School Sports Spiralling Out of Control
JASON BANTJES, PSYCHOLOGIST AT Diocesan College (Bishops) in Cape Town, says “Competitiveness in schools is partly due to schools increasingly being seen as business units which compete with one another for pupils.”
There is a perception that the measure of a school is in its sporting performances. One must not forget that when a boy reaches the adolescent ages between 14 and 16, he has surges of testosterone which are 400 % higher than when he was a toddler. Boys also buy into the idea: “Where am I in the hierarchy and the pecking order?” Added to this physiological drive to perform and assert oneself, sporting achievements against other schools are very public displays of a school’s performance. A school’s academic successes or debating results are not necessarily perceived as the same form of public display of a school’s successes as its sporting achievements.
For example, there is huge hype about televised games between two big schools. Of course, the first team players and their coach are under enormous pressure to perform. But you can lose perspective and the plot. This happens when people start to measure their school’s performance by the results column of the first rugby or cricket team. That means that when your first team is winning, you feel that your school as a whole is doing well. And when they are losing, your school is not doing great.
ACHIEVE AT ALL COSTS
Because of the increased competitiveness in schools, there is a very real temptation for young athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs in order to gain a competitive edge. Bantjies has experienced that pupils at under 16-level have asked very pertinent questions about the pros and cons of the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which suggests that they were seriously contemplating the use of these substances. Parents sometimes also add to the high level of competitiveness in sport. Some parents see their children as extensions of themselves and attach heightened importance to their children’s achievements or take personal credit for what their children do.
“We must not play down the importance of competitiveness. It presents an opportunity for sporting people to assert themselves, and to achieve, and can be a powerful force in driving individuals to achieve remarkable things. The competitiveness of young athletes is something to be celebrated but kept in check. But it is vital to keep the perspective of the other assets of sport - to enhance your health, to enjoy yourself, to have fun, to meet other people and to make friends, as well as the continued improvement of your level of skill,” says Bantjes.
Bantjes, who has completed a masters degree in psychology on “The gender strait jacket”, says many South African boys on the brink of manhood have the perception that the worth of a man is measured by what he achieves.
“It seems many males measure their worth and virility by their level of achievement rather than by the quality of their relationships or the values they hold; it is extremely important for young athletes to keep perspective on their sport achievements or lack thereof and remember that one’s worth is not measured by one’s achievements or sporting prowess,” adds Bantjes.
Dave Watson, school counsellor and head of life orientation and coordinator of the leadership program at Hilton College, emphasised the importance of playing down the competitiveness of sport at school level, instead of schools setting themselves up as sport academies.
SPORT SHOULD BE EDUCATIONAL IN SCHOOLS NOT PROFESSIONAL
“Sport should be educational in schools, not professional in the true sense of the word. Sporting people should do their level best in an attempt to win, but if they lose, they should do it graciously,” he adds. “Some schools employ professional coaches who teach one class a week, in an attempt to beef up their rugby. Competitiveness in certain schools has become so strong that players would commit professional fouls and revert to other forms of gamesmanship for the sake of winning.” He recalled an instance where a teacher of another school tried to unsettle his school’s finest batsman in 2004 by making a remark: “That delivery nearly got you. You should be careful.” Some parents are also hard to control at matches. They put huge pressure on their children, who push themselves too hard. Those injuries would not have occurred if they were not driven beyond their capabilities.
Watson says Hilton College has won 70 % of its rugby matches in 2006. Yet they have focused more on participation of the boys. The school teaches healthy ethics. Boys are not allowed to run onto the field and swamp the winning team.
“We try to develop children to play to the best of their abilities, but fair play and sportsmanship is not negotiable. Developing the whole person is important,” says Watson.
Dr. Pierre Edwards, a former Springbok-fullback and currently headmaster of Afrikaans Hoër Seunskool in Pretoria, says his school pulled out of the competition for the Beeld-trophy. They only play friendly games.
“School sport has become too professional, and is in danger of being overwhelmed by an obsession with trophies and competition.”
It is more important for his school to involve 28 teams in rugby and cricket than for a select few to focus on trophies.
“We experience in Pretoria that in order to win a trophy, we have to play against the same school four times, but some of these competitions take place at the expense of the normal pupils.We have become too obsessed with achievements and feats. My view is that we are not here to produce professional sportsmen, but to educate the child and prepare him for life. When the ranking list of SuperSport was introduced, there was tremendous pressure on schools, especially from old-boys of some of the schools. They were making the life of the pupils a living hell,” added Edwards.
“School is the one place where one can keep sport at amateur level. We don’t give pupils sporting bursaries. We don’t believe in child prostitution – in paying a pupil to come to our school to do sport. Every pupil should be welcome at our school, in spite of his sporting achievements or lack thereof. We want to create balanced individuals who can make a success of their lives,” says Edwards.
Edwards says there is added pressure on sporting people at school level because of the introduction of under 19- and under 21 World Cups. It is almost as if good sportsmen see achievements at school as an inside lane to get into the national teams. That is because the clubs and the National Defence Force are no longer the nurseries of future national stars that they once were. He only played for the U.19 C-team at school and spent many years at university playing for the day students and later Carlton League rugby before making it into the Springbok team.
