Should competitive activities be part of the curriculum in physical education in schools?

Competition is too often reduced to simply a matter of winning and losing. This represents a one-sided and limited conception of competition, because it does not take into account the original meaning of competition, which is to “strive together.”

Should competitive activities be part of the curriculum in physical education in schools? Answering this question is at the heart of the paper Competition in Physical Education: Avoid, Ask, Adapt or Accept? (Aggerholm et al, 2018) which I shared on twitter recently. It certainly developed an interesting thread, with most respondents being positive about competitions place within the curriculum. However the justifications given for its place are educationally questionable; other subjects are competitive so why shouldn’t PE, life is full of competition so we need to prepare children for it, exposing children to winning and losing is important in developing their grit and resilience. These reasons place a lot of faith in the role of competition in physically educating children.

There are two problematic assumptions that I can see from blindly accepting competitions place within the PE curriculum:

  1. Competitive activities are inherently good.
  2. Competition is about winning and losing.

There is an assumption that competition is an inherently good thing. That the only result of providing experiences of competition for children is the development of pro-social behaviours. If we do that then we don’t discuss how to get those outcomes. It also make the assumption that competition doesn’t promote anti-social behaviours. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their excellent book, Top Dog – The Science of Winning and Losing, make the distinction between adaptive competitiveness and maladaptive competitiveness. Adaptive competition, which is characterised by perseverance, determination and an abiding respect for others, can be a productive agent of change. On the other hand maladaptive competition leads to aberrations such as psychological insecurity and displaced urges.

Competition is too often reduced to simply a matter of winning and losing. This represents a one-sided and limited conception of competition, which is problematic in PE whose aims must be educative. Success through victory is dependent on increasing one’s own value at expense of a defeated rival. Now this might not be an issue for those who have freely chosen to take part in competitive activities, but those who haven’t might not get a positive experience from it. A consequence of that, as Nyberg and Larsson point out in Exploring ‘what’ to learning in PE, is that young people learn that physical activity is not for them. They learn that the kind of bodies, abilities and mindsets that win are valued, leading them to feel excluded and influencing their physical activity behaviours through their life. Should PE teachers accept that some children will dislike competition and will have negative experiences of it, but that is acceptable because the proposed positives outweighs the negatives?

Both these assumptions can be challenged and overcome by asking ourselves what is the educative aim of using competition in the moment. Jordan Wintle explains this very well, in a piece he wrote for PE Matters called Managing Competition in PE:

“It is important to recognise when and where competition is appropriate. Make sure you are using competition because it adds something to the lesson rather than just filling time. Don’t be afraid to put competition to one side if there needs to be a focus on a different element.”

This is echoed in the School Games reframing competition initiative, for competition to be meaningful and engage more and different young people, it needs to be planned with intention. The sharing of Competition in Physical Education: Avoid, Ask, Adapt or Accept? wasn’t because I believe that competition should be banned in PE. It is because I would like the PE profession to critically reflect on what we do and why we do it. Conversations around competition, both in PE and Youth Sport, tend to become false dichotomies leading to black and white answers of ‘competition is good’ or ‘competition is bad’. However it is in the grey areas or nuance, when we challenge our own and each others assumptions, that innovation and improvement of our subject can take place. This is when we can try to begin to ensure that Physical Education is educational.

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