Is competitive sport good for children?

Competitive sport ‘puts off pupils’ | BBC. A poll for the MCC and cricketing charity Chance to Shine (you see what they’re doing there, right?) has some disturbing implications for those who think that school sport is all about fostering a sense of competition among young people. It turns out — according to the poll, which, like all polls, will just as likely be contradicted by another as soon as anyone decides to do one — that 64% of eight to 16-year-olds polled said they would be “relieved, not bothered or happier” if winning or losing were not a factor. 84% still believed that winning or losing was important. However,just 22% of parents said they would be less interested in watching sport if it were not competitive.

I have three sets of feelings about these findings: as a qualified fencing coach and championship fencer, as someone who used to run childhood obesity campaigns for the NHS, and as someone who — until discovering fencing — was more or less the least sporty child in any school I happened to be attending.

Growing up as an unsporty child from an unsporty family, going to school (initially) in one of England’s most deprived areas, was not a great deal of fun. The other boys would talk knowledgeably about football (at age 8), and I wouldn’t even know what they were talking about. At senior school I was an enthusiastic rather than competent rugby full-back, and a number 11 or 12 depending on whether the House team had enough players not to need me. For years I never actually managed to hit the ball when playing softball, though sometimes the ball managed to hit me — I got a lovely black eye one summer; heaven knows what it would have been like if we’d been playing with the hard ball. I always explained the softball problem as being that the bat was round, and there were no wickets, so it was a much more hit and miss affair. Actually, it was always miss, though my cricketing was little better.

Then I discovered a sport I loved: after one session of fencing, under Professor Peter Northam, I was completely captivated.

Fencing, as a teenager, and then years later when I took it up again as an adult, did things to my body. My co-ordination improved, so did my stamina. The shape of my arms and legs changed. I found I could do things easily which I previously thought were more or less impossible. I was fencing three times a week, and if I’d found any way to fence more, I would have fenced every day, and every evening.

It was when I was sixteen that I wandered out of fencing, down the ash path, to see part of my year group playing softball. Green grass, blue sky, everyone wearing white did something to me after the enclosure of a sweaty gym. I had done my ‘games option’ during the lunch hour, so I was free of the obligation to ‘do games’ — something which I would have killed for earlier in my school career, as long as that didn’t involve physical exertion. Now, I wanted to play.

I asked the teacher in charge, and he said that I might. I suspect he was a little surprised. When it came to my turn to bat, I was faced with a problem. Experience had taught me all too well that I had no hope of hitting the ball. But I was sixteen, and looking cool, when you are sixteen, is far more important than almost anything else, even if your efforts produce exactly the reverse effect. So I stuck the bat behind my head, intending to nonchalantly have a bit of a swing, and then laugh off the fact that I’d missed by saying that I never really intended to hit it.

“Are you ready?” said the teacher. “Yes,” I said. “But you’re not holding the bat ready,” he replied. I shrugged.

The pitcher threw the ball. I swung the bat lazily round. For the first time in my life, the middle of the bat connected with the ball. There was a satisfying thump, and the ball duly sailed over the heads of everyone, burying itself only a few yards short of the nets designed to stop cricketers hitting the ball into the Bristol Road. I sauntered round for a home run. For the rest of the season, I hit a home run every time I picked up the bat.

Now, lest you think that I had acquired supernatural sports skills, this was the part of the year group which was only marginally more sporty than I was. The serious athletes were off playing cricket, or running a hundred metres. Nonetheless, it taught me something which I had not previously known: serious sport has an impact far beyond itself.


With my NHS obesity campaigns hat on, which is something I did from 2001-2012, I have to agree that getting children involved in sport is physically one of the best things you can possibly do for them. Keeping adults involved in sport is equally important.

I should admit here to being a naturally competitive person. My first name is Martin, which means warlike. My last name is Turner, which it turns out is not derived from a sort of carpenter, but from ‘one who jousts or duels’. My middle name is Marshall, which, aside from being a particularly satisfying guitar amplifier, is a word for a senior military official. I’m not sure that names determine character, but I really can’t argue that I live up to all three of them.

However, much as I am a competitive person, and much as I would urge anyone to take up competitive sport rather than mere exercise, I don’t believe that it is the competitive element which really does children much good. During the twenty years that I was a youth worker, I never met a teenager who was not competitive. Teens learn to mask it, like me trying to be cool by pretending I didn’t really plan to hit the softball (though I was desperate that I should), but if you observe them for long, you see that they compete in absolutely everything.

When sporty teens turn into non-sporty adults, which happens all too often, they lose the health benefits of sport, but not the competitiveness. Someone once described a football match as “22 people in desperate need of a rest being watched by 22,000 people in desperate need of exercise”.

Not that I want to decry being a supporter of a football club.


It’s true that you need a certain competitiveness to succeed in sport, but it’s not the only element, and it can get out of hand. I was refereeing some extremely competitive fights last Saturday at the Birmingham International Fencing Tournament. Not all of them were particularly pretty. There comes a point where someone’s desire to win exceeds their ability to perform. They move quicker, hit harder, and get crosser if the point is given against them.

It’s probably fair to say that anyone who enters the Birmingham is going to be in the upper echelon of competitiveness anyway. Once injury plays a part, and exhaustion, all the athlete can do is draw deeper on emotional reserves to push the unwilling body to do yet more. After the final of one fencing competition, which finished 15-14 in my favour, my opponent was taken off to A&E in a state of complete exhaustion (for the record, he made a complete recovery, and this is not what A&E is for). Certainly a lot of fencers could do with better technique, rather than merely more courage. I confess to being one of them.


People look at today’s Britain, and our performance in industry against the rest of the world, in football, rugby and cricket, in tennis and in other areas, and bemoan the fact that we do not do more to make our children more competitive. There’s a slight element of Rule Britannia here. The UK is a relatively small country. At the last Olympic games we took the third best haul of medals, and at the previous one we took the fourth best. No other country of a similar size came close. To be sure, our cricket team is not the best. Two years ago, though, it was ranked number 1 in the world. We went a long time between having a men’s singles Wimbledon champion and the next one, but, then, most nations have never had one at all. As far as our rugby is concerned, we’ve had some pretty significant victories. For football, we have (or had) some of the world’s top teams. We’re just not organised to give the national team the same priority it is given elsewhere. For industry, we are still one of the world’s largest economies, and our lack or productivity is better linked to our lack of investment than a shortage of the fighting spirit.

The truth is — and anyone who goes to live abroad for a few years can confirm this — that the British are hugely competitive in nature.

I do believe that school sport has a vital role to play in relation to competitiveness, but not in fostering it, rather in channelling it. Athletes should compete, musicians should collaborate, artists should be inspired by one another, academics should stimulate. The one-size-fits-all of encouraging competition is not right for all students, and it certainly is not right for all disciplines.

I also believe that students should be exposed to different sports so that they can find which one is right for them. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, brilliantly exposes the simple arithmetic of birthdays which determines which children are going to be picked for which teams. Older children in the year group almost always make it into the teams early, they then get all the coaching, and the gap widens. Individual sports, where the athlete does not have to accept less assiduous coaching, or a place only in the lower teams, have a lot to offer. Naturally I would recommend fencing, but tennis, table-tennis, badminton, horse-riding and judo will do just as well. Some will find their freedom in track and field.

Competition is part of most sports whether we like it or not: sports are, after all, created by humans, in our own image. I would urge, however, two things to be added to the sports curriculum. They are both much talked about, but I have never seen them taught. One is to lose heroically. The other is to win graciously.

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