Is school sport in danger of becoming too professional?

    12 March 2020

    When most of us recall our school sporting days, we tend to remember the friendships that were forged, the occasional personal highlights and the far more frequent moments when our skill levels didn’t quite match our idols’. When we meet up with old schoolmates, we spend far more time reminiscing about the time Freddie scored his only ever try than discussing each other’s jobs, relationships or children.

    Underpinning all this is a wonderful nostalgia, rose-tinted yet self-deprecating, and an acknowledgement that those countless hours on the playing fields represented some of the happiest times of our lives. However, not all of the present generation of schoolchildren may be able to look back on their sporting experiences with such fondness. There are growing fears, within independent schools in particular, that moves towards professional standards and a focus on winning may be at odds with the essence of school sport.

    The problem is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more prevalent in boys’ sport, and especially so in rugby, where independent schools still provide the bulk of future England internationals. There has been an influx of former pros into the schools’ rugby scene and many heads — understandably keen to generate publicity and demonstrate they are serious about sport — have leapt at the chance to hire high-profile figures as directors of sport.

    At the same time, there has been a surge in the number of schools offering scholarships and bursaries to talented rugby players, driven by a philanthropic desire to widen access, but also, on occasion, by a recognition that success on the playing field may be a potential marketing tool. Some coaches are known to identify and approach pupils at other independent schools. One director of rugby at a top-performing school in the South-East reports that his star under-16 player was poached by a rival school which offered him a full scholarship. ‘We weren’t prepared to enter into a bidding war over a 15-year-old kid,’ he says rather ruefully.

    Chris Morgan, director of sport at Tonbridge, is a critic of these shifts towards becoming superstar sports schools. ‘An increasing number of schools seem to be using sports scholarships as part of their business model,’ he says. ‘They place rugby on a pedestal above other sports as it seems to be more influential in parents’ decision-making over which school they want to send their children to.’

    As a result, some of Morgan’s counterparts at other independent schools feel under pressure to focus on winning rather than maximising enjoyment. ‘If everything you put on your website is about which teams won, it is easy to see how coaches, boys and parents can think that results are the most important barometer of success.’

    Other teachers and former pupils echo Morgan’s fears: several coaches told of fights breaking out among overzealous parents on the touchline, while some recent 1st XV players admitted to having feigned injuries in order to escape the possibility of failing in an important match.

    Several coaches feel that their efforts to prioritise players’ enjoyment over results are at risk of being undermined by the temptation to see sport as an extension of academic league tables. One director of rugby told me that whenever the 1st XV lose a Saturday fixture, his headmaster calls a meeting on the Monday morning in which he demands an explanation for the defeat. ‘The head can’t understand that sport isn’t just about winning,’ he says.

    Professionalisation of sport in the independent sector also includes an increased focus on weight training by some schools in a bid to bulk up their players. However, many leading HMC schools now employ dedicated strength and conditioning coaches to ensure this is done safely and responsibly.

    Rather than allowing boys to take part in the traditional range of sports, certain schools are encouraging their best players to follow rugby-specific conditioning programmes in the summer term. Given that there are only 50 professional rugby contracts handed out to school-leavers in England each year, this might suggest some schools are skewing their priorities.

    This trend of professionalisation may soon be noticeable in hockey and netball

    Neil Rollings, a former director of sport at Sedbergh and Cheltenham College, warns against the practice employed by some of placing their top athletes on tailored timetables with reduced academic commitments. ‘Schools are not sports academies,’ he says. ‘And it is not the place of schools to fuel vocational sport; that is the purpose of clubs.’  This trend of professionalisation does not appear to be confined to rugby. Rollings predicts that a similar effect may soon be noticeable in hockey and netball, following a recent influx of former professionals into coaching jobs in schools.

    Douglas Henderson, former master-in-charge at Clifton College and now the editor of the Schools Cricket Online website, agrees. ‘Whereas until shortly after the turn of the millennium, cricket in most schools was run by an academic teacher in conjunction with a professional, now many schools have entrusted the sport to ex-pros without much schoolmasterly oversight,’ he says. ‘In some schools this has had unfortunate effects as the professionals look to replicate their own experiences, seemingly spending more time in the gym than in the nets and on fielding drills rather than honing batting and bowling skills.’

    So, with increasingly professional set-ups and a seeming obsession with winning at all costs, has school sport lost its innocence?

    Certainly not, says Kevin Knibbs, Headmaster of Hampton School in South West London, and Chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) Sports Sub-Committee. ‘Independent schools understand that sport is hugely beneficial to young people.  While there have been substantial improvements in the standard of sports facilities, coaching, and performance in independent schools over the past decade, this is balanced with an emphasis on safety, wellbeing and general fitness.  Together these things have had an overwhelmingly positive impact on young people’s experiences of sport in HMC schools,’ he says.

    ‘Pupils are free to enjoy playing a wide range of sports with their friends without facing undue pressure to win or needing to follow an over-intensive training regime,’ Knibbs continues.

    Knibbs is also keen to emphasise the wider benefits of sporting participation in schools. HMC members contributed to research carried out last year by Professor Peter Clough of the University of Huddersfield, which showed that physical activity significantly improves resilience and can help pupils deal with the pressures of exams.  They will collaborate with the Youth Sport Trust on an extension of this study across state and independent schools later this year.

    Rugby’s Champions Trophy and NatWest Cup competitions have long-standing rules that limit schools to fielding no more than three sixth-form entrants to minimise poaching.  The key, Chris Morgan adds, is to ensure that those involved in coaching are given appropriate guidance on what matters in school sport. ‘Professional coaches coming from environments where winning is the most important factor need support to understand the aims of schools,’ he says.

    It is important to note that many ex-professionals have adapted brilliantly to the novel demands of school life. Nick De Luca, the former Scotland centre, joined Uppingham as Director of Rugby in 2017 after finishing his playing career at Wasps. Under his watch, Uppingham actively embrace losing games, especially in the younger age groups, in an effort to maximise the players’ learning opportunities. ‘Focusing on winning chastises learning and creates environments of fear,’ he argues.  Interestingly, De Luca’s approach also seems to be working in delivering results at the senior end of the school. ‘We haven’t talked about winning or results for the past three years with the 1st XV,’ he says, ‘and we have just enjoyed our most successful year in two decades.’

    De Luca’s message is echoed by Richard Shorter, who travels around the country trying to educate parents on how best to support their children’s sporting endeavours through his consultancy, Non-Perfect Dad. ‘Parents are the biggest influencers on a young athlete’s character, and both they and schools need to reflect on what they are celebrating and make every effort to ensure that they are character-focused rather than results-focused,’ Shorter argues.

    Shorter emphasises the importance of engaging children in conversations that go beyond what he calls the three ugly questions of sports parenting: ‘Did you win?’, ‘Did you score a try/goal?’ and ‘Were you Man of the Match?’ Instead, he says, parents would be better advised to wait for children to initiate post-game conversations themselves.

    This view is shared by Rollings, whose company, Independent Coach Education, is at the forefront of professional development for school sports coaches. ‘Everyone involved needs to remember to focus their attention on what really matters, which is that children are accessing a varied and stimulating sporting curriculum, not chasing unbeaten seasons to the exclusion of their enjoyment,’ he says.

    If schools and parents can heed this advice, the next generation will be able to join the rest of us in indulging in misty-eyed, romantic reminiscences about their glory days on the playing fields.