Eat Yerself Fitter

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October 2, 2012 by Jake Cantona

All I know most surely about morality and obligation, I owe to football[1]


I suppose it might be asking for trouble to disagree with Mo Farah about children’s participation in sport, but an article in today’s Guardian highlights[2] several passages from the Young Foundation report[3] which he and fellow Olympic hero Boris Johnson helped launch.

The liberal, pinko left-leaning smear rag [/Daily Mail off] quotes thus from the report:  “The emphasis on traditional, competitive team-based sports is out of line with the way many young people want to participate. The overriding emphasis on competitive sports is at odds with the motivations and drivers of many of the young people who are currently inactive.”

Well, yes, but…

It’s a rhetorical question, but since when exactly have children been the best and final arbiters of what is beneficial for them or expected from them? My son would (and admittedly sometimes does) subsist on a diet of Pepperamis and Smarties, and it would be storing up trouble, not to mention bad fatty deposits, if he was allowed a free rein here. He’s four; he can’t spell his own name let alone Type 3 Diabetes[4].

Many children dislike eating vegetables, doing their homework, and cleaning their teeth twice a day, but we recognize that a greater, long-term good is served by encouraging, persuading and, occasionally, making them do these things.

Farah says, according to the Guardian that “parents and teachers should not force children to do sports they did not want to do. Any physical activity that got young people into the habit of exercise was useful for their health” – and we can, I think, all agree with the second part of that statement.

However, a couple of useful lessons in life are learning to participate in things we might not wish to, and learning to work with people we might not choose to. Team sports present an opportunity to do this in a way that differs from other school learning experiences.

I would further suggest that being part of a team is a way to develop self-esteem rather than an instrument with which to crush the souls of timorous children and fling them back upon the couch from whence they came.

Conversely, I believe that the indulgence in solo activities is a palliative action. Individual sports or activities are ones in which the entire burden of achievement is placed on the individual, paradoxically making them less beneficial than team sports where you share both victory and defeat with your fellow team members.

Responding to the launch of the report, a government source said “We want more young people to take part in competitive sport, not only so they lead healthy and active lifestyles but also so they develop new skills and learn how to work as a team. That is why we are putting competitive sport at the heart of the new primary school curriculum and extending school games.”

Now I have a natural, healthy and visceral antipathy towards this government and you could probably count on Abu Hamza’s fingers the number of times I’ve agreed with the Murdoch-led coalition, but this is right and I have only one caveat.

We have a society that has simultaneously promoted ideals of body image which are impossible for the majority of people to achieve, while employing politically correct euphemisms to avoid personal responsibility. Fat people are still fat; it’s the pejorative use of the word that leads to politically correct overcompensation.[5] It is true that because of medical conditions (or perhaps the side-effects of medication) some fat people may not be fat through any fault or choice or action of their own, but on the other hand, a lot of fat people are fat through their own inaction. They can’t all be big-boned.

By avoiding the obvious, we seek to mollify the potentially embarrassed. We ignore the problem until we have to take the gable end off a house to winch the big-boned unfortunate into hospital. Children deserve honesty for their endeavours, and ignoring an aspect of life in order to spare them difficulty is not going to help in the long run. Or even the fun run. Now there’s an oxymoron.

Dyspraxic children build self-esteem by learning physical tasks, not by having their clumsiness air-brushed out of the picture. Intelligent differentiation by their teachers when setting physical tasks allows them to participate alongside their more dexterous peers. Similarly, team sports can provide this when sensitively managed, exactly as all other learning activities should be managed – by aiming towards a common goal, while working from the base level of the individual members of the class/team.

William Blake said “Energy is eternal delight”; children exude that naturally[6], so why not channel it into activities where they share and respond to one another as part of a team. I’m not knocking individual sports and activities – anything is better than nothing – but I am writing from an obvious bias towards team sport, perhaps in the same way that Mo Farah as a competitor in an individual sport prefers individual sports to team sports.

I have played in football and cricket teams on and off for over thirty years and I can grasp and identify with what Camus said. I was lucky enough to be playing in a village cricket team at the age of eleven (it was a very small village) and it was my first real introduction to the bizarre and sometimes frightening world of adult behaviour. It was frequently drunken and often hysterically funny, with a cast ranging from the disabled umpire who attempted to signal boundaries with his crutches and didn’t always fall over, through the socialist bricklayer with a fondness for Fairport Convention, the philandering lecturer and several perennial students, to a bunch of hairy-arsed sheep farmers who set the fields to their bowling in Welsh and grew cannabis to see them through the winter. It pretty much made me the man I am today.[7]

Here are a couple of sweeping generalisations as to why politician so often fail when it comes to kids and games:

Socialists often feel uneasy about sport for various reasons: the origins of most codified sports in Public Schools is a good starting point, followed by use of organized sport as a means of social stupefaction, where Football is the Opium of the People. The jingoism associated with international sporting events, encapsulated in Orwell’s famous description of sport[8] can make up the winners on this particular podium. Good old-fashioned Stakhanovites simply loathed it for being the antithesis of work.

Tories, on the other hand, have had team sports well and truly buggered into them at school. They see sport as a way of uniting and controlling. Indeed, the current Conservative party are upholding one of the ancient traditions of cricket by having an amateur as captain.

Physical activity in school has been a misunderstood area for governments (of either shade of blue) and for probably just as long, and much the same way, as the idea of an integrated transport policy. Therefore, I hereby offer by way of conclusion to this somewhat rambling missive, my three top tips to help Michael Gove in maintaining and improving children’s participation in school sporting activities:

  1. Do not alienate the teaching profession to the extent that the goodwill underpinning voluntary, unpaid activity is dissipated.
  2. Do not allow a culture to develop where the threat of blame – and punishment thereof – is the lead driver of risk management
  3. Try not to build supermarkets on playing fields



[1] Albert Camus. Although this was before the age of the Premier League, player’s agents, WAGS and image rights. And while I’m at it, the title of this piece is from a Fall song.

[4] Probably thinks it’s a Transformer. A Decepticon, obviously.

[5] Off-topic, but the worst example of PC behaviour I think I can remember seeing was Jack Straw’s performance on the “Nick Griffin” edition of Question Time when he asked a black guy in the audience if his family had moved here from overseas. It was blindingly obvious that at some point they had, but Political Correctness obliged him not to assume this. Cringe worthy.

[6] And after copious amounts of Sunny D

[7] I personally think that’s a good thing. Other opinions are available.

[8] “It is war minus the shooting”


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