As we embark on the last term of the school year, many students involved in sport, along with their coaches, take time to reflect on their performances and experiences in the previous months. Sporting performance is readily measured by examining win rates and numbers of trophies or titles, but is counting the victories the most helpful approach?
Sport has long been synonymous with goal setting, but we cannot usually control the outcome on the field of competition because we cannot account for the performance of our rivals. A famous example of this was in the 1991 Olympics, when Carl Lewis, the best long jumper in the world at the time, produced the best jump of his life. All commentators took this to mean that the gold was surely in the bag for Lewis. No-one could have predicted that Mike Powell would subsequently make one of the longest leaps in history and steal the gold. But he did, and Lewis and the world of track and field were stunned.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, 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’. This is certainly what athletes often hear when they do not achieve in the traditional sense. However, is this perceived as a way in which to take the edge off failure, to encourage those who do not achieve? Do young people view awards such as ‘Student of the Year’ as more prestigious than ‘Most Improved’? I have seen students disappointed at being awarded ‘Most Improved’, assuming it means they are a player of lesser ability. Often it seems that the mindset of young athletes is that ‘natural talent’ is more significant than hard work and motivation.
Yet numerous researchers believe that talent is a myth and that it is purposeful practice, some ten thousand hours of it, hard work and unyielding determination that leads to success and the all-elusive ‘win’. This long-running debate about talent vs training shows no sign of abating, with evidence aplenty for both sides. However, in an age of 24 hour media, our young athletes will continue to be bombarded with examples of ‘winning’, whether from elite sport or from the stars of Twitter and Instagram, where only polished perfection is posted, and no-one talks about fighting well and coming second.
In the Taunton School PE department, we will continue to battle against the ‘winner takes all’ mentality, and support and nurture individuals of all athletic abilities. Research shows that praising persistence and determination over intelligence and natural ability can develop a growth mindset. Anthony Joshua WBA and IAF world heavyweight champion, following his victory over Wladimir Klitschko, said ‘I’ve got to get better, get back to the gym and find out where my weaknesses are, I’m not perfect’. Those young people continually praised for their ‘gift’ often shy away from challenges, fearful that they will fail. So we will continue to foster resilience with the aim of enabling students to be better able to deal with failure and more likely to relish a challenge in sport as in life. If we can develop this mindset in the students in our department, then happiness and success will surely follow.
Head of Physical Education