Should non-competitive sport take a more prominent role within our school sports programmes?

David Byrne, director of sport at Bede’s Senior School, believes it is important that non-competitive sport has a clear place in school

Competitive sport is a cornerstone for many. Whether watching or taking part, for generations it has been a constant within the sporting world, and with good reason. Competition is everywhere in life and in a sporting arena it can be thrilling at every level, with our major national sports as popular as ever.

How, then, do we explain the increasing popularity of non-competitive sports such as spin, swimming and running? 

Two million people run regularly in the UK and nearly 15% of the population own gym memberships. The reasons for this are likely to be varied with convenience no doubt one of the prime reasons, as well as a desire to improve fitness and lose weight. Perhaps another reason is the impact such exercise has on our mental wellbeing, providing a release from the pressures of modern life.

Strength and conditioning coach Tony Morriss with a student in the gym

Alongside this is the appeal of challenging ourselves; when we choose to take a gym session or a run, we are likely to judge ourselves against the achievements of previous sessions. When we go for a jog, we record our time and it acts as a marker for future sessions as well as a cherished record of the progress we have made. Anyone who has had Michael Johnson putting them through their paces via the Couch to 5K podcast will pay testament to the sense of pride that comes from finding motivation without the need for any opponent and the self-realisation that we can achieve more than we did last week, or last month.

Given its increasing relevance in modern life, it seems important that non-competitive sport should take a more prominent role within our school sports programmes, finding a rightful place alongside the inevitable pursuit of silverware and individual glory that more typically defines school sport. 

It is important that our young people are equipped with the skill and ability to exercise on their own, in different settings and away from the structures of organised sport. Competitive sport has many, many benefits, but so does its non-competitive counterpart, which, as well as providing stress relief, builds resilience, self-determination and improvement.

It is important that our young people are equipped with the skill and ability to exercise on their own, in different settings and away from the structures of organised sport 

Why does non-competitive sport get left behind?

I wonder, what is it that has stopped schools giving non-competitive sport the profile it deserves? Perhaps we are worried that without competition, pupils will not bring the best of themselves or parents will not appreciate the benefits of something which does not involve a team or a match, or that we as professionals will not be able to measure our impact and success.

Having reflected on all these issues, the sports department at Bede’s School in East Sussex has enhanced its programme to increase the levels of non-competitive sport offered, including yoga, free swimming, gym, stretch-and-roll workshops, CrossFit games, tough mudders for fun and duathlons – but crucially without times or places given.  

The school also offers its new pupils the opportunity to learn a basic bodyweight workout – a routine which involves minimal space and equipment, and, of course, no opponent. As well as providing some endorphins, these workouts can act as a social binder where skill, or lack of it, is not necessarily the factor which defines success, but rather self-belief and determination. Such activities also offer an alternative to pupils who may be turned off by competitive sport.  

Bede’s strength and conditioning coach, Tony Morriss, explains how the gym has become the hub of the sports centre, and not just one frequented by the school’s elite athletes: “What I really love about my job is when I am able to encourage a pupil to take up a gym programme even though they have never enjoyed competitive sport.

“You have got to make it fun and ensure that they are comfortable with all the equipment otherwise it can all seem a bit intimidating. I find that during the exam period, the gym is particularly busy and that’s just a sign that it helps the pupils unwind and deal with the pressure that they are experiencing.”

As part of its drive to embrace and integrate non-competitive sport into its programme, Bede’s has also appointed a new sports development and life skills coach, former England and Women’s World Cup winning cricketer, Sarah Taylor. As well as providing support for elite athletes and building performance and participation across all sports, she will promote positive emotional and physical wellbeing in pupils, at all athletic levels.

She explains that since retiring from international cricket, exercise has taken on new meaning for her: “I run every morning without fail for two miles which sets me up for the day. When you exercise and challenge yourself, it makes a huge difference to your mental wellbeing.  

“The important thing about my morning runs is that I’m not being told to do it or training with any goal in mind; I’m choosing to do this for myself. This message is at the heart of what I want to teach the pupils – they are playing sport because they love it, and they should ultimately work hard to achieve their dreams for themselves.”