I recently emerged from a long-ish car journey and felt I had spent several hours being battered by several Olympians and a couple of enthusiastic radio presenters. Turning off was an option, but you know how such programmes are seductive? And they are part of this summer’s narrative. So I stayed tuned and I’m still thinking about it.
Apart from the merry congratulations and the vivid recounting of how it felt to win, hear the national anthem and see the flag raised; to train, be chosen, train some more; to fly home on a plane fueled with champagne, and to receive an Honour from the Queen – apart from all this, much of the conversation revolved around inspiration. Clearly it was important. But to whom? The athletes or the interviewers? To UK Sport and the government which decided that winning medals was so important we had better make it a professional business, paying athletes to do nothing but train, and supplying them with all the specialists from coaches to nutritionists, surgeons to psychologists, whom they could possibly need to ensure their prime performance in the Rio sun? Should there be any grumblings about the winning of each medal costing a little more than £4 million, here was the altruistic response: never mind the very wealthy futures probably assured for the athletes themselves, never mind the ‘feel good’ factor for the whole country in the midst of Brexit anxiety and economic gloom, the money which supported these athletes was money well spent because of their capacity to inspire young people to follow their paths to glory.
Well, actually ...
To be fair, it did seem to matter to the athletes themselves. They were quite convincing about their mission to ‘get in to schools’, to talk to young people currently not engaged in sport, to encourage them to pick up a hockey stick, or go to a gym or start running. One referred to such a visit to a school in which she noticed a teenager apparently so bored that she was just sitting on her bum going round in circles – can’t you just see it? Pupils sitting on the sports hall floor, and a member of staff at the edge of the room seeing the disinterested girl and squirming because you’d want to make her behave and have some manners in front of the nice young athlete who was here to inspire her, but you also wouldn’t want to interrupt and draw attention to the girl you quite wanted to murder? The athlete reported that at the time, she just thought, ‘Oh dear, I will have to up my game here...’
So it appears that being willing to go out and preach the value of sports participation possibly generating real dedication possibly leading to a career in sport, medals in exotic places, Honours from the Queen and quite possibly a career in the media to follow, being available for this ambassadorial role is now part of the package for successful sportsmen and women. Theirs is a virtuous circle of success, mindfulness and generosity of spirit which tells the lucky golden person that they must give back. Get into schools. Become a public speaker. We can train you for that too. Inspire the next generation. Never mind the winning; let’s see you inspire.
Inspire surely means to breathe in - and I don't mean inhale - and fan the sparks of self-belief into positive flames
Only a cynic would draw attention to the fact that the newly-hatched public speakers will be in big demand on the corporate after dinner circuit, where most of their audience will be well past the ‘Oh my God! Perhaps I could do that!’ stage and well into ‘I wish I had done that!’ land, but the fee will be – well, a couple of years ago when engaging after dinner speakers for events was part of my business, I drew the line at engaging a medalist at £5,000 for 20 minutes. But I made the mistake of hiring three rugby players in succession, all of whom told the same story about one stellar player. It was a bizarre relief when the man in the story told it himself – I would hate to think of others trading on a real event in his life if he was not also trotting it out for paying audiences. My conclusion? It’s nice to be inspiring, but probably nicer to be paid well for doing it. Just don’t pretend it’s altruism.
On which cynical note, I return to the notion of ‘inspiration’. The radio programme quoted research about inspiration: who inspires us, any of us? It turned out that most children are inspired by their parents. Unsurprising, you might think, because most children have not had enough contact with anyone else to be inspired by them. And sure enough, researchers reported that teachers were next in the inspiration business. Deductions were made about how you probably had to be fairly close to someone to be inspired by them.
So here’s the thing: you may not be a medalist, ‘Hello’ may not be chasing you to cover your wedding, the Palace may not have called to offer you a gong, but just possibly you are right now in the very best place to inspire a child. Maybe many children.
And I have a theory about inspiration which may just – er, inspire you. It seems to me that inspiration is not just a matter of someone who did something wonderful telling you about how they did it so you will think, ‘I should do that.’ It’s not about ‘should’; it’s about ‘could’. It’s about someone who knows actually bothering to tell you that they believe you could do something. You. Not the person beside you. It’s personal, not general. If someone says, ‘That kid is a natural on a horse,’ the kid may believe she is good enough to persevere. Someone in the know believes she can. The expert offers hope to counter the inner refrain, ‘I’m rubbish at this.’ ‘That’s the best essay I have seen this year,’ may spur on a future novelist. ‘You should be applying for a senior management post,’ may transform a middling career.
‘Inspire’ is a more active verb than ‘show’, it’s more about the listener than the speaker. Don’t tell me how successful you have been, don’t say anyone can do what you did – because you may have money for horses or long legs for the high jump, or stamina for the marathon or a swimming pool which is prepared to open just for you at 5am. I may have none of these things. But tell me I look the right build for distance running, or I have an eye for a ball and a great forehand, or the listening skills of a born leader – tell me these things from the dizzy height of your own expertise and your objectivity, and I may believe.
‘Inspire’ surely means to breathe in – and I don’t mean inhale - and fan the sparks of self-belief into positive flames.
You’re a teacher. You have the power. This term, light someone’s fire.
Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association.