Saturday 25 October 2014

'It is important children are free of being labelled as winners or losers'

Ask the Principal

Sean Cottrell

Published 16/06/2014 | 02:30

School day trophies and medals. Picture posed by model.
School day trophies and medals. Picture posed by model.

My friend's children have, between them more than 15 trophies/medals that they won at their school sports day. Why is there no competitive element at our school annual sports day?

Sean Cottrell replies: THE subject of competition and children is often hotly debated by parents, teachers and coaches. Very young children are carefully protected by their parents from other children who are bigger, stronger, faster and it's obvious why. As children grow older, we are all conscious of their natural competitive streak.

Most schools tend to downplay competitiveness as it can shift the focus from 'development' to 'performance'. For example, there is little point in giving the same spelling test to all children in a class as it will only act as a grim reminder to those who find spelling difficult, that they are poor at spelling.

Up to 20 years ago, most second level schools streamed first year students from 1A to 1D, just in case anyone didn't understand which class had the elite learners. In reality, if they had called the classes 1D to 1A it wouldn't have made any difference, as academic competition determined each child's place in the overall scheme of things. In the last 10 years, not only have we more or less gotten rid of streaming of classes, but the emphasis is now on differentiated learning underpinned by group work.

If you reflect this shift in thinking away from academic elitism to mixed ability classrooms with individualised learning, into areas such as sport and music, it raises many questions. As we coach children to learn new skills, whether in learning to play a musical instrument, sing a song or play a sport, the issue of competition is never far from the surface.

More and more sporting organisations are beginning to realise that, if there is too much competition at juvenile level, while it may boost skill levels amongst the better players, there is a direct consequence for those who don't make the team. There is only so long even the most enthusiastic children are willing to spend sitting on the bench.

The GAA 'Go Games' initiative, which is being adopted by most clubs, is placing a strong emphasis on developing skills in, and gaining enjoyment from, playing their games for fun and not for medals.

Organising a sports day which has a focus on participation and children (and staff) having fun is actually a lot more challenging than the sports days of old where the 'gold, silver and bronze' winners for every competition were celebrated.

In my experience, the less competition children are exposed to, up to the age of puberty, the better. It is not a question of 'sheltering' children from the 'big bad world'; it is important children grow and develop through their childhood free of being labelled as winners and losers which regrettably is nowadays all too common.

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