School sport plays an integral role in shaping and developing not only the next generation of athletes but also in the area of life skills. As far as the latter goes, it teaches children how to interact with superiors (coaches) and to work together as a team. No matter how much of an individual you might be, there will come a time when you will need a teammate, or colleague. You may as well learn how to work in a group environment to achieve a common goal at a young age, and do so on the sports field while having fun.
The harsh reality is that it can also be a cruel place where there is nowhere to hide. Everyone knows that kids can be cruel and you can just imagine the humiliation of dropping a catch that costs the under-13s a win, or missing an open goal, or dropping the ball when you have the try line right in front of you. I remember dropping a catch in an under-13 cricket match and all I wanted was for the ground to open up and swallow me whole. The fact that we were losing the match anyway was irrelevant; point is 13-year olds are people too with feelings and perhaps experience even more pressure, particularly from peers, than their adult counterparts.
At that age, your teammates can be most unforgiving and you might find outside of your parents, there is very little encouragement in that environment. And let us not even touch on the topic of parents who pressurise their children to be what they themselves never could be.
There is also the issue of forcing everyone in the school to participate. I grew up hating athletics because while all other sports were a choice, it was compulsory to participate in athletics where I went to school. From the very first sprint (or dash as it was called) at age 6 the other boys were always faster than me and I was mocked for being slow. I am sure there are millions of kids out there like me who stand there every year wondering what the point of it all is. That said I took great pleasure in getting my own back when we were all a little older and running longer distances. When it came to 1200m, 1600m and later 3000m I was competitive and it felt great. I was happy to run those races because I knew I could compete. It just goes to show that no one wants to do something they are no good at.
This is why I am a big advocate of physical education, or physical training as it is also known. I remember we would do fitness tests twice a year and the rest of the time we would play baseball or a game invented by the teacher. It worked so well because everyone was part of the team and there was nothing really at stake. If you dropped a catch the bell was always just a few minutes away from ending the session, unlike the humiliation of costing your school a victory.
I loved Phys Ed and was disappointed when it was taken away from schools in South Africa in 1998. From this point of view I have to applaud Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula for working to bring it back. Physical fitness results in mental fitness, and we all know how badly our country could do with mental fitness in the class room. Phys Ed is great for keeping the kids fit and active while the teacher is able to manipulate the sessions in such a way that everyone has fun and embarrassment for the overweight or less talented children is kept to a minimum.
After all sport is supposed to be fun and Phys Ed provides that avenue and besides, children will always enjoy taking part in something where the chances of their peers laughing at their limitations are slim, rather than guaranteed. Perhaps my opinion comes across as shying away from excellence. Certainly not. The over-talented children (like AB De Villiers) and other future stars will inevitably end up where they are meant to be and excel there. They will love playing it and those who are not as talented will enjoy supporting their friends. My Grade 7 (then Standard 5) teacher had a poster up on the wall with a saying that has stayed with me in the two decades since I passed his class: ‘We can’t all be heroes. Someone has to sit on the kerb and clap as they go by.”