During the recent increase in childhood obesity, Higher Education cuts and our Nation’s continued sporting hysteria, the question of sport’s impact on our educated youth has never been more relevant. While our Government blindly pumps money into sport with the assumed belief – among other motives – that professional, elite sports will magically inspire and excite young adults and children into achieving excellence at school, I propose that such claims remain largely unproven.
Behind such financial investments as the £162 Million PE and Sport Strategy, as introduced by the previous Labour Administration, there are three main arguments commonly endorsed by PE teachers, coaches and – unfortunately for our current generation – the new Conservative Head of Education. These, as I’m sure you have heard before, are ‘sport is character building’ (self-development through gained personal and life shills), ‘sport is healthy’ (…and a healthy body means a healthy mind) and, lastly, ‘sport is fun’ (enjoyment that energises individuals and provides a helpful break from studying). Indeed, it is not uncommon for such understandings to be used to promote the ‘education value’ of sport. All of these arguments, I feel, lack theoretical and practical grounding, and the reasons lie in the true nature of modern sport.
The institution of Sport, during our current modern era in the western world, has a number of underlying characteristics. Firstly, it is highly stratified, meaning its participants (players, coaches and executives for example) are divided and grouped by status and power; the chairman being at the top of the pyramid and the players at the bottom. This hierarchical system keeps the powerful in control by providing a higher category for each group to strive towards; reproducing itself over time and keeping the lower groups from rebelling. Indeed, this system is the chosen approach for sports clubs and – not too dissimilarly – militaries throughout the western world. The behaviour of authoritarian coaches and corporate shareholders in modern football are prime examples.
Secondly, sport is – as is required for a stratified system to function – primarily focused on performance. The financial rewards, global media coverage and social significance of success in modern sport have meant that winning far outweighs anything else. In fact, even Physical Education or lower levels of competitive sport share these underlying traits, as the talented and successful children receive social status and popularity, while the lesser able children are usually picked last and have to deal with the embarrassment, shame and social consequences of losing that have become part of our mass sporting culture. Unfortunately for both this argumentation and for any potential change to occur, such psychological and social ratifications are, inevitably, very difficult to measure. However, the fact that 70% of our young people cease participating in sport when they leave school (‘The Wolfenden Gap’) perhaps tells its own story.
Indeed, as my examples have shown, and as much of the general public I’m sure have also experienced, these regimented characteristics are common place within sport and physical education. In view of this, the three primary beliefs behind the naïve adoption of sport as an educational aid are highly ambiguous. ‘Character building’ may be partly true for the minority of highly successful and, therefore, confident and responsible sporting individuals, but for the most part, working within the hierarchical system of sport merely teaches forced conformity and blind faith in one’s superiors; skills that can hardly be considered as positive self-development. Furthermore, due to the pressure of performance, focus on sporting success and conformity to the coach/teacher’s orders, injuries and dangerous play are also a frequent occurrence; questioning the truth behind the assumptions of sport as a healthy activity. The average life expectancy of American Football players, at just 52 years of age for instance, is shocking to say the least. Moreover, in Britain alone, 3.5 million children receive medical treatment for a sports-related injury every year.
Lastly, coupled with the previous arguments, the idea of sport being enjoyable, bearing in mind the social ratifications and potentially dangerous and authoritative environment that children and young adults are placed in within sport and PE, is also largely flawed. The truth is that for in order for one team to win, the other must lose. And if – and quite possibly so – a number of those winning players have underperformed, acquired an injury or have been undermined or exploited by their coach/teacher, they too would experience very little enjoyment; leaving very few feeling satisfied. Never the less, such practices continue to plague youth sport and PE in our country, keeping this stratified system firmly in place.
Clearly, the existence of fun, healthy and rewarding sporting environments is hugely questionable. These, coupled with the already ambiguous idea of sport as a positive influence on behaviours and performances within education, must surely highlight the need for change! If sport and education are to work in tandem, the institution of sport must change its performance-focused, segregating ways, towards a more humanistic and relaxed means of functioning, particularly through PE. At the very least, our political, teaching and coaching populace should think critically about their thoughtless assumptions and, consequently, misguided regimes that have such a prevalent effect on the British public.