Seeing hard work and training pay off for those who have come up through the ranks of school and club sport to reach the pinnacle of their athletic careers is always gratifying.
Certainly, many of Team GB’s standout Olympians at Tokyo 2020 were the product of sports programmes in independent schools.
However, while I celebrate their achievement, I don’t feel that their Olympic performance has put my own department under any greater pressure to create the Olympians of the future. Rather, it has shone a light on the need for school sport to evolve in line with today’s expectations, and to deliver a programme that encourages preparatory and senior school pupils of all sporting ability — from the elite to the reluctant — to really engage in sport and reap the many benefits.
There is of course a need for school sports programmes that stretch and challenge pupils who could excel and take their performance to the next level. My school, Felsted in Essex, has produced sportsmen and women who are currently competing professionally and internationally, so reaching the Olympics in their field of excellence is certainly a possibility for them. At Tokyo 2020 the Bronze medal-winning trap shooter was former Felsted student Matthew Coward-Holley.
Our sports programme has been created to enhance the opportunity for those students who could reach such heights. But that is only part of an offer that is designed to appeal to all pupils, whatever their level of ability, rather than being tailored solely to suit those who show the most talent.
Reducing the pressure of selection
Although the lack of competitive fixtures against other schools due to the pandemic last year was a great loss, the one positive outcome was the opportunity to offer a variety of competitions in a variety of sports, free from the pressure of selecting A, B and C teams.
“Competitive sports are simply not of interest to every pupil.”
During that time, we introduced an inter-house handball competition, which was so successful that it will run again this year. Many other initiatives to attract all levels were already well established but were particularly suited to the restrictions of Covid: a touch rugby team for Years 9 and 10 helped keep players involved in team sport without contact, the beginners’ hockey group allowed seniors new to the game to try it out. There was greater enthusiasm for our running, badminton and squash coaching, as well as the fitness and spinning groups.
It is vital to recognise that competitive sports are simply not of interest to every pupil. While we continue to promote the benefits of team sport participation, we are always working hard to deliver a programme with the primary aim of developing the habit of a healthy lifestyle that will stay with our pupils and enhance their lives forever.
Female role models
The positive impact we have witnessed at Felsted since recruiting top sportswomen to lead girls’ sport has been significant.
For example, our director of girls’ sport and head of PE is ex-GB age group hockey player Loren Willis and head of netball is Lindsay Keable, an England international who currently plays with London Pulse.
These sportswomen are role models as well as coaches, each one extremely influential in promoting her sport as part of a talented and dedicated team of female staff. All are an inspiration, and this certainly powers the development of sport across the board.
Mitigating health risks
It would be naive of any school or club to ignore the press coverage and growing concerns over the risks associated with traditional invasion games. These sports, due to the nature of two teams playing against each other with contact involved, will always divide opinion.
Felsted still promotes rugby in the autumn term, alongside a senior football option, and we have always worked hard to ensure the training and playing environment is a healthy one. We devote time each week to the techniques required for the collision area of the game to empower players in competition. Injuries will always be part of sport, but schools need to ensure they put a programme in place to support those playing.
“Schools are taking seriously the need to adapt to new laws governing health and safety.”
Our touch rugby fixtures this season allow pupils to practise teamship skills in a non-contact environment, we are managing the time spent heading the ball in football practices in line with recent guidance, and face masks in hockey are now a must. Schools are taking seriously the need to adapt to new laws governing health and safety in sport and this will undoubtedly require a good breadth of sports offering, which may test schools in terms of facilities and staffing in the future.
Developing core fitness
As children’s daily lives become increasingly sedentary, so it is becoming more and more important for prep and senior schools to focus on developing and maintaining pupils’ core fitness, for the good of their general health and wellbeing.
School sport has been moving away from the more athletic programmes of the ‘80s with their reliance on cross-country running and fitness activities, but the less active lifestyles of young people today call for PE programmes that focus on movement and athleticism as much as the specific skills required for sport.
“School sport has been moving away from the reliance on cross-country running for fitness.”
Just as professional sportsmen and women prioritise these aspects in order to prolong their careers, we can also take this approach to supporting the physical health of pupils who these days are likely to be spending long hours every day sitting down looking at screens.
Sport vs society
It is a fact that many independent schools are today still entrenched in values espoused over 150 years ago in the Barbarian schools. They — and their pupils and parents — still see value in team games, which is why these sports are still being played, albeit with laws that have been updated for modern times.
“Many independent schools are still entrenched in values espoused over 150 years ago.”
Sport is a key component of our society and has always been a reflection of it. So, just as the expectations of families, educators, employers and professional sporting bodies evolve to suit the age we live in, so school sport will continue to do the same.
If we as school sports leaders continue to focus on the true aim of sport in schools — to instil in our pupils the habit of a healthy, active lifestyle that will continue well into adulthood — then we will have achieved something even more precious than an Olympic gold medal.