Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Why We Do It

Why We Do It

Last week I was writing my weekly column for The Journal still under the influence of sporting excitement from the joint triumphs of Team GB in the World Athletics Championships and the England Women’s success in the European Hockey Championships. I couldn’t resist returning to the theme in my start-of-year assembly on Tuesday.

In The Journal (but not in assembly) I had started by quoting the iconic Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, who famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

For the most part people generally keep things in proportion and manage to say, whether winning or losing, “It’s only a game”. But on occasions we suddenly lose our heads and apply Shanks’s rule. Picture the national rejoicing when England’s (male) cricketers win the Ashes, even if recent joy was tempered by a humiliating loss to Australia in the final, irrelevant, Test.

Sometimes sport, particularly football perhaps, does get things out of proportion: the megabucks surrounding football, for example, lead to curious distortions. Moreover, however many people a premiership footballer entertains round the world, one wonders if any sportsman can really be worth £1 million a week in wages: people used to talk about “fat cats” in business earning obscene amounts of money. The same adjective appears to be rarely attached to overpaid footballers.

But don’t think I’ve got a problem with sport: the opposite is true. I love it and, the older I get, the more I enjoy it and love to watch it. 

One of the pleasures of my job is the expectation that a school head gets out to watch school teams playing sports fixtures. I wish I did more. It gets me out of the office, although nowadays the mobile phone goes with me so I’m not completely at peace, and I get to watch young people having fun, stretching themselves and generally achieving a lot. What’s not to like?

Schools have been promoting sports ever since the legendary Dr Arnold of Rugby, a real 19th Century figure immortalised in Thomas Hughes’s fictional Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Arnold reckoned that wearing out boys [sic] on a sports pitch would cut down on some of the excesses and bullying that characterised the great Public Schools at the time. He also believed that they would learn a good deal about teamwork.

I don’t think we nowadays see sport as keeping children out of mischief: though it doesn’t hurt them to burn off some energy and physical fitness is, of course, important in itself, mens sana in corpore sana (a healthy mind in a healthy body). But the teamwork and resilience they learn are absolutely vital qualities, and sport teaches both better than many other activities.

Besides, Shanks had a point, even if he overstated it. There are times when sport is more than “only a game”: when it really matters. It’s also why we educationists promote school sport so strongly. It’s when you reach a really key moment, when you find yourself two goals down (as the women’s hockey team did) and against the clock and somewhere somehow you dig deep and find that reserve of determination and energy to turn the situation around – or to cope with the disappointment if you fail to. 

The Athletics World Championships constituted a good week for Team GB which came fourth in the medals table, gaining seven in all, four of them gold. So-called “super Saturday” saw three Britons win gold: Mo Farah (10,000m); Jessica Ennis-Hill (heptathlon) and Greg Rutherford (long jump). Interestingly, all three triumphed in Beijing in August, having known nothing but misery when the Olympics were held there in 2008: back then Farah failed to qualify; Ennis-Hill couldn’t compete because she’d broken her foot; Rutherford only managed 10th place and then spent time in hospital with kidney and lung infections.

All three of these ultimately triumphant Brits returned to Beijing this year with huge question-marks over their recent performance. Ennis-Hill had much to prove, coming back from a year out after becoming a mum. She was one of several athletes who said, when interviewed, how tough it was additionally leaving a young family at home.
 
We educationists talk a great deal about resilience and, since so much of the classroom and exam system is so risk-averse nowadays (despite teachers’ best efforts, I might add), I often think young people learn more about resilience and coping with failure on a sports pitch, or getting lost in the Cheviots during a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, than they do during the ordinary school day.

Many said Mo Farah couldn’t achieve the double (both 10,000m and 5,000m) against the best in the world. Yet he ran a tactically inspired race to prove his critics wrong.  Proving Shankly’s dictum, then, for a moment that race was (almost) more important than life and death: Mo showed astonishing resilience, and made a nation proud. 

He also proved another fact: that you cannot achieve real success without hard work, lots of it over a long period of time.

That’s what athletes do. That’s why we’re delighted to be hosting the Scotland squad for the first round of the Rugby World Cup. Our students will be able to see at first hand (within the limitations of their and Scotland’s busy schedules) the tireless training, the determination, the resilience (because they’ll have some tough matches to play) and the sheer professionalism that go into creating (and, for individuals, being part of) an effective team.

Great life lessons, then: and a lot of fun too. Just the right messages at the start of the school year!

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster