{06/08/2012}   Childhood sporting opportunities

There is much talk during the Olympics of inspiring young people to do more sport, to try more sports and to believe that being an Olympic athlete is possible if it’s something you think you might want to pursue.  This is a wonderful London Olympics legacy but it’s made me contemplate my childhood of sport and whether schools (clubs is a different matter) really do have the capabilities and facilities to let children experiment with sports and encourage and support them where necessary.

I am well aware that things have changed a lot since I was at school but I am not convinced that your average state school can nurture sporting talent.  Private schools have more funds and access to more facilities and fewer students per teacher, and that appears to be reflected in the educational backgrounds of Team GB every Olympic Games.  And therein, probably, lies the problem: too few trainers/teachers to give individual attention and not enough access to different sports.

As I recall, at school we did running, shot put, javelin, high jump, long jump, gymnastics, swimming, hockey, netball (girls), football (boys), handball, badminton, squash, cricket (boys), possibly tennis, rounders … there must have been more.  Oh yes, there was a bit of dry slope skiing as there was a dry slope near our school.  Squash we did at one school in the sixth form by virtue of there being a squash club next to our school.  Swimming we did at a school that had a tiny outdoor pool, shot put and javelin were, as I recall, rare novelty PE sessions, likewise long jump.  A whole group of children of varying abilities in a sports hall or field seems more merely passing the time than nurturing and encouraging.

Unexpectedly, I developed an ability to do high jump at the school I was at from 13 to 18, though I don’t remember “having to” do it after 16.  I recall consistently being able to jump the highest and with a very, erm, unique style, namely running and jumping (no flops or scissor jumps, I would just jump and land on my feet and walk off).  I was never taught how to jump or that perhaps I could jump even higher if I did the Fosbury Flop, which I didn’t know how to do.  Then came county championships and, as the best high jumper, I was, as I recall, told I would be going wherever they were held and would be competing to represent Kent.  As a virtually mute, painfully shy child, this did not appeal at all.  As I remember it, and I could be wrong, I was taken to a place I’d never been before (an athletics place) and basically pointed in the right direction by a PE teacher who took us all to the try outs.  I remember feeling completely alone and thoroughly confused.  It was an unmitigated disaster.  All the other competitors for the high jump were smartly kitted out and Fosbury Flopping all over the place.  I might as well have whinnied and set off for the jump with my mane flying.  I was so nervous and overwhelmed I couldn’t even do the practice jump.  I can’t remember if I even competed.  I just remember it was a horrendous experience.  I also don’t recall doing high jump again after that.

It was only in my past-it adulthood that I registered that my mum had done hurdles and I was an acceptable short distance runner and did high jump straight on.  To this day, I desperately wish I could have tried hurdles but I’ve never even seen hurdles other than on the television.

I think if you are exceptional at a sport that happens to be taught at your school, you might end up at a club, where you should get the support and coaching necessary.  I do think schools should have greater access to different sports.  I never did water sports beyond swimming at school, cycling was just something you learnt to do.  I think it was through Brownies or possibly the odd Venture Scouts (?) activity that I tried canoeing once.

I hope these London Olympics do give children greater enthusiasm to try new sports and that they are given such opportunities.  I also wish there were more PE teachers and it wasn’t just, as I recall it, two PE teachers, one taking a big group of boys, the other a big group of girls.  We played a lot of rounders – it’s easy to set up and fun – but a lot of children don’t like or feel confident playing team games; it’s not even an Olympic sport, it’s just a game you play as a child.  I believe that schools and clubs should be attached so teachers can direct pupils to places they can go to improve on their specific skills, if they want.  There is a lot more that could and should be done to nurture our future athletes, sports people and Olympians.


ben1ben2 says:

Nice blog. But don’t you think the array of sports you’ve even had the chance to try is pretty good, pretty privileged? Should state schools produce rowers? Football is full of state school kids.
Investment in facilities of all types is important but I don’t really care if all GB’s medalled rowers went to Oxbridge…

On thinking about sports I’d tried at school, I think you’re right that it was pretty good. Though I don’t recall doing some of them (javelin and shot put in particular) more than a few times. However, my issue isn’t so much that a disproportionate number of GB medal winners went to public school, more that you can kind of see why so many successful athletes did go to private school, in that they have more funding for facilities and sporting opportunities and fewer students per teacher.

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