June 09, 2021
By Dr Kathy Weston
Summer finally feels like it's arrived and some schools are gearing up for that most 'marmite' of annual events; sports day. Parents are gearing up for it too. In the last week or so, I've had several questions about how to handle the pressure of competition, pre-race nerves and the potential disappointment of losing. It's even the subject of our new Parenting Question of the Week. So, do you fall into the ‘can’t bear it!' camp? Or are you counting down the days?
Typically, those who fall into the latter group are those whose children enjoy a bit of competitive sport (particularly athletics) and are in with a strong chance of winning something. This is an entirely anecdotal observation, but, on the whole, parents who loathe it may have traumatic memories of their childhood sports days, dread the ‘social side’ of the event, or not want to watch their children compete in activities that they are likely to come last in.
Who can blame them? Sports day is the one day of the year when you know that tears may flow; batons will get dropped, children will come last, trip, slip or forget where they are supposed to be at a given time.
Then, there is the battle of the picnics. I am in awe of parents who actually remember (weeks ahead of the event) to dig out their baskets, locate the reusable glasses and dust off the picnic rug from ‘somewhere in the garage’. I generally rely on friends like these to feed me on the day. They are the true saviours of the day and deserve gold medals.
You might assume from the content above that I am not a fan. But you would be wrong!
I generally consider myself to be pretty ‘unsporty.’ I’d rather go shopping than stand on the side of a pitch, watching my children play rugby or cricket. However, there is something about sports day that I find terribly exciting and not just because I have two children who love athletics. I enjoy watching other people’s children break school records, hearing a teacher on the loudspeaker announce the next event, the immediacy of race results and the rollercoaster of emotions throughout the day.
I can’t easily follow a cricket game, but I can tell who has won a race. It brings back fond memories of seeing my mother, a busy business woman, on the side of the long jump, cheering me on in a rather incongruous ‘Dynasty-style’ 80s power suit. She had unexpectedly arrived straight from the office, in time to see me jump. I still remember how special that felt. That said, parents can often be a large part of why sports day isn’t enjoyable for children.
Typically, sports days are competitive (although some schools have explicitly opted out of this model). The public nature of the day, coupled with the inherent competitive element, can mean nervous children and emotionally charged parents with high expectations. The result is stress and no fun for anyone. This is why the psychological preparation for sports day should attract as much planning as the content of the picnic basket.
The psychological picnic basket contains a healthy dose of realism. Let’s face it, we can all guess who might win each race already. However, by encouraging our children to set their own goals and targets, it can ease this inevitable defeat. Perhaps they can throw the ball higher than they did last year? Or attempt to come in the top five in the race, rather than in the top ten like last year? By competing against oneself, the chances of success might be higher. Teach your children that ‘giving it a go’ is what is important. Celebrate effort, rather than performance – take a look at our new Parenting Question of the Week for further thoughts on this.
Another aspect of the picnic basket is having strong words with our children about behaviour. It is very rewarding to see our children support their friends in a race or to see them console another child after a loss. If you witness a beautiful sight like this, give yourself a big pat on the back. Show your children what you value and praise their kind and positive attitude when you see it.
Schools have an important role in making sports day work for everyone. They could have a diverse range of sporting activities on offer. In addition to the competitive races, they might offer a ‘sports taster’ section, where children can show off sporting skills as ‘demos’ for other pupils. There might be an archery gallery, a gymnastics or Karate mat, dance skills, a skipping workshop or a hula hoop competition. School might even invite back some sporting alumni to show us all how some of these things are done!
A final plea to schools: can there be a trophy for “Chief Encourager’? The child who consistently celebrates others’ victories, consoles their teammates when they lose and happily fetches a plaster for a pal. While we are nurturing sporting talent on the pitch, let’s be on the lookout for future sports coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists, nurses and doctors.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
The Tooled Up library contains a video on girls’ participation in sport (which tends to decline at the point of puberty) and a podcast with expert Dr Michaela James on the same subject, as well as plenty of resources on children’s emotional and physical resilience.
For those parents who have a child who is genuinely passionate about sport and who may even be considering a future career in it, we haven’t forgotten about you! Check out performance nutritionist Dan Richardson’s ‘Tooled Up’ tips on optimal nutrition for sports day and find out the truth about 10 sports nutrition myths. For parents with older teens considering sports scholarships, watch out for news of a future webinar with Holly Cram, a champion hockey star and founder of www.aspireusa.uk.com