The belief that competitive sport damages children is misguided, but not daftby Matt Cavanagh / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
The government is worried about children getting fatter and growing into obese adults. There is clearly a lot we can do about this. Getting schools to play more competitive sport seems like a good place to start.
The left, however, has long been suspicious of competitive sport. The government could have tried to accommodate this in announcing its new proposals. It could have said: look, we understand that there is a real question about whether society is getting too competitive, but tackling obesity is just more important.
It chose not to do this. Instead, it used the backdrop of a successful and popular Olympic campaign to distance itself from what Tessa Jowell called “the politically correct nonsense of the 1980s that competition damages children and sports days are undesirable.” Andy Burnham MP, a former adviser in Jowell’s department, urged the left to support competitive sport for its own sake. “We can’t celebrate an Olympic gold and yet agonise over whether competitive school sport is right or not,” he said. “The left needs to accept that sport is about competition.”
Are Jowell and Burnham right? Is it time for the left to leave its suspicion of competitive sport behind? In trying to answer this question, the first problem is that the left has not always been clear about what it objects to in competitive sport. Judging from the letters and editorials in the Guardian and Observer since the announcement, you would guess the main objection was that it is humiliating for those who are no good at it. But while this is true, and a shame, it does not really have much to do with sport being competitive.
We need to distinguish being humiliated from feeling bad about failure. Stopping people being humiliated is a desirable aim. But stopping people failing, and feeling bad about it, is not. Almost everything which is worth doing necessarily contains the possibility of failure. And we cannot stop people feeling bad about failure without stopping them caring about success. So we should not even try. Humiliation is different. People feel humiliated when they take failure too seriously, or let it undermine their overall sense of self-worth – or when other people or the system does this to them. We should certainly try to stop this happening, where we can.
But in this debate it is competition itself we should be focusing on, rather than…