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Don’t stop playing

School of sport with TIM MIDDLETON

FREDDIE Mercury and Winston Churchill were very different people! Mercury was a hugely popular singer-songwriter as the lead vocalist of the rock band Queen, whose greatest hits include Killer Queen, Somebody to Love, Don’t Stop Me Now and We Are the Champions.

He was well-known for extremely charismatic and flamboyant performances while his singing could incredibly cover four octaves. Churchill, in contrast, was the greatest British Prime Minister with the bulldog spirit which pushed the country through the horrendous years of the Second World War.

He too, though, was also known for another thing — his clever wit which included lines like, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip” and “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

However, the two men do have something in common. One of Freddie Mercury’s songs contains the line “Don’t stop me now!” and Winston Churchill was famous for his one-line speech at his former school’s Speech Day: “Never, never, never, never, never give up!”

The reason these two men are noted and quoted is because their message, delivered in different times and in different ways, applies just as much to children leaving school with regard to sport. In short, the message is this: Don’t stop playing sport now! Never, never, never, never, never give up sport! It is a sad fact that many youngsters who played sport and who in fact excelled at sport at school do not continue with sport even at a social level once they leave school.

They must not stop playing! Des O’Brien was a British and Irish Lions rugby player in the 1950s, who also happened to play squash for Ireland and tennis for Wales, but he was playing hockey for a club’s eighth eleven in his sixties. He did not stop playing sport. Indeed, one nation’s Over 50s national hockey team humorously gave themselves the motto, ‘the Future of Hockey’, a title normally given to children at school! They certainly were not going to stop playing sport.

The main reason we should all go on playing sport is also the main reason for playing sport at school — for the fun and enjoyment of it. Sadly this is all too often forgotten when you follow sport on television or at stadiums. Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool FC who started the great success story of that club in the 1970s, famously and wittily said, “Football is not a matter of life and death —it is more important than that.” But he was wrong. All the betting, fighting, fury that goes on in sport shows people have forgotten to enjoy the sport with everything that goes with it — all the travel, people, variety, challenges but also the fun.

Sport is a wonderful place full of good-natured banter (teasing not sledging). Team mates and opposition engage in light-hearted remarks — one player described his team-mate as having a “driving, insistent, irresistible aggressive compulsion to do absolutely nothing” while another was seen as one “whose feet can be seen in his passport photo and is always the last to know it is raining.” Sometimes the fun remarks are not intended: “I’ll fight Lloyd Honeghan for nothing if the price is right” and “Sure, there have been injuries and deaths in boxing — but none of them serious.” George Best, one of the world’s greatest soccer players, always went out to have fun, both on and off the pitch (some would argue too much fun — he was the one who said, “I gave up alcohol — it was the worst twenty minutes of my life” and “I spent a lot of money on birds, booze and fast cars —the rest I just squandered.”)

The motto of the FIH, the international hockey federation, is spot on: ‘Fair Play, Friendship, Forever’. Sport is about the fun, fair play, friendship and forever.

We must not forget the ‘forever’ part. It will only be when we do continue to play sport that we can sing along with Freddie Mercury, “We will be champion!” Winston Churchill is reported also to have said: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever.” So, this point is not subtle or clever, but is extremely important: don’t stop playing sport! Ever!

Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools. Email:

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