t be hit in the face by a wooden cricket ball or squashed to death by hairy rugby players. I learned nothing about leadership, other than resentment from being told what to do, and very little about being a team player, other than experiencing the solidarity of belonging to a group of like-minded people, who all hated sports.

And yet, in middle age, I am fit. I exercise most days. The exercises that I have maintained throughout my adult life were things they didn’t teach at school – yoga, weights, running, cycling. They are activities that can be done on your own, or in an informal class, with very little equipment.

Ironically, most of the first team, who were celebrated for their sporting prowess, and monopolised the coach’s time and attention, now are unfit. The nearest they get to exercise is lifting a pint glass and reminiscing about the good old days. That’s because team sports such as football, cricket and baseball require a large and well-maintained field, and membership of a club. They require the kind of commitment that doesn’t fit in well with modern family life.

How much better would it be if we taught our children the kind of physical exercise that would enable them to stay fit throughout their whole lives, instead of teaching a few to  win medals, before retiring from sport at the age of 18?

24 responses to “The wrong sports

  1. Completely agree….fitness should be the aim. Not medals and two minutes of fame.

  2. Yes Steve, yoga/aerobics and critical thinking (philosophy) would find their way onto the curriculum if I had a say – exercise for the body and mind.

  3. Love the highly entertaining style, especially second paragraph. Now, for a counterpoint. I was on the high school wrestling team, in excellent shape. Then, after 10 years of a quite enjoyable life filled with alcohol, drugs, bar life, and no exercise, when I decided to get back in shape, the “muscle memory” of all that high school training seemed to give me an edge over my fellow debauchees, who wanted to get back in shape but couldn’t get over the hump.

    • Well, wrestling is exactly the kind of sport I am advocating. It’s something you can continue into later life. All you need is a bar, a beer and a fellow gorilla to wrestle with 🙂

      Actually, wtf, you’re a wrestler? Never would have guessed that. I will be careful what I write in future.

      • I was team captain, actually. I will definitely put you in a fireman’s carry! Or a headlock! And it was definitely a “friendly” sport — much camaraderie with my competitors as well as teammates, without out all the screaming of “rip his head off” that kids have to hear in American football.

  4. Why not “all of the above”?

    Early school exposes us to a variety of topics; some of them take, others don’t. Some kids go on to become doctors or lawyers or engineers or scientists. Some go on to love sports all their lives.

    Many who are introduced to critical thinking, literature, or mathematics, go on to become ignorant idiots later in life. They never touch those things again exactly the same way that others never touch a baseball, football, or soccer ball, again.

    I don’t know about England, but high school sports are a pretty big deal in the USA, and many people really get into them. (By college, sports are a national thing, often televised and the subject of serious sports reporting.) The meme of small towns where the entire town (more or less) is “into” the high school football team reflects reality.

    So you’d get a lot of resistance trying to replace school sports is my point. Lots of people love them. As I recall, in my schools, most of the school was into sports in one way or another.

    The meme that everyone who was into sports in youth become out-of-shape couch potatoes in older life has some truth, but is hardly universal. In exactly the same way that, say the law or medicine or rockets capture some young minds and introduce them to future paths, some also are captured by sports and make that their life. (In the USA, professional athletes are some of the highest paid members of society. If one is brought up dirt poor, that’s hugely attractive. Even moderate success can raise someone out of poverty.)

    There is also a perception that sports teach fierce competition combined with “fair play” and the idea of “afterwards” — that rules are important in combat. The perception points out the extremely general observation that women fight with a “scorched earth” policy that makes “afterwards” problematic, that they fight without rules or quarter. The thought is that more males play team sports than females, so women don’t get that early sports socialization.

    • My own personal preferences are revealed in this article. I am not expecting much support, even from regular followers. You make the counter-case very well, Wyrd. All I can say is that team sports are incredibly popular here in the UK too, and they are played in front of the TV with a beer in one hand.

      • I absolutely support the idea of additions to the curriculum, hence “all of the above.” (And many schools do offer alternatives. I played tennis, for instance.)

  5. School team sports are not for fitness, it seems. They are to form social friendships and connections for a lifetime and, in many cases, to help kids get into college and pay for it. Even if you shared the misery with 90% of your teammates, they will always remain your teammates from your school days. They grow out to be doctors, lawyers, politicians, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, university professors, and can later in life help you or your own kids with college, job, difficult situation, etc. I think, that’s the point of the team sports – not fitness.

  6. Personally, I’ve rarely been interested in team sports, except for brief interludes as a boy. Most of the time, I’m fine ignoring their existence, except for the occasional annoyance when someone implies that they are the path of virtue and fellowship and that anyone who avoids them is some kind of slackard.

    I definitely agree that physical education classes focus too much on competitive sports. That focus alienates far too many people from a lifetime of physical fitness. If they focused on fitness, they’d be doing a much better service to kids. There’s nothing wrong with team sports for the people who like them, but they shouldn’t be forced on people who don’t enjoy them.

  7. My three kids play soccer. I like the fact that they have to manage their time, school work, team practice and other commitments. I also like that when they play they think differently than school work and they get a break from video games. They are all skinny so fitness right now is not as much of a concern. What I do not like is the fact that their abilities define how they are treated by other kids and their parents (all three have average ability.) We see the more skilled players and their parents expecting, and getting, favoritism. I think this is a lousy life lesson, especially when it impacts my kids. It is safe to say no one we know will play professionally, so why all the competitiveness and cut throat attitudes?


    • As you know, Elizabeth, I enjoy playing devil’s advocate. My own sons are currently getting a lot out of rowing and football. Some of the competitiveness can be beneficial, but often it isn’t. I know of children who have been excluded from team games because they are “not good enough.” As you say, someone’s priorities have gone very badly wrong in this case.

  8. That’s a very good point. In physical education, or any other subject for that matter, it would make far more sense for students to be equipped first with the knowledge they can carry into adulthood for life. If activities like running and swimming or even the many different exercises we can do with basic dumbbells and our bodyweight are taught before team sports, students can learn the proper techniques and how to incorporate exercise routines early on in their life. That would be very useful to them, regardless of whether they like team sports!

    They can be taught and encouraged that they can keep fit wherever they are (wouldn’t need the well-maintained field or court as you mentioned), basically whatever their economic background (just t-shirt, shorts and running shoes to jog, for example), and whether they are alone or with those friends they play team sports with. As working adults, it’s generally difficult to all be free to play or exercise together on a regular and frequent enough basis.

  9. In elementary school I remember P.E. being more like what you’re describing, although not quite. There was no yoga, but there was stretching and yoga-like moves. Lots of running around in circles, sit-ups, climbing that awful rope thing to the ceiling, pull-ups, etc. I never enjoyed any of it, except the parachute thing…but that’s a tangent. At that point, exercise happened all the time after school. I don’t know what kids do nowadays, but I’d play football or street hockey with a few guys down the street, or ride bikes or whatever. None of this was labeled “exercise” and the “team sports” aspect of our playing was self-imposed and pretty loosey-goosey.

    Later it seemed like the options for individuals who don’t like group activities diminished, but they were still there for those who sought them out. I can’t say I was one of them. It wasn’t until I got fat in my late twenties that I started taking exercise seriously…some of us just have to learn the hard way.

    • That’s the thing. Team sports don’t teach exercise. The goal is always “teamwork” or “leadership” or “winning”. We have to learn the value of exercise for ourselves.

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