These speeches were made to Upper Sixth pupils at the sports dinner at the end of the Christmas Term 2020, but the sentiments have relevance for us all in terms of the positivity of sport during these difficult times.
So, 2020 … forever to be remembered as the season that never was? Or, given the circumstances, a chance to look at how and why we play, in a very different light?
For example, can you remember the first time you picked up a hockey stick, passed a rugby ball, or kicked a football? I know I can. And why did you keep playing the sport at a young age? More than likely, due to parental influence, perhaps a nearby local club, opportunities at primary school or just messing around with your friends rather than the desire to beat Marlborough or Millfield for bragging rights.
The point I am making is that during these tricky times of Covid, the primary motivation has simply been ‘for the love of the game’. We’ve all had to rediscover the inner child who fell in love with the sport in the first place, and who wanted more of their sporting experiences – purely ‘just because’. That shift in mindset can take some getting used to, but from a Hockey perspective I have been so impressed by the way in which you have approached and readjusted to that reality.
In my opinion, there is great symbolism in the pursuit of playing ‘for the love of the game’. For all of you here as Upper Sixth formers in a time when much of your existence is defined by grades, assessments, test results, UCAS offers and regular team selection … it’s been a privilege to provide an opportunity for you to embrace something free of those requirements and just play; enabling you to express yourselves without judgement. In turn this has promoted space for creativity and experimentation in training.
Indeed, the on-pitch environment for all of you has provided a safe and happy place and the most regular semblance of normality, compared to the more sterile classroom setting. Now, more than ever, this extended period has highlighted the importance of physical activity, to foster togetherness and laughter, but still with appropriate and relevant levels of stretch and task difficulty. To train to feed the soul, not to feed the need to win; but to enjoy that experience just as much, epitomises why we play ‘for the love of the game’.
Hopefully, you will be able to look back on this time and reflect on the core values of being your best self and challenging stereotypes; a time when you established positive and preferable lifestyle behaviours. These will serve you well in encouraging greater longevity for future participation, and an awareness of health. To draw upon my PE background, this is all representative of Commitment theory – whereupon it would have been easy to have downed tools and not given your best, through the absence of regular competition. Instead, perhaps without knowing it or considering it, you signed a commitment to yourself and with each other, because of the values instilled and shown by your strength of character – to persevere. Therefore, there are different takeaways from this whole experience. Trust me, I am fiercely competitive like all of you, and have been frustrated by the lack of matches, but I’m sure you can all recognise the benefits on your mental wellbeing as well as the physical release offered by the opportunities this term, which should not be underestimated.
So… 2020 – the season that never was… competitive, maybe. But don’t underestimate the value of your involvement in something that makes you happy, that makes you smile. In unprecedented times, you will in fact always be associated in the history books as part of the season that is forever remembered – just for alternative reasons. For your resilience, for your energy, and ‘for your love of the game’, and that should be considered just as meaningful. No doubt, you may have surprised yourselves this term, but you should be congratulated for the impeccably high standards you have maintained. You are a credit to yourselves and have set a fine example of what it means to be a true Canfordian.
I’m always biased when it comes to rugby, in terms of team sports, I think it has it all. The simple expression of power and brutality, the intricate skill required in unpicking well organised defences, these things combined with such a diverse requirement of roles for me, make it for me the king of team sports.
But why do we bother with team sports at all in education establishments? There are a couple of sides to it. In themselves, team sports are an abstract concept, chasing a ball round a field better than some other adolescents is an odd way to use our time from an educational perspective unless it serves a purpose. But in this sense, it doesn’t need to be taken any more seriously than providing an outlet for energy, a chance to enjoy being in the moment, with friends, in the great outdoors, mastering our physical faculties. Creating moments of magic, giving opportunities for us to release endorphins, hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, it improves our physical and mental wellbeing, perhaps that should be enough?
It has been said that the victories Britain achieved in battle were won on the playing fields of Eton, but for Eton you can substitute any of our public schools. Happily, Britain is no longer in the empire business and the prospect of our Upper Sixth stepping from the Summer Ball into the path of a German machine gun or French cavalry charge are now, happily, a thing of the past.
There are, however, a great number of threats that still exist and will require your generations combined and considerable efforts.
This year alone, has been a tough one for all, the choices and challenges faced, the nettles that you will need to grasp have been writ large in front of us. Choices about how we reconcile as nations and a global society following the ‘leadership’ of politicians such as Trump, leaders who preach division and hate, show no interest in society but are purely about how they can profit at the expense of others. He is perhaps the most vocal and obvious one but sadly not alone in his outlook on leadership.
This year also showed us challenges that face us as we look to redress the balance of sexual, racial and social inequalities, these challenges your generation faces, will require as much fortitude, bravery, determination. The same qualities that you show week in and week out. We don’t need sporting contest to bear witness these, we see them consistently on the practice fields, but it will take the same qualities to tackle these problems head on.
You will suffer setbacks and knocks, avenues will be closed off to you much like space closed down by some overgrown Shirburnians on the rugby, hockey or football pitch.
It will require the kind of persistence that you clearly possess. The same persistence you employ to hone those well sculpted guns. This is what will be needed to start turning the wheels of change across a great many issues. You’ve shown that you can do it, not once but time and time again and that you can be there for each other and community at large when the outlook is bleak.
The great thing is, that when faced with catastrophe humans have the capacity for greatness. Sport shows this time and time again. In the face of long odds, the underdogs can prevail. In the face of the pandemic, the world’s scientific community - team if you will - have led the fightback against Covid-19. The BLM and Me-too movements have been brave, bold and not been cowed by oppressors, that would seek to silence their voices. All over the world from Poland to Hong Kong, people have stood up together against authorities who would seek to erode their basic civil liberties.
The behaviours outlined above aren’t unique to former imperialistic team sport, but the great thing is that every other day our pupils get the opportunity to practice and hone these behaviours.
Other things that give me hope: it makes me smile inwardly when Canfordians react so wronged every time I make a bad refereeing call. It lets me know that their keen sense of justice is alive and well and that they are prepared to speak out against authority. That rebel spirit should be fostered and commended.
Why do I feel it important to preach to you about this? It’s important because it never cease to amaze me to hear what OCs get up to when they leave here. The scope and reach that you have is, frankly awesome, and not in the sense that catching your first tube surfing is awesome but the power and potential you have collectively to really make a difference, if you choose to realise it is very real and benefits all of us.
And that, in a roundabout way, is why we play team sports at Canford, why it matters to us as teachers and why we should always strive to be better.