The Blog

Why We Should Encourage Our Children To Be Competitive At Sport

Which is why I was so saddened to read a report published earlier this month suggesting that over half the sports days taking place in our primary schools this summer will be 'non-competitive'. There will be no winners, no losers. There will simply be participants. Is this what we really want for our kids?

You win some, you lose some. It's a fact of life and an adage that has stood me in good stead as an athlete, a father and as a businessman. Understanding that it is 'OK' to lose - that it is something to learn from, and not be ashamed by - has undoubtedly helped shape me as an individual.

Which is why I was so saddened to read a report published earlier this month suggesting that over half the sports days taking place in our primary schools this summer will be 'non-competitive'. There will be no winners, no losers. There will simply be participants. Is this what we really want for our kids?

The trend of cutting out competition isn't confined to school sports days, or indeed to primary school environments. Competitive sports and events have been steadily disappearing from our school yards and playing fields in recent years.

Following the huge success of the 2012 Olympics, I thought things might change. Particularly when the 'Going the extra mile: Excellence in competitive sport' report was published, prompting the (then) chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to warn that more had to be done to boost competitive sport in our state schools.

His primary argument focused on the need to create more pathways through to top flight sport - that failure to focus on competitive activity at a young age was creating class hurdles that could see diversity disappear from our national teams. At the time I remember reading a reaction from one of Mo Farah's teachers who said "every child should have the right to be a position where they could become a sporting hero".

He's right, they should. And a healthy exposure to competition is essential to support that journey. Without it, young people with natural talent or simply an interest in sport will never be driven to be the best they can be in their particular discipline. Many will even drop out without ever realising their potential.

To put this into perspective for a second - imagine if teachers told students that it doesn't really matter whether they improve at a certain subject, or that they shouldn't strive to beat their last exam/test grade in order to secure a result that reflects their true capabilities. That SAT test grades and A Level results don't really matter, it's the taking part that counts. We don't demonise competition in other aspects of education, so why do we in sport?

Don't get me wrong. In no way do I advocate a 'pushy parent' culture where young people are pressured to excel. But they should have the opportunity to find out what they are capable of. They should be encouraged to find out.

That being said, while I support anything that aims to promote diversity in, and access to, top flight sport - what's more important to me (and why I'm so concerned) is that exposure to competition can also help you to be 'the best you can be' in life.

When I asked the question earlier about whether participation by itself is enough, you might have thought I must clearly object to the stance that "it's the taking part that counts". I don't. I absolutely support it. But in order to "take part" you have to take part in every aspect - absorb the whole experience. The nervous anticipation of competing, the camaraderie of teamwork, the elation of victory, the humility and grace of dealing with defeat, the excitement of improving, the patience of practice.

You deliberately shield children from winning and losing and you cut them off from emotions and experiences that are as valuable to them as any qualifications.

I read an interesting Forbes article linked to this subject - it was a couple of years ago now but I was reminded of it by these new sports day statistics. It was by a businesswoman and leadership specialist called Margie Warrell and was entitled "Prepare your kids for success: teach them how to fail". The article was not purely about sport but about the harm that can come from being overprotective.

In it she astutely pointed out that our "primal instinct to protect can keep us from equipping our kids with the skills to handle life better" and acknowledged that her own children's "best life lessons have come from not being on the winning side or landing the lead role. They've come from the narrow one point defeat. They've come from not making the A-team. And they've come from learning how to pick themselves up and refocus on what's next."

It's an observation I can relate to. My own life has been full of twists and turns, successes and failures, and without my early exposure to sport I'm sure I would not have been able to process those experiences in the same way.

If we don't do something now to 'de-demonise' the concept of competing, we risk raising a generation who don't set themselves goals, don't react well when things don't go their way and who will never understand that losing is nothing to fear.

We also risk never exposing our kids to just how much fun it can be to compete. Let's not forget that children love playing games - games that have rules, winners, losers, and help build life-long friendships. Games that are fun. Sport is no different. Letting them discover that could be the thing which helps physical activity become a natural habit rather than a chore.

I have nothing against having non-competitive sports days in and of themselves. Many of them are fantastically run and hugely enjoyable for those taking part. But I do have an issue with them replacing 'traditional' sports events and festivals. There is something uniquely inspiring, exciting and magical about competing as a team or as an individual. Let's not take that away from our young people, it could be the making of them.