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The real benefits of school sports

Published Tuesday 8th of September 2015 12:34:02 PM

By Dan Abraham, Director of Football King Edward’s Witley Establishing a strong school sports programme requires a considerable outlay in financial terms. Playing fields, courts and halls, ground staff, specialist sports coaches, sports clothes and equipment do not come cheap and there is of course also the considerable investment in time from both staff and pupils. Given the significant level of commitment required, should we question the major role that sports play in so many independent schools? After all research suggests a mere twenty minutes of intense exercise a week is enough to maintain a healthy lifestyle … Participating in school sports is an essential part of the curriculum but in reality the benefits of such activity extends way beyond providing children with an opportunity to engage in physical exercise. The sports field can be viewed as a snap shot of real life, offering a chance to hone life skills essential to the rounded development of a person. Parents send their children to school to be educated but this education does not merely relate to academic prowess, it also applies to shaping the individual to ensure that they understand and accept the adaptive and positive behavior required to accomplish their ambitions and realise their full potential. Rather than ask ‘why play sport’ the question should really be ‘what do the pupils learn’ and more importantly ‘what do they become’? For the purposes of this article, I asked pupils from the 1st XI squad at King Edward’s Witley, what attributes makes a King Edward’s footballer. The answers reveal an insight into the bigger picture detailing the true value of sport. Technical/Tactical
 Players are put under high pressure when defending and are forced to play at a fast space. Opportunities exist to take on an opponent and switch play into new areas on the pitch. A good footballer has to be capable of making quick decisions and to always be aware of the other players on both teams. He / she needs to learn and understand the importance of set pieces and be capable of communicating with fellow team mates. Physical Stamina, strength and a high work rate are essential to success on the pitch, as is the ability to run efficiently. Players must accept that passion for the game and the chance to win must be managed by controlled aggression. Equally, it is vital that footballers accept the importance of a proper warm up / cool down strategy to prevent injury. 
 Mental Focus, concentration and dealing with success and disappointment professionally and fairly is a given expectation. A talented footballer will be confident, positive and unafraid to try something new. He / she will command natural leadership within the team and be capable of putting forward a viewpoint in team meetings. Social Social skills such as mutual respect (for fellow players), the acceptance of authority and the disciplinary code for the game as well as the obvious natural flair to work as part of a team all apply to the football pitch. 

 The FA recently launched the concept of "England DNA", which considers the qualities that make a footballer of the calibre required to represent his nation. Unsurprisingly the concept delves far wider than their skills on the pitch. The answers cited above from King Edward’s pupils follow a similar theme. The “DNA” of a King Edward’s footballer is clearly much more than their technical ability with a football. So how should schools use sport to instil these essential life skills? Coaching should focus on ball mastery, fun and flair, realistic practices and creating good players but not winning teams. King Edward’s coaches aim to develop skills such as ownership, self-confidence, risk-taking, motivation, positive attitudes and an innate understanding of team responsibilities. Sessions are designed to develop and challenge each player and where appropriate allow players to solve their own problems. The School’s technical and physical coaching promotes co-ordination and well-being that is not exclusively related to football. The benefits stretch far beyond the football pitch. Take something as simple as a warm-up. The main point here is not doing a warm-up, but understanding why it needs to be done. At King Edward’s we ensure that none of our coaches take the warm-up. These must be player led and players must be motivated to warm-up because they understand the benefits. How often do you see pupils standing around getting cold waiting for their coach to arrive? It’s a sight you will never see at King Edward’s, because regardless of whether the coach is there the players understand the benefits of a good warm-up and how to do it. This will still apply when they are fifty years old and getting ready to play squash with a work colleague. Fail to prepare then prepare to fail.

Few of our academic lessons promote social and mental life skills yet sport does in a way that is relevant to the real world and includes areas of life that sometimes we prefer to pretend don’t exist. For example, how to deal with failure. Getting on with people in a team environment that you don’t like. The list goes on. Playing sport teaches a work ethic and allows pupils to recognise that they can achieve through hard work. Pupils learn that acceptable failure is when there is a lack of talent. Unacceptable failure is when there has been a clear lack of application. Much has been made of the relevance of winning and losing. Do we play sport so we can win? The FA has introduced the concept of ‘no result leagues’, an initiative that has been running on the continent for years. So why ruin the players’ fun by telling them the score? Such a move allows the players to still enjoy a competitive game regardless of whether they win or lose. It could be argued that children just feel that they’ve let the adults down when they witness their reaction to the score. And what about the unused substitute, the weakest player in the squad, who the coach couldn’t bring on in case his presence causes the team to let their winning positon slip. At King Edwards’s we believe that competition and matches should have an emphasis on enjoyment, performance and learning. Whether it is an Under 18 match or our youngest age group, everyone plays in every game. Players enjoy and learn by playing football. Do good results help attract new pupils? Does beating your local rivals give a misinformed parent a view that one school is better than the other? These questions are best answered by the marketing department, but what I do know is that a school, which has mixed results must be offering a better education for their pupils than one that wins consistently. If sport is about teaching life skills, then pupils must understand that life is a mixture of success and failure. Learning how to cope with both is what is important. King Edward’s considers itself to be a successful footballing school. We reached the final of an Independent Schools national competition last season and for the past four years have had players representing the Independent Schools FA national teams. Yet to be really successful, to ensure our pupils are getting the very best education, losing some matches is just as important as winning them. So do we play to win? Absolutely, but we also play to lose because we want to teach our pupils that the true benefits of participating in sports lie not just in the results achieved on the pitch. Viewed in this context, every single match represents a victorious experience …
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