Battle in Print: Therapeutic competition for losers

Dan Travis

Competitive sport in schools has been on the decline since the eighties. Traditional sports are increasingly taught and played outside of schools in clubs. Many see this trend as detrimental and the government and local education authorities have intervened with policies that have now been adopted by schools. Although competitive sport still survives in pockets (like the Specialist Sports Colleges), the policy initiatives have left the majority of children participating in something very different. I will argue that what they are playing at is selling them short. Children are missing out on a potentially enriching experience of true sporting competition.

The current angst over the decline of sport in schools has two sources. First, there is still a strong sense that competition is character-building and in this way is seen as good in itself. This view laments that if children are not exposed to competition they are missing out on a valuable lesson in life and is most common among parents. Second, competition is good for the mental and physical wellbeing of children, in this sense it is seen as healthy. Policymakers use sport in an instrumental way because of the physical and therapeutic effects it may have. This is far more attractive to policymakers than character-building. It is in this way that sport in schools has been politicised. The health concerns of the adult world are projected onto children and we end up with what I would argue is ‘therapeutic competition’. The primary goals of therapeutic competition are to raise self-esteem and improve health.

When it is recast as health or therapy, school sport is emptied of its genuine competitive content. This has been achieved in two ways. Physical education in schools has taken competition and reproduced it badly in therapeutic form. Competition has also been removed altogether, and sport reduced to exercise. The typical PE lesson will take the formal aspect of competition (somebody wins something), tack it on to meaningless and banal activities and maintain they are still ‘competitive’. For example:

On the last day of the year at Tong High School in Bradford a group of 13-year-old girls are intensely involved in their final PE lesson - captivated by a spider’s web and a drainpipe. They wriggle through threads criss-crossing a frame, the ‘spider’s web’, while the short lengths of drainpipe are used in a team game to pass a ball to the other end of the sports hall without dropping it.

The games, which are competitive, designed to develop balance, concentration and agility in pupils of all abilities, are part of the school’s efforts to extend the appeal of physical exercise beyond traditional games (Conn 25.7.2007).

If we were to add to David Conn’s list and say that sport ‘raises self-esteem’, the therapeutic trend would become obvious.

The reason that the true competitive element is being removed from school sport stems from the fact that competitive sport risks causing the individual child harm. Isolating a child from activities and actions that may lower self-esteem is an inherent part of the child-centred approach (CCA). Competitive sports are not ideal for raising self-esteem for the simple reason that a child may lose, which will almost inevitably lead to a temporary loss of self-esteem. For this reason, the CCA cannot co-exist with true competition in the form of traditional sports. The sentiment behind the CCA, that of raising self-esteem, is far stronger than the desire to see children become more competitive on the sports field. This is why any attempt to reintroduce competition into schools has to first meet the requirements of the CCA. As the two are incompatible, what remains is a compromise that suits the requirements of the CCA.

We present children with the positive and shield them from the negative. I deal with the following response on a weekly basis in the tennis clubs that I run. About 20 per cent of parents, seeing that their child is upset because they have lost, consider competing in sport as seriously problematic. They will often question the structure that is used or the ‘fairness’ of it. A number of parents will bring their children to coaching and training but will not enter their child into competition as they do not think this is what sport is about.

There is a reason that traditional competitive sports are truly competitive and have meaning for the participants. They set a universal standard to which all can aspire. The nature of the sports themselves allows a child to measure their progress both individually and in comparison to other children. In this way they have meaning. The infant activities with a spider’s web are competitive in name only and are specifically designed to be meaningless. When sport becomes reduced to exercise, the complexity, and richness of competition as a human experience disappears. It is replaced by the banal, the individuated activity and the fad. An example of this has been the arming of children with pedometers so they can measure how many steps they have taken in a given day.

During the tennis summer camps that my company runs, a child revealed to me that he had been wearing a pedometer. He showed me how many steps he had taken during the two hours he had been training. Non-competition had come full circle. Playing tennis is good because it produces more than the required number of steps.

Hitting a target that is produced by a policy wonk, however, is very different from playing a sport and beating someone else. Reaching the ‘required’ or ‘recommended’ target will have very little or no physical impact on a child in the short- or long-term. Policy targets in relation to physical health are, by their nature, dull and irrelevant. Children drop activities very quickly because they become routine and there is no tangible goal beyond hitting the target. Once dropped, the activities involved in meeting targets are very rarely taken up again by children.

‘Every little bit of extra physical activity we incorporate into our lives can make a huge difference in terms of health improvement.’ - Caroline Flint (former minister for public health)

In September 2007, the government launched its ‘Schools on the Move’ pilot scheme. Around 10,000 children will be given pedometers and will be encouraged to walk further. Quite apart from the expert evidence that the use of pedometers in children’s exercise is an utter waste of time, there is a further flaw in the policy. The use of pedometers is a stark example of placing quantity over quality. This is a flaw to be found in most sports policy, be it governmental or of individual sporting bodies. Whether it is ‘increasing the numbers participating’ or encouraging children to take more regular exercise, the emphasis is always on quantity. To compete effectively, children need quality training. They need to acquire skills and train at a level of intensity that will help improve fitness and efficacy.

Whatever the motives or benefits, reducing sport to exercise robs society of something that can be very rewarding. To have competitive sport in a community involves a number of people co-operating on a day-to-day basis to keep the thing running, often voluntarily. Socially, competition is a complicated thing to achieve. A number of people from different walks of life, who would not normally work together, do so when it comes to keeping alive a competitive sports club.

Conducting my own research in Brighton, it was interesting to see the demise of athletics in late-primary and secondary schools. Whereas 25 years ago it was common to have a 12-year-old representing their school in the various disciplines of athletics, such as 100m hurdles, 400m and long jump, this specialisation is now absent. When I was at secondary school there would be an inter-form competition that would have 100m hurdles, 400m and shot put. Children from different forms would compete against each other. The school sports day has famously now been reduced to ‘participatory’ games and the individual athletics events are long gone. I remember the child who was the fastest in my school, and I was obsessive about my times for the 100m to 1500m. Having asked about 50 children ‘who is the fastest in your school?’ only a very few could reply, and with very little certainty at that. This is of little surprise, as school sports days no longer have a running race!

If a child is going to reap the benefits of competitive sport, then winning has to matter. You have to have a personal stake in victory. Losing, on the other hand, although not the end of the world, is a failure. Taking this one step further, you have to have beaten at least one other person to have won. Sport can have many other benefits, but having a winner must be at the top of the list.

There are a number of lessons one can learn about life from competitive sport. I would say the most important for children are: 1) Even if you really want it, it does not mean that you are going to get it; and 2) Someone is always going to be better than you at most things. At some point one of these people will beat you.

The removal of competition from sport at school-level may be due to a simple lack of imagination on the part of policymakers. I hope so, because this can be corrected. My fear, however, is that the cultural climate that protects losers cannot allow the assertiveness of winners. It will continue to produce empty shells of human experience in policy form that drain the lifeblood of competition from sport.

Dan Travis is Director of the Brighton Salon, a tennis coach and researcher into sports training techniques for children.


Conn, D. (25.7.2007). ‘A quiet revolution in schools presents a fitter picture’. Guardian.

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