Engaging all students in school sport

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Everyone is talking about a London 2012 legacy, but champion skateboarder and student mentor Neil Danns says great work is already taking place in schools. He discusses how we can engage all students in school sports.

Post London 2012 there has been much talk about the legacy of the Games and ensuring the nation’s new-found enthusiasm for sport is channelled in the right direction. There has been the government’s new school sport policy focused on primary schools and talk about the need to engage students in more sports.

What there doesn’t seem to have been is talk about all the good work already going on schools across the country, not just in supporting athletic students but in broadening the understanding of the skills and career paths that can be found through sport. For me, this is the key to harnessing students’ enthusiasm for sport and all of the vital life-skills that it can teach.

So how can PE teachers at a grassroots level give students an enthusiasm and passion for sport that will last them through their school years and beyond? I believe it is by showing students the wider opportunities available through sport. 

As we saw at London 2012, the volunteer Games-makers who gave up their time to support the Olympics and represent their country, became as much of a national treasure as our athletes. Many schools have already recognised this and, by offering those students not passionate about participating in sport other opportunities to be part of the school’s wider sports “team” they can become invaluable to their peers and school.

Visiting schools in my role as an athlete mentor for Sky Sports Living for Sport, a free initiative delivered in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust, I have been particularly impressed with the creative approach which some schools already take by using cross-curricular activities to engage all students in sport.

Students are being given new roles off the pitch which are teaching them just as valuable skills as they learn on it. I have seen students working alongside teachers on management strategies for PE teams, helping organise tournaments, writing match reports for the school newsletter, and even learning how to referee.

All are wonderful experiences which teach valuable skills that can be applied across the curriculum and are opening students’ eyes to other sport-led careers, such as management, coaching, fundraising and policy-making.

Equally, another fantastic attribute that I am seeing among PE teachers is their commitment to students who have a passion for participating in sport. One of the most important people in my career as a professional skateboarder was not a sponsor or a coach, it was a chap called Derry Thompson, who recognised my sporting potential.

Derry was a member of the English Skateboarding Association but he had no obligation to support me on my career path, so I was astounded as a teenager by the support that he offered, driving me hundreds of miles across the country to competitions. 

I wasn’t a wealthy student; I came from inner city Liverpool and built my first skateboard from a plank of wood and my sister’s roller-boots! Without Derry’s support (and the occasional loan of a bus fare), I would never have become a world champion.

It is only as an adult that I have come to fully appreciate what Derry did for my career but I have also learned something even more valuable – how much supporting me meant to Derry. He got as much out of my career successes as I did and remains immensely proud of the vital role he played.

For teachers who go above and beyond to support sporting students, my only advice is please keep doing so. You may sometimes face typical teenage indifference to your extra-curricular efforts but never underestimate the long-term impact that your commitment can have on students.

I also firmly believe that the relationship between students and PE teachers is critical to the success of a school’s sporting policy.

I am often introduced by teachers to their students as a “sporting hero”, but what many PE teachers fail to share with their students is their own sporting successes.

I am astounded by how many PE teachers hide their sporting lights under a bushel – teachers who represented their counties or even country as youngsters and yet their students have no idea.

It is these real-life stories of passion, sacrifice, success and ultimately turning their sporting skills into a successful teaching career that can really inspire students.

Practical advice

On a practical level, I find that motivating students to learn new skills through sport is best achieved through a variety of classroom and sporting sessions. 

Typically, a day in a school for me begins with a classroom session where I share interactive resources with students including videos, photos and a presentation about the “six keys to success”, the six core skills which Living for Sport is focused on delivering to students. These are:

  • Mental toughness.

  • Hunger to achieve.

  • People skills.

  • Sports and life knowledge.

  • Breaking barriers.

  • Planning for success.

The six keys are used throughout each school’s Living for Sport project to help students gain a better understanding of their personal strengths and areas for development and then nurture the skills required to help them succeed not just in sport, but all areas of their lives.

I share with students the story of my sporting career including all of the highs and the lows. I was fortunate to recognise at a young age that I had a real hunger to achieve sporting success and, by harnessing and developing that skill, I believe I was able to drive forward my career. 

It is this determination that I impart to students. I believe everyone should have goals in life and, through the skills that I teach, I hope I can give today’s students some of the drive that I had to stay focused on my goals despite setbacks along the way.

After the classroom session we move on to practical sessions which can last from two to seven hours depending on the school’s requirements.

For this, I run a range of activities, many of which are ball-based and all guide the students back to the core skills learned through the six keys. It is not about finding the sportiest students in the class, it is about helping them all to recognise the advantages of important skills, such as how to react under pressure and how to use teamwork to complete a task more quickly. 

The practical sessions are always fascinating as it is often students who are not sporty who come out on top of the challenges, surprising both themselves and their peers.

Having visited schools as an athlete mentor over the past two years, my conclusion is that school sport has not changed greatly in that time and nor has the Olympics had a huge effect on the delivery of sporting curriculum. We have no shortage of PE teachers who are already delivering fantastic and inspiring lessons to students and, with the ongoing evolution of sporting academies, we are also seeing an improvement in sporting facilities for the whole community. This is fantastic additional support for students who wish to continue with sport in whatever form they prefer, ensuring it can become an intrinsic and rewarding part of their lives in the long term.

Yes, secondary students need to be healthy, fit and active, but as much as their bodies need to be honed, so do their minds. If core PE skills can be used to motivate students to aspire and achieve future goals, both within and beyond sport, schools can ensure youngsters step into the real world with the energy and enthusiasm to go far in life.

  • Neil Danns is a world champion skateboarder and athlete mentor for Sky Sports Living for Sport, a free secondary school initiative delivered with the Youth Sport Trust. Visit www.skysports.com/livingforsport

CAPTION: World champion skate-boarder Neil Danns speaks at Grange Comprehensive School as part of his role as an athlete mentor.


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