PE Sport and Physical Activity in Scotland and beyond

Competition without it we are all losers

Posted by drilly on November 4, 2007

I was reading the latest edition of Connected the publication produced by Learning and Teaching Scotland . As I started to read the article All in good sport I felt my hackles start to raise as competition and inevitably sport in schools was lambasted. Thankfully the article provided a balanced view with both sides of the argument for and against competition discussed.

I think you can guess where I stand, I regard competition as an essential element within education and sport and physical education. Within education and physical education the key for me is that competition is one element not the driver but not to be avoided either. George Lenorad said “Competition is the spice of sports; but if you make spice the whole meal you’ll be sick”

I think that when competition becomes the “whole meal” in education then it is a problem as we focus on outcomes we celebrate and recognise only winners we become elitist. My take on competition is that it cannot be avoided. For those of you who were at the National PE conference in 2006 you would have heard Frank Hadden SRU national rugby coach talk about this very subject “life is a competition if you get out of bed feeling good that is one -nil in my books” For those of you who were unable to make it you can still experience the conference through the DVDs available  from Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Don Ledingham recently wrote Competition – a dirty word in education?  During the recent Association of Headteachers and Deputes Scotland conference he noted the unease of the audience as one of the speakers explored the idea of competition. However the speakers message according to Don if we want to be good (or “excellent” in education) then we must refer to how others do”  In my opinion this is important if we are going to develop and improve whatever we are doing. There are always going to be organisations, groups or individuals who are trailblazers at the forefront and the pinnacle as they strive to be the best they can. If we are to improve we need to know where we are in relation to them and then plan and implement a programme of improvement.

As competition cannot be avoided in life then we have an obligation to expose our pupils to it but more importantly teach them how to deal with competition. How to compete in appropriate manner and how to deal with the outcome of competition graciously. Competition is a spice and it drives humans to incredible feats of endeavour, commitment and effort and this must surely be valuable. For me the most powerful and rewarding form of competition is the intrinsic form,  however I also find the need to look outside and gauge my performance against others so I truly understand the level I am performing at.

In my mind it is not competition that is the problem it is failure. I can hear the sharp intakes of breath already, but before you deride me as one of those PE teachers who has no time for losers I actually mean something different.  The problem with failure is how we perceive it failure is something that must not happen, it is to be avoided at all costs, failure means weakness. In PE failure has an added dimension in that it is very public, potentially everyone in the class can view it. In a maths class failure can be contained within the pupils jotter and only needs to be between the teacher and the pupil. The upshot of all this is that we have a culture of trying to avoid failure.

Richard Bailey has explored this theme extensively within physical education basing a lot of his thinking on the work of John Holt and his book How Children Fail (a must read). Bailey alludes to children in physical education and the strategies they adopt to avoid failing. They become risk averse and afraid to take chances (“the cautious seldom err” Confucius), they stay on the periphery of the class to avoid being noticed and they become experts at guessing the response the teacher wants. What we need to do is turn failure on its head and view it as the basis of a positive learning experience. Basically from birth we learn by trial and error and if something  doesn’t work (a failure) we modify our approach and try again and the process continues until we achieve. Therefore if we fear failure and try to avoid it are we truly learning? In my view we should possibly be celebrating failure as by failing the learner has taken a risk, they have tried to do something that they do not have mastery off, they have moved out of their comfort zone and tried something new and this should be applauded. Mistakes are the portals of discovery” James Joyce. Don Ledingham has explored the value of this with the idea of a permission to learn card that encourages learners to take risks and embrace failure as a means to move forward. I think Winston Churchill sums it up perfectly “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

3 Responses to “Competition without it we are all losers”

  1. Here, here. I hesitate to use the word competition, without immediately offering the non-competitive alternative to teachers. In languages, for example, competition grabs half your class – the boys – instantly. I do appreciate that many don’t find it attractive. Personally, when I feel competitivity being applied at work I can sometimes feel like just turning my back on it, while other days I grasp it and end up doing great things. It must, I guess, come down to contexts and relationships with those you are being competitive against. Where the fellow competitors are faceless or unknown it makes it a lot easier than in the situations most of us meet every day, where collaboration might be better.

  2. drilly said

    I agree Ewan there are situations where collaboration is more favourable than competition and it is all to do with the context of the situation.

  3. […] ensure the highest levels of activity as well. I have expressed my views on competition before in a previous post. The study also highlights the positive benefits from activity within the childrens affective […]

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