Sport and study: Finding the happy medium

It’s everywhere you look at the moment. Schools basketball. Schools hockey. Senior Cup rugby. Colleges hurling, colleges football.

Blackrock College's Liam McMahon tackled short of the line by Harry McSweeney, St Mary's College in the Leinster Schools' Senior Cup semifinal.

Secondary-school sport gets more and more competitive and professional every year, with teams investing in high-end preparation and facilities, but are we in danger of losing sight of the bottom line — that these are kids facing significant exams, not budding sports superstars?

Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, offers some context.

“The significant thing is that there are so many advantages and benefits in extra-curricular activities, be they games and sports, drama, music, and so on. There are so many positives involved, and those activities develop the person in so many ways, and in so many different areas such as team skills, interdependence, all of those, that it’s really worthwhile for schools to have a wide range of extra-curricular activities available.

What you want to do, obviously, is to get the balance right between those extra-curricular activities on one hand and the study, on the other. In successful schools they are well able to get that balance right, and they do.

There’s one significant difference to be found in schools which are committed to sport, Byrne adds: some are pledged to elite competition, others facilitate regular participation.

“One point worth making is that you can have sport for excellence, a school can concentrate on getting the most out of its top fifteen or twenty players, or you can have sport for participation.

“Going on my own experience teaching before I joined NAPD, I taught in a school which had up to eight senior rugby teams, but five of those teams were for participation, really. The third team would have been the following year’s senior side and then you had the first and second teams.”

The skills that are picked up in team sports stand to students, says Byrne: “Apart from the fact of positive mental health, and general health, there are all sorts of other benefits. Then there’s something else that’s going to come on stream soon, the possibility of physical education becoming an exam subject, that students may end up studying it with tests in mind in the senior cycle. as well as taking it up simply for enjoyment.

The general move towards wellbeing and wellness is another factor in this discussion of games and PE. It’s a question overall of getting the balance right and not putting too much pressure on the kids to succeed in one sport rather than another, particularly to the detriment of other aspects of their lives.

This opens the door to a whole other line of thinking, of course — are our old definitions too narrow?

The value placed on good athletes, whether in team or individual sports versus the modern thinking about wellness, and inculcating good habits in children which will contribute to life-long good health?

“Yes, exactly, and the whole idea of a positive lifestyle and positive role models for that lifestyle, those are all really important for kids.

“You’ll find too that these young adults — which is a better way to describe them than just saying children — can also make good decisions. In my time teaching I found some of them, for instance, choosing not to play for the senior rugby team in the school once they got to fifth or sixth year because it would have affected their academic work.

“They were happy, though, to play with the fourth or fifth team, though, which was meritorious too. They were contributing to the school, they were contributing to a team, they felt good about themselves, they were keeping up a level of fitness ...

“Fair enough, they felt it might have cut across their academic work if they were out training four times a week with the senior team, so they made arrangements that suited them, and it’s important to have teachers advise them properly when they make decisions like that, to recognise they can play at their own particular level.”

Byrne also points out that parents are equipped to make the appropriate calls depending on how involved in sport their kids want to be.

Schools which are high achievers on the sports fields don’t tend to hide their lights under a bushel, after all.

“It’s left up to schools to decide the level of participation they’re interested in, though what you’ll find is that when it comes to schools like St Kieran’s in Kilkenny, or Pres and Christians in Cork, the people sending their kids to schools like that know exactly what the sporting ethos of those schools is.

“Then there are other schools which would have a more participation-based model, and maybe a different range of sports available to their pupils rather than specialising in one — and then sub-specialising with one particular team at the top then as well.

“That isn’t to say there aren’t other positives there for the school which specialises in one particular sport — in a lot of those schools you can have a mix of ages across the teams, which is a benefit to younger pupils because they then have positive role models within the team structure as well.

“But again, it all has to be kept in proportion.”

True enough, and there have been some subtle changes in the perception of talented athletes. Gone are the days, for instance, when someone could surf a reputation as a schools or colleges star to a cushy job, given how competitive the job market has become. But that’s not to say the sense of proportion mentioned by Byrne never comes under pressure from unrealistic expectations.

If you want to do sport or music in most European countries that’s an additional activity outside school. It’s not done by teachers. You join a club or another organisation for that, so we’re very lucky in Ireland to have the possibility of teachers getting involved and running those activities,’ says Clive Byrne.

For instance, Ireland are hunting a Grand Slam in international rugby this weekend, which will likely inspire more schoolkids to try to make a living as a pro rugby player. That doesn’t always work out, however.

“Yes, there is that option which doesn’t exist in hurling or Gaelic football, of making a profession out of rugby, and there’s a potential danger there. The downside is that the kids will do what they need to do to get a professional contract but if they don’t get into the academy they’re aiming for, they may throw their hat at it.

“As against that, there are plenty of guys who fall back in with clubs to play junior rugby and become club stalwarts without ever becoming professional players with Munster or Leinster. The mindset’s an interesting one.”

There are other challenges which are specific to Ireland, such as teachers’ commitment to training teams — and whether that can be sustained. It’s a very different model in other countries, for instance.

“We’re very lucky in Ireland that teachers give so much of their time to facilitate extra-curricular activities of all sorts,” says Byrne.

“But in recent years, with the recession and the salary cuts and so on, there’s a recognition that if those teachers wanted to do things for themselves — with their families and so on — then they’d have to cut back on the activities after school. Because they feel their services aren’t valued, teachers are increasingly unwilling to give of their time to activities.

It’s not at epidemic proportions, but people should realise that that’s the norm in other European countries. If you want to do sport or music in most European countries that’s an additional activity outside school. It’s not done by teachers. You join a club or another organisation for that, so we’re very lucky in Ireland to have the possibility of teachers getting involved and running those activities.

“We also have parents who are willing to get involved, though being honest, the antics of some parents at times, on the sidelines at games, would embarrass you, they get so competitive.

“Marrying the participation and competitiveness elements in sport at school level is a fine skill. If you’re in an atmosphere where everyone’s looking out for one another and everyone’s happy with the way things are going, that’s the way forward. I’d be happier with that, certainly.”

The recent announcement about physical education being rolled out as an exam subject in 80 schools dovetails with that, and though Byrne points out the accompanying challenges, he’s in favour of the move.

“The inclusion of PE as a subject is great as long as there’s an investment in the gyms and equipment necessary to do it properly . . . the dilemma is always that we have too many schools. If we had fewer schools which were a little bit bigger you could invest more in equipment and so on. But between investment in PE, the recognition that people can take a subject for the leaving cert that they have good talent in — that’s a good thing. The renewed emphasis on wellness and wellbeing will stand us in good stead.”

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