Sun 14 Apr 2019 | 12:12

Sport in SA Schools - Another View

Sport in SA Schools - Another View
Sun 14 Apr 2019 | 12:12
Sport in SA Schools - Another View

Anyone, at least in South Africa, who sets out to write about sport in schools starts on the defensive. There will be a consciousness of the largely uncontested dictum that we are a sport-mad country. Therefore anyone who is both sophisticated and keen on sport may feel it necessary to apologise for his (usually his) enthusiasm, justify it or water it down. We blame the balmy climate, or limited cultural stimulation, or our national aggressions.

In many South African schools, and certainly in the better-known independent schools, sport is far and away the most prominent, popular and influential extra-mural activity. Often there are, of course, attempts, more or less successful, to act against that `sport-mad’ tag. Schools try to balance out the sports extra-murals with drama, music, debates, art, bird-watching and other less rumbustious occupations.

However, let us also remember that in many schools, for various reasons, extra-murals play little or no part. Some schools set out not to offer them – they are merely academic centres; some cannot afford the facilities; some have teachers who are unqualified or uninterested in sport; some serve communities for long years, often of apartheid deprivation, used to having their sport outside school structures, if at all. In many other parts of the world, usually away from Anglo-Saxon educational traditions, sport has never been part of a school’s total curriculum.

But let’s accept that in our ideal South African school there will be a right and proper balance between sport (within which – though they are not total synonyms – we can include Physical Education) and the other cultural extra-murals. Again, of course, note that sport is actually part of our `culture’, and an important and desirable part at that.

So, in that ideal school, why have sport at all? `It’s always been there in the best schools’ is not a nothing argument, but it’s certainly not enough on its own; no tradition is.

Fundamental has to be the point that sport in the ideal school is part of education, part of what is called a holistic education. Just as Terence counted nothing human as alien to him as a man, so, within reason, education can count no human activity outside its sphere. There are pragmatic (and other) limits to what human activities can be encompassed in schools, but sport must certainly be `in’. Sport in the ideal school is offered for educational purposes, though there may well be spin-offs in other directions, as we shall see. If sound educational (and social – for these can qualify) purposes are being thwarted or undermined or cannot be fulfilled, then sport in that school should go; it has no justification left for its place. The same goes, however inconceivable it may sound to most of us, for Maths, music, marks, maypole dancing – or anything else.

A breakdown of the purposes of school sport must include the following. Add your own purposes, and attempt your own order of priority.

* Enjoyment, fun and satisfaction.

* Physical (and mental) exercise, preferably in the fresh air. Certain skills, though not many, are transferable to later life experiences.

* Character training: preparation for taking knocks, physical and otherwise; for some, leadership; learning how to harness one’s own competitiveness; dealing with adversity – which means that it is important that players know what it is like to lose. An unbeaten record has its glories, but it is an incomplete educational experience. This is always a disputable one, and some people believe that sport can and does actually encourage beastliness rather than sportsmanship. It’s a huge debate.

* Team work and camaraderie, which too is arguable. It’s also attainable in an orchestra or the cast of a play. But when it works it works famously. And, as applies to all these purposes, those in the lowly teams are as important as the swells in the showcase sides.

* A community occasion: any worthwhile shared activity has the potential to knit the school community together and enhance its quality. This is not automatic, however, and
not all sports occasions are either well attended or filled with the right spirit – spectators can bay for gladiatorial blood.

Those are purposes. There are also fringe benefits. It is vital that fringe benefits should not be elevated into purposes. Priorities are important.

Among the benefits is the fact that good sport and good results do indeed `spread the name and swell the fame’ of a school. Beware of phoney fame, however. That’s one reason why this effect must not become a cause, however much that may be advocated in the governing body.

Another desirable, highly desirable, benefit is the raising of the standards of various sports. But it is not the purpose of school sport to produce internationals. We rejoice when it happens, yes – why not? But it remains at best an immensely enjoyable side effect. Today one has to add the footnote that coaching school sporting stars to a high degree of proficiency can open the door for them to lucrative professional contracts – but let that remain a special case, more than well catered for if the major purposes mentioned are fulfilled.

Some issues emerge from this discussion:

* The same games are played at school as are played at top international and professional level. This can be deceptive. The same rules apply, the same implements are used, the games appear the same – and very largely are. But the tone, attitudes, objectives and other things are often far apart. Once upon a time it was good coaching practice to advise young players to watch the top players and emulate them. Today there is much, especially of behaviour, you’d want them to avoid.

* Sponsorship can be insidious in invading the spirit of sport. It doesn’t have to be, but often is. There is the memory of a provincial schoolboy cap who, naming names, told a friend: `After team talk briefing I thought I was playing for [the sponsors] and not for [the province].’

* Control of school-age players by sports administrators often forgets the educational aspects of sport. Their cause is the game, and the players, of any age, are team-fodder. Teachers, who can also be guilty of similar attitudes but should be less likely to act that way, are ridden over, while parents are scared to object lest their child lose selection, or indeed can be as bad as the administrators as they seize their second chances for sporting glory through their offspring.

* School sport must be primarily for the players’ sake. Though it is right they should enjoy it, school sport is not played to entertain parents or past pupils, not put on to enhance the coach’s reputation, not organised to give gravy train perks to administrators. Entertainers, highly-paid ones, the internationals may be, and obliged to heed the paying masses. But schools players – no; indeed, one hopes, never!

Sport-mad some of us in this country may well be. In our schools at least, however, let us nevertheless be sensible and sane about our enthusiasm.

By John Gardener

John Gardener, once a Rhodes Scholar, a schoolmaster at Wynberg Boys’ High and then at the Diocesan College (Bishops), later Principal at Kingswood College in Grahamstown and later still at Bishops, is an academic who played a full role as a schoolmaster on the sportsfield.

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