Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday, 9 August 2012

"I coulda been a contender..."

The issue of school sports just won't go away. Today has brought two particularly interesting posts; Longrider wants to keep school sport free of government regulation while, over at Orphans of Liberty, James Higham has come over all mens sana in corpore sano.

The comments at OoL have been fascinating; for years I thought I was alone in my opinion of organised team games at school but I now see that there must have been many of us indulging in individual acts of rebellion and subversion in the face of an implacable enemy. If only we had been able to join forces!

My own school was an example of just how much can be done in the name of sport to alienate those who don't toe the team games touchline. I arrived at the age of ten, an active child used to walking long distances (this was before the two-car household became the norm) and keen on swimming and ice-skating, these being effectively the only sports on offer to the public in our area.

That being so, there was no reason to suppose I would not enjoy sport and, given opportunity and encouragement, do well at it. And then I met my nemesis; the games teacher. Let us call her Miss Fortune; it's close enough to the original.

Miss Fortune's stated aim was to "bring the bright children down a peg or two" in the interests of sticking up for the academic underdog - as a former pupil with distinctly mediocre qualifications who had come back to her old school to teach, she clearly felt she had scores to settle and did so with a vengeance.

The school wasn't top notch by any definition, though I am profoundly grateful for the academic and social education it gave me, and I think it's fair to say that even in an ideal world, none of us would have been troubling the Olympic team selectors, but Miss Fortune certainly did her bit to make sport as unattractive as possible.

Longrider describes how his success in other sports "counted for nothing at a school so deeply unimaginative that if the sport didn’t involve two teams squabbling over a ball on a muddy pitch, it didn’t exist." Miss Fortune suffered from a similar lack of imagination; her mind ran on a single rotating track of hockey, netball and athletics (and swimming on Thursdays - yes, she has appeared here before).

It also ran to a pre-arranged agenda; she chose, or perhaps I should say anointed, those who were destined to succeed at games and the rest of us were relegated to also-ran status - quite literally, on occasion; the results posted after the annual sports day frequently bore little resemblance to the participants' recollection of events.

Looking back now, I see that she had very limited expertise and must have lived in fear of being required to do something beyond it. Take gymnastics, for instance; the school had a well-equipped gym but we were never allowed to lay a finger on any of the apparatus, to the intense frustration of those of us who repeatedly asked to be taught to use it.

For the eight years I was there, it all gathered dust, completely untouched, except for the single occasion when we were, for some long-forgotten reason, required to dance round the vaulting horse (some of us fervently wishing that it could be set alight with Miss Fortune inside; years later, 'The Wicker Man' seemed uncannily familiar).

It's not as if I was devoid of any sporting ability. Miss Fortune's dislike of me meant that I had almost invariably incurred a punishment by the time we reached the sports field; as her default punishment was a three-mile cross-country run in difficult terrain, I usually managed to stay out of her vicinity until the end of the lesson - and, to her evident chagrin, ended up as a half-decent runner as well.

In fact, I proceeded to beat one of her Chosen in the 4,000 metres on sports day - though it never appeared on the results board; Miss Fortune, visiting the changing room afterwards, disqualified me for wearing the wrong coloured underwear.

All of this, besides getting some major baggage off my chest (thank you for listening!), is a long-winded way of saying that, however well-meaning the regulations or requirements, people like Miss Fortune do exist, and that no school aside from a small elite is going to have the staff or facilities to accommodate all possible types of sport without unrealistic financial investment.

That being so, it would surely be better to leave proper sports coaching and provision to outside clubs - nothing to stop them coming into schools as guests, of course - and allow schools to choose the level and type of physical activity on offer to suit the location, expertise of staff and interests of the parents.

James Higham makes a good point about activity being necessary - not too long ago, of course, children walked to school - but this does not mean they should be subjected to all the horror of team games.

Remember, if history is always written by the winners, team games are almost always taught - and advocated - by those who succeeded at them.

(Given the above, it is with a certain amount of wry amusement that I discovered that, according to the BBC's completely pointless 'which Olympic sport best matches your physique' gadget , I am exactly the same height and weight as a member of the British women's gymnastics team - a shame it's several decades too late!)


  1. Being a late in the school year baby (27th June) put me at a serious disadvantage when it came to sports.
    there were boys almost a year ahead of me physically who always got picked first and there was no way we could compete on anything like equal terms (unless you had a pituitary gland tumour)

    PE to me was endless cross country drags whilst the PE teacher coached the first XV and first XI players of my year. ( all born Sept , Oct, Nov mainly)

    And has left me with a disinterest in all sport ever since.

