They learn when they lose

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Sport is not just about fitness, but about the valuable lessons we learn when the odds are against us, says Dr Bernard Trafford

Sometimes I think contentious announcements on youth or education are made just to wind up the Daily Telegraph: particularly, perhaps, when they are connected with sport.

About a year ago, the RFU announced that, for young rugby players under the age of 11, there would be widespread tournaments and competitions to develop interest in the great winter game, but as for declaring winners – certainly not. The rationale was that it discourages the losers.

Before Christmas, the FA has done much the same, forbidding publication of results for under-11s. An FA spokesman explained: “The FA places a great deal of importance in ensuring that youth football is played in a positive and fun environment.

“Our aspiration is to ensure that a progressive, child-friendly approach pervades and we challenge the win-at-all-costs mentality that has been recognised to stifle development and enjoyment for young people.”

Unsurprisingly, the Telegraph was apoplectic. Yet that FA rationale makes a lot of sense. I’m a passionate believer in school and youth sport, but I hate over-competitive parents on the touchline, yelling, “take him out Wayne!” and then abusing the ref – or, worse still, telling my colleagues how they should run the team better.

I also dislike unbeaten teams! Although almost any school or club occasionally produces a near-unbeatable team, in such cases I tend to suspect they’re just not playing competition that’s sufficiently strong to give them a good game. I reckon that even the best school teams discover where they really stand when they progress through the stages of a major regional or national competition and finally meet their match. That encounter provides a powerful learning experience.

That’s my point. I hate to see coaches adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality. I despise even more a play-not-to-lose state of mind. We teach children sport not merely for reasons of fitness, but because they learn when they lose.

An easy win teaches them little, beyond reinforcing the understanding that training, fitness and application work. But battling through a tough game, even dealing with a heavy loss, is a quite different experience and reinforces the vital nature of teamwork (how many games are lost when players demonstrably fail to function as a team?). Similarly, I’m convinced kids learn more about resilience in a cold, wet sports fixture, or when lost in the hills on an expedition, than they generally do in the classroom.

Back in the school room learning outcomes are carefully planned, the whole process packaged, and the learning is more individual than collective. Children rarely have to deal in the classroom with the kind of failure which challenges them to work out where they went wrong and plan a strategy for next time. Arguably it should happen in the best lessons. But too much of that kind of useful classroom failure causes anguish to anxious parents who prefer to see 10/10 at the bottom of the work, to the despair of teachers.

This is about learning lessons for life. School sport, too, takes place in controlled circumstances. Failures are circumscribed and limited: after all, it is only a game. But something in our human psyche feels passionately about sport, and children can practise dealing with failure and bouncing back probably more easily in the field of sport than they do in the classroom.

So while I understand the rationale behind those decisions of the FA and RFU, I fear they’re missing a trick. If we remove all losing from sport, what experiences will be left for children to help them develop resilience? A catastrophe in the nativity play, perhaps? Not quite the same. Soon they’ll find themselves handling disappointment only when facing government tests in primary school. Still, the way things are going, they may experience those at ages 4, 5, 7 and 11, so they’ll get plenty of practice...

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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