Bouncing back

Is resilience on the wane? Peter Middleton argues that this much-discussed quality is alive and well in school sports

Resilience is a hot topic right now. In fact, according to a recent study by the Early Intervention Foundation, the Cabinet Office and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, resilience is the key to success in the job market.

A recent TED talk by US psychologist Angela Duckworth (viewed, to date, over six million times) concurs with this view. Duckworth argues that IQ and academic achievement are not as important as the true indicator of success: grit. Perhaps the powers that be at OFSTED have taken note, for they are looking to build character and resilience measures into their inspection framework, with teacher training and career development programmes also focusing specifically on this area.

Academic attainment alone, the thinking now goes, is not enough. What we require in our students is grit, perseverance, and resilience. We nod our heads and say, yes, that’s exactly what our pupils have. But apparently not. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) was recently warned by the Association of Graduate Recruiters that businesses are increasingly finding school leavers from independent schools less resilient, and that the traditional ‘grit’ associated with the public schoolboy or schoolgirl has disappeared. 

Should we be worried?

Defined as ‘the ability to recover quickly or easily from difficulties’, resilience is the act of rebounding, springing back, recoiling. It refers to a certain elasticity, the power of resuming an original shape after compression or bending – or what former Crystal Palace football manager Iain Dowie was on about when he coined the term ‘bouncebackability’. In the public schools of old, it would probably have been referred to as ‘character’ or the vague quality of keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’.

Sport, of course, played a part in this character building, particularly the Victorian enthusiasm for Muscular Christianity (as immortalised in Tom Brown’s Schooldays) practised by Thomas Arnold and his peers in the great schools of England. This, in turn, paved the way for the courageous and selfless way in which vast swathes of young men hung up their rugby boots for the trench boots of the First World War.

Yet, just 100 years later, we are told that our schools are not producing this kind of hardiness – and that our school leavers are not able to cope with the working world, never mind a world war. Health and safety-obsessed, we have just about run out of cotton wool in which to wrap our children. So keen are we to protect them that even the concept of winning and losing inspires anxiety and alarm in certain quarters.

What nonsense. In life we will fall, in life we will fail. In life we will win, and in life we will lose. If our pupils are to succeed once they leave our schools, they are going to need the resilience to cope with such falls and failures. Sport can, should, and does play a key part in this.

At my school, Shrewsbury, one of the major sports is cross-country running. Indeed, the school’s famous running club – known as The Hunt – has the distinction of being the oldest running club in the world. Established in 1831, there are well over 60 boys and girls competing for the team throughout the year. There is a certain kudos in running in the famous Hunt vest, and competition for places is high. To win the school’s historic ‘Tucks’ race, meanwhile, is the ultimate honour, joining a long list of illustrious athletes in holding aloft the weighty Hector Rose Bowl.

Yet there is only one winner, with the rest of the school – all 750 of them – all failing to win. Of course, for many of those, the true race is against oneself, and I would also have to force myself to concede that there may also be a small handful of pupils who do not perhaps see The Tucks as the most important event in the school calendar. Yet for many it really is, and for many the race result is tinged with deep disappointment and a sense of failure.

As Master in Charge of the club, does this worry me? Not at all. What I see in the majority of the runners is the ability to bounce back from their disappointment, to dust themselves off and pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and resolve to run smarter the next time they don their running spikes. Perseverance, I would argue, does not merely refer to an athlete’s stamina, it refers more importantly to their ability to keep striving further, to keep pushing, despite that disappointment.

Angela Duckworth argues that it is possible to predict those who will be successful by their ability to persevere when they fail, with the truly resilient able to recognise that failure is not a permanent condition. Missed a tackle? Caught a crab? Got bowled for a golden duck? Good, Duckworth would say: now learn from that error and bounce back.

If you want resilience, look no further than the rower who gets up at the crack of dawn in the cold and wet, or the runner who pushes through the pain of a speedwork session, or the swimmer who racks up hundreds upon hundreds of lengths in the pool. Our cricket pitches and lacrosse fields, badminton courts and shooting ranges: these are the classrooms for teaching resilience. Should we be worried, then, about this perceived lack of resilience? If sport continues to play a key role in independent schools then no, absolutely not.

Peter Middleton is a Housemaster at Shrewsbury School and Master in Charge of the school’s cross-country club, The Hunt.


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