That’s life, old sport 

The keenest of competition

Here’s a title for a book. Bernard Trafford: my life in sport. If it ever comes to be written (unlikely), it’ll be a very slim volume. In sporting terms, my life has been one not of under-achievement but of total non-achievement. I was the boy who couldn’t catch or hit a ball, and consistently proved himself the slowest runner in the class, the school, the world.

If experience of failure teaches resilience, then by the age of 10 I should have had an A Level in grit.

My childhood predated general understanding of the necessity for 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, though I suspect even 10,000 hours could not have turned me into a runner, footballer or tennis star.

In my defence, those were the bad old days when the kids who immediately showed promise with bat, ball or foot were quickly picked for the team and received all the coaching while the rest of us ran, it seemed, reluctantly and endlessly round winter pitches or acted as bored fielders in the cricket season.

They were the bad old days of school sport. Sports teachers are nowadays against the kind of ritual humiliation through failure that I and countless others like me suffered. Indeed, I’m envious when I see young people get the chance to try a bewildering variety of sports and, in so many cases, find something that suits: they learn skills, take exercise and hopefully take something from school that will serve them for decades to come.

So am I scarred by my school (un)sporting experience? Yes and no. It’s a professional hazard, perhaps, that I possess an abundance of self-confidence and am prone to bumptiousness. But, if you want to strip away all that and leave me vulnerable and anxious, persuade me in a weak moment to take part in some public sporting activity: then, when you find me shivering beforehand in my shorts and t-shirt, you may discover that self-assured veneer absent for once as I relive that childish anticipation of impending misery, mockery and failure.

Otherwise I don’t think there are scars. But here’s the bizarre point of this story.

I love sport. Though I can enjoy a T20 cricket, premiership football or international rugby match on TV, it’s the live experience that thrills me – just as, I guess, the performing arts do.

Get me to St James Park and I’ll join in the roar of the 50,000 spectators. Still better, let me watch high-level youth competition, preferably school sport at its very best.

This piece isn’t about education. To be sure, I believe that sport, or rather physical education, is a vital part of a rounded education. But I’m talking about sheer fun and excitement. Above all, I love witnessing the thrill for sportsmen and women of being part of the event, whether as part of a team or in the solo endeavour of athletics.

Sense of excitement, spirit of competition
Sense of excitement, spirit of competition

Participation, just being there, is important: but more central is how athletes give their all. It’s in the white heat of competition that they surprise themselves and hit personal bests, finding themselves in new territory. The late Sir Roger Bannister didn’t run his four-minute mile alone: he had friends and rivals who were prepared and able on their day to beat him, thus spurring him to his four-minute mile.

To me that’s all thrilling. I was reminded of it on Wednesday at an inter-school event with the keenest of competition and the best of sportsmanship, all in the fantastic setting of Gateshead International Stadium. How lovely it was to see all eight 400m finalists high-fiving and shaking hands with one another: it’s the respect of the winner for the defeated, of the loser for the victor.

This country needs to get more real about the support and investment needed to help world-class athletes and sports people to develop. We, the spectating public, need to remember that it’s not the winning that is most important: nor (contrary to the old adage) is the taking part. It’s about observing how collective endeavour and absolute individual determination come together to bear fruit.

From that we can draw inspiration. And that’s where education comes back into play: as a learning experience, it’s lifelong.


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