FROM HERO TO ZERO IN ONE INJURY
Pierre Spies (Snr.) also did not make his school’s first team but later represented South Africa as an athlete, and also played for the Northern Transvaal rugby team.
“The danger of fast tracking athletes from school level to national stars, is when career threatening injuries occur. It might be a classic case of: ‘from hero to zero within one injury.’ We need to make pupils understand that there is a life outside sport, and beyond sport,” warns Edwards.
Frans Cronjé, a former SA Schools cricketer and rugby player who also represented Free State at senior level in both sports, warns against competitiveness in schools getting out of control.
“It is getting ridiculous. Teachers are so concerned about winning that they don’t develop the individual skill and talent of the pupils. An example is that teachers won’t use a specific pupil’s skills as a spin bowler, simply because he will go for runs. So they will encourage him to bowl fast, just so that the school might win. Sure, winning is important, but now it is over the top.”
TRAINING GROUND FOR LIFE
Cronjé gained the insight from Johan Volsteedt, headmaster at Grey College, that sport is an important training ground for life and that you will live the way you play your cricket or rugby.
“Sporting talent is God-given, and must be expressed, but not at the expense of other things in life that are important,” says Cronjé.
“It is very important to win. Only a stupid coach would train his players to lose,” comments Volsteedt.
Morné du Plessis (a former Springbok-captain) once said, “If winning was not important, why do you have a score board next to the playing field?”
Volsteedt adds, “Grey College will introduce a new sport institute in 2007. It is to give sportsmen the best possible opportunities to prepare themselves for excellence. One of the reasons for introducing the institute is because some top teachers with coaching abilities have left the profession. Yet, balance is needed in terms of competitiveness.” He was one of many headmasters of private boys’ schools who asked that the SuperSport ranking system be scrapped, claiming that the ranking system only contributed to added competitiveness and pressure. Grey was the top-school in the Free State academically in 2005.
The purpose of school sport is to develop a sound mind in a healthy body. In brief: the development of the whole person is important. Also, Grey focuses on all its sporting teams. When Grey competes against Paul Roos Gymnasium, they have 28 rugby teams, 16 hockey teams and 12 tennis teams. All these teams are important.
When Ian McIntosh (a former Springbok coach) comes to the school to coach the rugby teams, he is asked to coach every single team, not only the first fifteen.
“We believe in the adage that God must have loved the average man, and that is why he made so many of them,” says Volsteedt.
WIN AT ALL COSTS
Bernie Bitter, director of Sport Outreach Africa, says the Biblical perspective on competitiveness at school level would be to give 100 % and to give God the glory.
“Unfortunately, that is not happening at schools. The motivation is basically to win at all cost. School sport is basically an extension of the classroom. The goal should be to prepare young men and women for life. Currently, that is not happening. School teams are playing to improve their rankings. Many of them are employing outside professional coaches. The continuation of their job is based on results. There is a real threat that they are not going to emphasise playing by the rules, but extending and stretching the boundaries. In the end, the winning, and not the competing, becomes the be all and end all of school sport,” warns Bitter.
Bitter says he appeared on a SABC TV-program with a former Springbok, John Allan, who warned that school boy rugby might spiral out of control. When some pupils are not making it to the major teams, they leave the sport all together. The huge drop-off factor is becoming a concern when obsession, rather than competing for the sake of enjoyment, physical exercise and the fun element, is at the centre of school sport. The win-at-all-cost approach has some dangers attached to it. Sport becomes an obsession, and some pupils are considering the use of steroids, to bolster their performances.
“Coaches might turn a blind eye to the use of these performance-enhancing drugs. They would not drop a player like that, because winning has become all-important,” says Bitter.
REPUTATION FIRST ... RESPONSIBILITY LATER
Schools are sometimes more concerned about their reputation than they are about their responsibilities. Sponsorship has become a part of school sport. Sponsors are only choosing the top-teams to sponsor. The right coaches must be chosen, ones that are prepared to show players what is right and what is wrong. They must be prepared to discipline players who get out of line.
Sport is an ideal training ground for life. And teachers have that responsibility to teach their pupils how to win and not be boastful, and how to handle disappointment when they lose.
Jonathan Manley, a teacher and sport coach at Somerset House, says there is a real danger that sport as a fun event which is used as physical exercise and a way of socialising or developing skills, is abused only for the sake of professionalism in South African schools.
“At Somerset House, we try to expose as many children as possible to sport. We try to develop them and do skills transfer. We give children an opportunity to compete. But also, we see sport as a means to character building, of experiencing team work, of setting goals. It is a fundamental way to experience the theory of living.”
Research in Australia has shown that pupils could specialise too early. It might be too early to start focusing on a specific sport at age 6. One should rather wait until age 14, to decide whether you have a natural ability as a soccer or rugby player. The danger is that children are pressurised by parents and then become disillusioned and decide to quit. They lose their healthy life-style, and as a result you don’t produce the adults you want.
Also, many school children suffer because of a lack of realistic expectations. They are pushed hard by parents who don’t realise that the number of athletes who become successful professional sporting personalities, are 1 out of 50 000.
“For physical training is of some value but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” 1Tim 4:8