Sports day is one of those rites of passage that we’ve all got memories of (my love of obstacle races is still alive and kicking). Yet it wasn’t so long ago that sports days were relegated to the dog house, when competition was viewed as a bad thing for kids. Instead, in the name of inclusivity, the focus was about celebrating participation – where everyone was a winner. But kids aren’t daft – they’d have known who was turbo-charged and adults were underestimating them by avoiding making the obvious even more so.
Unfortunately, shielding the less observant and more sensitive kids from competition just misleads them about a fact of life. The well-meant desire to avoid such challenges also feels a bit defeatist (like we are assuming the worst). As with a lot of things, sports day can show them that whilst they aren’t always going to win, they can still have fun. Such early experiences may even inoculate them from exam pressures in later years as they’ll have had practice in rising to the occasion.
The same fear probably underpins parental nervousness on the day itself – how will our kids cope if they’re at back of the pack? …but I don’t reckon those at the front get an easy ride either. Those who’re expected to win may feel pressure to perform – it’s not quite so obvious if you come 6th rather than 5th, but going from 1st to 3rd may hit harder. If you know it’s not ‘your race’, you can give it a go, enjoy it and anything else is a bonus. Whilst it’s true that you need to ‘be in it to win it’, the sense of deflation may be greater for those pipped to the post than those who come comfortably last.
Speaking of wanting to win, I need to eat my words about my eldest being laid-back, these days he’s as competitive as they come. Learning to lose graciously is still a work-in-progress though – and where sports day comes. Although I know it’s character-building, I still find it tricky to say the right thing, so usually end up with a schizophrenic mixture of morale-boosting platitudes: “don’t give up”, “give it your best”, swiftly followed afterwards by: “…it was only a race”.
As adults, we know it doesn’t matter a jot – but little disappointments can feel big when you’re small. Luckily, they take their cues from us, so if we brush them off, so will they in time. My guys have usually moved-on by dinner time and in any case, I’d like to think that defeat teaches them the value of modesty when things do go their way.
Unless you’re Judy Murray, who encouraged competition in her sons, or the fictitious parents in Claudia Winkleman’s comedy column, the racing mindset is the antithesis of what we say to our kids during the rest of the year. All year we reinforce the need to help others and say things like “no, you go first…” in the name of civility, then one day in June it’s a case of every man for themselves (and quite literally, the survival of the fittest). We catch ourselves telling them to just have fun, do their best, or to unleash their inner Usain Bolt (despite the fact that they don’t run, pass batons or manhandle space hoppers during the rest of the year). We want them to be modest in victory, graceful in defeat, team-players and good sports. Not much then.
But whilst most of us will be encouraging our kids to brush off defeat, parents of the winners seem to struggle too. They usually look slightly embarrassed – no doubt privately elated, but wary of showing it in public. I once commented to a Dad I didn’t know that his son had done amazingly well – the guy was modest in the extreme, verging on apologetic.
With the inevitable false starts, triumphs and defeats ahead – it’s time to brace ourselves (preferably with a chocolate biscuit in tow).