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Roger Nicholson: "We’ve got to find environments where we can allow children to fail"

A place in the sun

Roger Nicholson, outgoing Director of Sport at Brighton College, talks participation, resilience and the international boom

Posted by Stephanie Broad | June 22, 2016 | Sports & Leisure

Roger leaves Brighton College this summer after almost 10 years in the sports department. We caught up with him in his final few weeks before departing for the sunnier climes of Dubai. 

Tell us about your time at Brighton College.

“When I arrived, Sir Anthony Seldon was in charge of the school but, within a term, our current head Richard Cairns arrived. Richard has taken the school forward massively on the academic front. He’s driven up standards, so part of the way the department has improved over the years is its culture, the standard of what we offer, we opportunities we give the boys and the girls, lots of little things. Most importantly, the provision for sport now compared to when I first started 10 years ago, thankfully, is better. We have more boys and girls competing in teams on Saturdays, their success is better than it was. I’d like to think, and I hope it is the case, that they all look forward to doing it.

“Contact time has remained the same, and that’s brilliant because we are in an academically pressurised world and I know some colleagues from other schools – independent and state – have lost time. We’ve got a good chunk at lunch time, and a good chunk after school for extra curricular, on top of their games time. School finishes at four o’clock and we’ve managed to fit it all in and they still do really well in the classroom. You don’t need a lot of time, but the time you have has got to be quality time. The coaching aspect of what they do has got to be really good. They’ve got to be active and coached well, and they’ve got to work hard. There’s an adage of ‘train hard, play easy’, so we train hard on Tuesdays and Thursdays when we have games, so come Saturday when they play, that’s the day when our input as coaches should be the smallest amount.”

How much does the time outside for sport impact the students’ academic work? 

“I’ve been in PE for 20 years and a Director of Sport for around 15 of that. The biggest thing I’ve seen is that sport gives pupils the opportunity to fail, to get things wrong. There’s a lot of [news] about young people these days, around mental health, about exam pressure, about resilience, coping with being told they’re not good enough. Parents and certain aspects of the teaching profession keep telling kids ‘you can do anything you want, you’re brilliant’ and actually, when it comes down to that, the world, the world is not like that. I work in a school which is a high-achieving school, we have children who find it hard, they’re not used to it when they get a grade they weren’t expecting. I think that’s why, in the modern education world, irrespective of how many teams you put out or what you do or when you do it, the fact that sport allows a child to go out and play, and come second best, come last, they’ve got to process that, come back and work hard and try to do better next time. We’ve got to be careful that we’re not creating a generation of kids who don’t understand what it’s like to come second. 

“I’ve heard the term ‘snowflake generation’ in that we’re so protective of them in society and within education – is that really what we want? I fell out of trees, I was left for days to go off and play. I know society’s changed, therefore we’ve got to find environments where we can allow children to fail – and I use the word ‘fail’ carefully, but they can’t always think they can be successful. Competitive sport and PE are two fundamental ways within our current education system that allow that. When I hear that competitive sport is getting squeezed, it really worries me as a PE teacher. Our youngsters don’t win every week, they probably lose 50% of their games but by the time we’ve coached them and they understand that it’s not a problem losing, they get confidence from what they do. By the time they leave, they’re better and the success rates improve.” 

You don’t need a lot of time, but the time you have has got to be quality time

There seems to be more focus now on the ‘whole child’ and building life skills like resilience. Is this something you’ve tried to nurture? 

“My department will laugh at me because I didn’t get why we clap the person who comes last in the 1500 metres. And then it dawned on me a couple of years ago, that it’s actually the fact that he or she is doing it, because it’s really difficult to get certain children to do certain events. Everyone hates the 1500 metres and if we had a sports day here, our sixth form girls will not want to do it. Then certain girls will do it, and they might come last, it’s not been a great occasion but they’ve done it – and now I clap, because I think, good on them. I know there’s probably another 20 children in their house or year group who have said no. 

“When they get to university and into real life, I think if we don’t help them their resilience isn’t going to be there.”

Do the students understand this or is there still a pressure to come first? 

“We’re in environments now where we’re very conscious about hurting each other’s feelings, in the workplace as adults and at school. Bullying, banter, mickey-taking is something that’s almost become regulated. Bullying has no place within a school, but if we make an environment where they can’t take the mickey out of each other… Your friends are the ones that should laugh at you, because you know they’re on your side. So if you say something ridiculous in a social environment, you say something that is contentious or ‘naughty’, they’re the ones that regulate you. Sport gives you that as well.“ 

Tell us about your new role in Dubai. 

“I’ll be doing the same role at a school called Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS). The education system out there has really taken off in the last 10 years, and as a country we all know Dubai now. Brighton College has set up international schools in Abu Dhabi and one in Al Ain, and I’ve been involved in that. I lived out there when I was a kid, back in the early 70s, so I know it and have a kind of romantic feel about it. I was thinking, I’ve now done 20 years in teaching, if I was going to move and leave somewhere like Brighton College, where would I go? There are some fabulous schools around the UK but actually, if you want a challenge, teaching abroad is an option. I think it’s an exciting time for me as a PE teacher to go out there.“ 

There is a growing trend of English-medium schools opening up overseas - it must be a really attractive prospect. 

“People talk about tax-free and tall buildings, but actually as a teacher you want to know you’re going to a place that takes what it does seriously. Not just the school but the country, and from a sporting point of view there are some really good teachers out there that are leading the way. I think to be part of that point in its development, where I can earn my experience and develop it more, that’s something new. I’m going to trust myself and see that what I want to achieve works.” 

Roger with students at Brighton College

What is it that you’re hoping to achieve in Dubai? 

“If you ask any Director of Sport they’ll probably come up with the same four or five things. You want to get more pupils involved in things that they like doing and maybe there are certain sports that you want to be your shop window to your school. You want your sport to reflect well on the school as a whole. It’s a completely new environment and I don’t want to go in saying “Look, what I did at Brighton College is wonderful” – you’re very naïve as a manager to do that. I want to create a good culture where the kids enjoy what they do, and see if we can make JESS into one of the best sporting schools in the Middle East - maybe bring them back on a tour one day to the UK.“ 

Do you have any advice for aspiring directors of sport? 

“As a Director of Sport you are a kind of jack of all trades and master of none. You’ve got to be able to have a sporting opinion or sporting experience in a lot of things. Working within a co-ed school like this, parity between boys and girls. You’ve got to show attention to all in equal amounts. You need to have an interest in all the major sports that you do, making sure that the girls feel as valued as the boys do. You’ve got to be a good listener, you’ve got to be approachable to the kids, but not be a soft touch. When the students come to see me, the girls tend to come up in twos and threes because they’re a bit nervous. I’ve always been a bit troubled by that – I’m not scary! – but you’ve got to challenge the boys and girls. Lastly, attention to detail. Someone recently described the ‘Nicholson era’ as New York in the 1990s – there was a mayor who said “We need to get the little things right, if we don’t tell people they can’t drop litter or speed, the bigger things won’t look after themselves.” I had that idea here. I want to get the little things right – everything’s got to be on time, buses have to be on time, we’ve got to look smart and the kids have got to look smart. Sometimes they’re just being kids, but they need to be reminded. You’ve got to be the person that sees every little thing. Because no-one else will. If there’s a cone left out, you’ve got to pick it up. If there’s a team sheet with a mis-spelled name on it, you have to be the one that picks it up.” 

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