  2. in addition we were also required each year to fund raise on behalf of the First XV or First XI (they alternated yearly)
    to send them on tour to somewhere nice. I recall in my final year of the 6th form the First XV got a month long tour to Canada. I'm quite proud of not having raised a penny towards it

  3. PC, though I don;t have much time for Rod Liddle as a rule, he described the situation perfectly:

    "Some 13-year-old boys are built like telephone boxes and are already shaving while others look like Shirley Temple, yet they're all expected to play rugby together"

    My son, an August baby, was firmly relegated to the C team (most of the time they just played frisbee instead) but his school, too, regularly sent the first teams to exotic locations (along with a ridiculous number of accompanying staff) - the organisers seemed genuinely hurt and surprised when we declined to contribute to the cause.

  4. A cousin of mine (by marriage) has a son whose school report included something along the lines that he could do better at sports. When my cousin went to see the teacher to ask why he was told that his son didn't show much interest in sport.

    My cousin then told the teacher that his son was a black belt in Judo so it was nothing to do about lack of interest in sport and probably more to do with crap teaching (though he did say it more politely than that!).

  5. XX he school had a well-equipped gym but we were never allowed to lay a finger on any of the apparatus, XX

    Aye. Same in my schools. Although NEVER participating, we were always forced to "sit in". Besides reading, all you had to do was look at those rows upon rows of extremely expensive roll out wall bars, and wonder "WTF are THEY for then."

    Something that always fascinated me, even though never having the intention to use them.

    I never saw them used, and no one I have ever asked has ever seen them used either, INCLUDING the old sports teacher (who I once met a couple of years later, whilst arresting him, (Made my month, so it did! :-)) ) who had been at the school from the day it opened, some 30 years.

  6. SBML, I had a similar comment from Miss Fortune about a lack of interest - she was, of course, completely unaware that my friends and I were playing volleyball, running and swimming on a regular basis several evenings a week - and here's the key bit - for fun.

    It's typical of the blinkered attitude Longrider describes - in fact, some of the comments at OoL describe outright hostility to pupils who presume to succeed at a sport outside school.

    FT; "I once met [him] a couple of years later, whilst arresting him"

    Wow! That must be far more satisfying than just writing a blog post about one's games teacher!

    I sometimes wonder if schools put the bars in because it looks right - it's a school gym, it must have wall bars - without anyone having a clue what they are for.

    There was a rumour that those benches with hooks on the end were meant to attach to them to make bridges, which sounded rather entertaining, but our experiments in that direction just led to more cross-country punishment runs.

  7. Remember Brian Glover in the film "Kes"? The odd thing about that was that the school where it was filmed was reckoned to be quite good and relatively balanced in its sports as well as having decent facilities. My Elementary School did no sport at all but the secondary school I was lucky enough to get to had a decent range, notably in gym work.

  8. XX FT; "I once met [him] a couple of years later, whilst arresting him"

    Wow! That must be far more satisfying than just writing a blog post about one's games teacher!XX

    :-) It was, I can tell you.

    I managed to get my old maths teacher, Julie "My husbands a barrister don't you know, filthy pig?" Hale, as well.

    The rest were O.K.

  9. Demetrius, I have to admit I've never seen Kes; is it like the book?

    If you did gym work - you lucky thing! - then you, of all people, should be able to tell us about the wall bars; does anyone really know what they are for? (and I don't count resourceful gym teachers thinking up something on the spur of the moment)

    FT: if only there was some way you could contact your former self and say; "Hey, cheer up; in a few years' time, that teacher is going to get arrested - and you'll be the one who does it!"

  10. As a teenager, I liked to claim that wall bars put me in shape for hanging around on street corners. The gym teacher, also a rugby international trialist, alleged they were for set piece movements for body control and conditioning. I still think my explanation was the better one, especially in the days of old fashioned lamp posts.

  11. mens sana in corpore sano

    It will pass. :)

  12. Demetrius, that explains a lot. The only thing I remember anyone doing with ours is putting Christmas decorations on them every year.

    JH, ...but not for many years yet, I hope.

  13. Amazing what a common experience this seems to have been.

    I went to secondary school (independent - pretty good academically) as a more than competent ice hockey junior, and discovered (a) nobody had heard of it or thought it worth doing and (b) we had "games" on Saturday afternoons so I had to give up the one sport I was good at and enjoyed, just like that.

    "Games" of course, meant football.

    I hated it, and hate it still.

    Nothing, but nothing, would get you "off games" except serious certified physical illness, or seriously bad weather; as we were in the driest part of England apart from the Isle of Wight, that was rare; I spent years of Wednesday and Saturday mornings longing for heavy rain.

    Much later I found ways round this, but I never got back to my hockey. Sad.