The sound of tape being pulled and ripped off the roll. The smell of deep heat wafting around the changing rooms. Metal studs clanking on the changing room floor. The sight of my parents on the touch line and the strange mixture of pride and embarrassment I felt when seeing them. The feeling of slipping on my worn jersey with the number 13 half coming off. These are just a few of the many deep stirring memories I have of Saturday morning school sport.
I’m not going to lie, but I love Saturday morning school sport, both when I was a pupil and now as a teacher. There is something special about it for me. Being involved with it as a teacher, seeing the freshly painted lines, cut grass and corner flags, all my memories and the happiness associated with them come flooding back.
Last Saturday I watched England vs. South Africa with childhood friends from secondary school. Once the dissection of a woeful England performance had run its course, the conversation turned to sentiment and reminiscing. We discussed old teachers, past girlfriends and the camaraderie developed through playing sport together. Games we played and won. Games we played and lost. Our U16 rugby coach, that we all agree has been instrumental in our life, promoting our love of sport and shaping our moral compass. Through that all, bringing a closeness between us that hasn’t diminished over the last 20 years. I asked them why it was so special? I asked them why we remember those times more than our GCSE Chemistry classes together or the coursework, or the exams? It was hard to pin point, but it was something that was a shared experience. In class most of the learning was in our minds. At the time it was difficult to truly see who excelled, or suffered or worked hard or didn’t pull their own weight. You spent most of your time working your way through problems on your own. Through sport those experiences were shared. You excelled as a team. You suffered as a team.
It’s obvious that I had a very good experience of sport in my childhood that has no doubt shaped my interests and had a part in choosing my professional career. I know I need to be careful with my approach with my students, so I’m not trying to relieve my past through them, but more of ensuring their experiences of sport are just as enjoyable as mine were and hopefully become as deep rooted and influential. However, there is a more significant reason why I believe in Saturday morning school sport and that is about the reflection cycle.
I’ve worked in schools where there was no Saturday morning school sport, and whilst I hugely enjoyed the social life that gave me and the extra hours in bed I could have over the weekend it just isn’t as immersive and developmental. The issue I had with matches and training during the week was that there wasn’t time to reflect. It was all about doing, it was all about winning and losing. Sometimes due to fixture congestion you could go weeks without a training session, sometimes the reverse could happen, especially if knocked out of a cup in the first round. Children lost interest. Children didn’t have time to develop. It felt that we were just running teams for the sake of running teams, that any educational benefit was very secondary in the process. Saturday morning sport makes it more that just about that, whilst at the same time making the matches a celebration of the work put in during the week.
Playing fixtures on the weekend allows for reflective practice and for me that is the best type of practice. Reflective practice can only be born out of giving student athletes the time to spend thinking of the memories of the game. Where possible it needs to be a positive approach, that encourages them to continue to work on the aspects of their game that went well. To attempt to seek and find solutions to the areas that didn’t. It gives me time as a coach to talk to students about technical, tactical, physiological and psychological development. At best I’ve had a group of rugby players who organised a ‘what if’ coffee morning. They would meet up on Monday break time and write the list of decisions they felt they got wrong in the previous game. As a group they would then try to answer ‘what if it happened again’. In the next game they wrote the scenarios and decisions up on the board in the changing room before the next game. It also gives time for video analysis, notational analysis, dialogue between students and myself and it can shape where practices go. All my practices have a ‘man of the match choice’ where the student who was voted man of the match previously decides the focus of a 20 minute section of training. I try to get them to reflect on the memories of the game and decide what would help with the teams improvement. When this works it is an incredible sight and a moment of celebration with me and my teams. The process of reflective practice is one that I feel builds confidence. It is that confidence that can lead to sport being used as a method of staying active and healthy for life.
However there are some major issues with Saturday morning sport in state schools. Funding, resources and staff to name a few without going into the bureaucracy now needed to protect your children from injury and yourself from legislation. For me the biggest one is always staff. Generally all things in education work no matter what, when you get the right staff. If you look after them well and encourage them to build excellent working relationships with students then everything else falls into place. There is a lack of staff outside the PE Dept who invest their time in running sports teams, which is a shame when it has so much to potentially offer them as teachers and the students that they would coaching. However increased workloads and the pressure of PRP seems to have finally done in any support, in at least my school, for the running teams and if the educational benefits of school sport. That then puts more pressure on to my staff. They end up working 6 day weeks, and whilst we do not have the marking load of our academic colleagues it is physically draining. In the last 8 years of being involved in Saturday morning sport not one of my colleagues was married or had children. Is that the cause or the effect of being involved in Saturday morning school sport? I worry about their health and their wellbeing and I believe for some it can’t last much longer without the support of other staff or potentially outside coaches. Is giving up a significant amount of your personal life justifiable to give students these opportunities? My own personal beliefs should not impact on my staff in that way. I should thank them more often for what they do and what they give up to do it.
Recently at school we have been running mock university and job interviews for our Year 13s. We invite ex-students and professionals in to help with this process. The ex-students talk about their interview process of university and the also their life at university currently. After one of the those talks I got to speak to two of them that had been in my sports teams. I asked them if they were both playing sport and both said they were, but it wasn’t quite the same. James explained to me that he thought the experience of sport he had at school with his close friends was so completely unique that the he is always comparing the experience. University sport doesn’t compare. I asked him to keep going and that building relationships within a team takes time. When he is in his third year it will be a very different experience for him. Josh said that in the 6th Form the pressure of Saturday morning sport was too much. He felt too responsible for the result of the team, and that was caused by myself and others around him. He no longer plays team sports and is windsurfing at a very high level. I’m still reflecting on this a a teacher and as a coach. I’m quite disappointed that I’ve been responsible for that and need to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future, but I need time to think on it. However they finished our conversation by both saying they look back on their overall sporting experience at school with happiness and it’s because of that reason they are still involved with sport at university.
My worry is that Saturday school sport is on the decline, especially in my school. I’m concerned that it will become the sole property of Private Schools and one more thing that their students will reap the benefits of what it can bring. I ‘shouldn’t worry’ some colleagues tell me, ‘there are plenty of clubs to play sport’. However Saturday school sport is unique, special and finite. Club sport is available for those who want for the rest of their life if they want it, school isn’t. Whilst I’m still in charge of sport at my school I will continue to fight for Saturday school sport and it’s place within the education of our students. I want to create the same experiences that I had as a child, which have been so influential on my outlook and willingness to engage in an active and healthy life. However it may get to the point that it’s not just possible, for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned, but most probably for the health and wellbeing of my colleagues within the PE Dept. If that day comes then it’s going to be a very sad day and I think the educational experience my school provides will be a diminished one and one that is less about the whole of the child.