Are sports days still relevant?

Val Proctor explores the pros and cons of the traditional annual sports day and decides – whatever teachers’ feeling about them – whether they will remain on schools’ fixtures lists for the foreseeable future

Traditional school sports days are a bit like Marmite – you either love them or you loathe them. For those youngsters who are sporty but not necessarily athletic, the annual egg and spoon race can be scrambled, the long jump a step too far – but, if you are a future Sir Mo Farah or Paula Radcliffe, sports day could be your time to shine.

However, there is some debate about the efficacy of the competitiveness surrounding sports days. A 2017 survey, conducted by Families Online, found that 57% of parents with children at primary school say their sports day is “non-competitive”. However, the same survey also found that 86% of respondents did not approve of this.

Competitiveness lies at the heart of sport and encourages the development of key life skills like resilience, fair play, teamwork and respect for others. Of course, learning how to lose is important too – and another key life skill. Learning that it’s okay to lose helps pupils become more resilient adults.

Learning how to win and, more importantly, how to win in the right way, is also an important lesson. The basics of fair play and respect for others will not only serve them well in school, but in future life too, making them more rounded, well-adjusted individuals.

Bolton School

Physical education has another benefit in that it can help to tackle the ‘crisis’ of mental health issues facing youngsters today. Four in five teachers reported a rise in pupils experiencing mental health problems over the last two years since 2017, according to a new poll conducted by the National Education Union. A series of recent Sport England studies have demonstrated the mental health benefits of sport and activity, but also how girls become disproportionately inactive and disengaged in sport as they progress through school.

Our curriculum features structured sport every day, which we believe not only promotes sporting excellence but also leads to increased concentration in lessons and academic success 

Sue Hincks, headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division, believes sports days are still a wonderful way of enabling the whole school to share in the joy and achievement of sport: “The more athletically talented have the chance to receive recognition for their prowess from their peers, parents and those staff who may not be involved in sport on a day-to-day basis. 

“In addition, an emphasis on ‘sport for all’ enables everyone to participate and to push themselves beyond their normal pace.” 

The three schools in the Bolton School Girls’ Division each have their own sports days. The Infants’ and Junior Schools’ sports days are more family orientated and less technical ability is required of the youngest pupils than in the Senior School’s sports days when girls aim to take the school record in individual events. However, Hincks is quick to stress that, across the three schools, the emphasis is on doing one’s best and supporting each other to do well. 

Bolton School ensures adult participation via parents’ races at the Infants’ and Junior Schools’ events while a competitive staff relay event takes place at the Senior School sports day – much to the enjoyment of the pupils.

Lockers Park sports day

Uncover hidden talents

Christopher Wilson, headmaster at Lockers Park, says his school encourages pupils to be involved in, and try out, as many sporting activities as possible during their school career.

He says: “Our curriculum features structured sport every day, which we believe not only promotes sporting excellence but also leads to increased concentration in lessons and academic success. This approach gives children the opportunity to uncover hidden talents as well as boost their confidence and instil healthy habits. With plenty of enthusiastic and nurturing coaches, we work to ensure every pupil feels ready to participate in sports day – whatever their ability. Parents attending the event understand this ethos and celebrate with their children, whether they win or lose.” 

Farlington School in West Sussex tailors its sports events to be age-appropriate as it caters for four to 18-year-olds. So, it’s sack races, bunny hopping and three-legged races for the pre-preps while prep pupils move towards more competitive races with hurdles and cross country. By the time it gets to Senior School House Athletics afternoon, the pupils are competing at track and field events, including long jump, shot put, javelin, discus and running.

Parents race at Farlington School

Headmistress Louise Higson says they try to balance competitiveness and inclusivity: “We want everyone to have a go, take part and feel valued, but we also celebrate our high achievers.”

The headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division, Philip Britton, believes that, in sport, as in many parts of school life, enabling participation and supporting excellence are the key focus. “A sports day does both, from the strong competition of the very best athletes through to the participation in the tug of war and as a keen crowd, often supported by the school samba band.”

Celebration of sport

Ben Evans, headmaster at Edge Grove School in Hertfordshire, goes even further as he says sports day should be a celebration of a whole year of sport and an opportunity for every pupil in the school (regardless of ability) to compete with good humour, collaboration and enjoyment. 

“It is essential to have a healthy spirit of competitiveness combined with inclusivity to ensure the event is purposeful and that pupils can display pride in their house along with determination and commitment,” he explains.

“For the staff and children, it is the culmination of a term of hard work where athletics skills have been taught and honed in preparation for the big day. The children are keen to compete, do their best and earn points for their houses and the honour of lifting the house shield. It is far less about coming first and individual glories.”

Parents need to make the most of the occasion too, enjoy the time off work, remember it’s a school sports day and not the Olympics and immerse themselves in the fun, camaraderie and healthy competitive spirit

Getting staff and parents involved is crucial to not only the organisation of the event, but also to the enjoyment. However, as Evans says, parents need to understand the philosophy behind school sports days and not see them as a showcase opportunity for their sporty or athletically gifted child to return home with all the medals, but rather as a day where they can demonstrate their skills and perform to their best ability within their house as part of a bigger team.  

Likewise, those with children more talented in other areas of the curriculum also need to view the day as an opportunity to participate and demonstrate good teamwork and sportsmanship.

Evans says: “Schools will work hard to make the day enjoyable for spectators and competitors. Parents need to make the most of the occasion too, enjoy the time off work, remember it’s a school sports day and not the Olympics and immerse themselves in the fun, camaraderie and healthy competitive spirit. They may also want to keep their fingers crossed for a dry and sunny day too,” he says.

Farlington School

Kingswood School in Bath has taken participation one step further by involving their alumni on the day. Last summer, a baker’s dozen of Old Kingswoodians – part of the unbeaten road and cross-country team from 50 years ago – returned to the annual sports day to celebrate their achievement and support the current pupils. They even entered a relay team running against the pupils and staff at the ripe old age of 68 years old. The school is constantly looking for innovative ways to invite alumni back to the school to celebrate achievements and support current pupils.

Despite anxieties around safeguarding, whether to be competitive or not and how to involve all children, sports days are like the cream in the coffee, according to Hincks. “They provide a bit of froth on top as well as enhancing the school athletics on offer throughout the summer term.” 

Wilson best sums it by quoting the founder of the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

So, love them or hate them, I believe school sports days will remain on schools’ fixtures lists for the foreseeable future, with a focus on fun and getting involved the key to success. 

You might also like: Mental health – the effects of sport and boarding life

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