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They kill us for their sport

school of sport:with TIM MIDDLETON

William Shakespeare is not exactly known as a sportsman, though he might be defined as being competitive in the way he kept on writing hugely successful plays back in the day! Not many of his plays have sporting occasions, but there is a telling line in one of his greatest tragedies, King Lear, when the character Gloucester reflects on his particular desperate plight (of being blinded) and rails at the gods for, “As flies to wanton boys they kill us for their sport”.
Craig Shakespeare, who is probably not related to his namesake William, might have had a similar feeling about the sporting gods (aka club chairman) when, having been the coach at Leicester City when they amazingly won the English Premier League title and subsequently being appointed manager of the club, he was sacked within four months of his appointment, following a run of poor results.

The tragedy, if it is such, may actually be reversed when it comes to sport. Yes, the sporting gods may kill off managers without any real thought or feeling (the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, after all, made thirteen managerial changes in sixteen years), but many would say that it is sport that is killing us. In short, being competitive can be extremely destructive.

One way in which competition is destructive is that it causes objection. It objectifies players as being mere pawns in a bigger game and it brings about obstacles and barriers. By its very nature competition is divisive, separating winners and losers. That in turn leads to bullying in many different forms and disguises, from racism to elitism. Abuse thrown at opposing competitors, chairmen, conspirators, all comes as a result of competition. People are treated badly through competition.

The destructive aspect of the competitive element can also be seen when it causes dejection. The English FA recently introduced a mental health awareness campaign designed to help players cope with depression yet it is competition itself that brings about the depression in the first place. Soccer players, along with many other sportsmen and women, struggle to cope with the pressure, the exposure, the results-based industry and are led into a downward spiral. Darkness descends on many and has caused early deaths and suicides. Keaton Jennings, the promising English opening batsman, recognised this when he admitted in an interview with the Guardian newspaper (February 14, 2020) following a bad run of scores that “I could have easily slipped into depression without my family.”

Competition can have a seriously negative effect on individuals.

In a similar manner, competition is destructive by causing rejection. When people fail in competition they are often rejected summarily, as has been noted above with managers, who are jokingly described as being involved in the ‘Sack Race’ (though it is no joke to those involved). Many children are hyped up and promised great futures only to be discarded and rejected without much concern or support when someone better comes along. One day a child is described as the next great superstar, the next he is dismissed as a fallen star. One day a player is hailed as the saviour of their team, the next he is rejected as the scapegoat of the team.

Competition can also be destructive through subjection, in that many players end up under the power of something else. However, it is not the power of their manager that is the danger, but it is the power of the addiction to the sport and all its side-effects. Many sportsmen have become addicted to gambling, perhaps due to their competitive instinct. The Wales hooker, Scott Baldwin, recently admitted in a BBC interview that, “Ultimately I’d always lose and no matter how much I’d win, I’d always want more and I’d always know deep down whenever I won I’d always lose. Because when I had a big win, at some point getting that big win I was in a hole.” Competition can put us in such a hole. Will Hamilton, a character in Steinbeck’s classic novel East of Eden, was described in a similar manner: “His whole life was competitive and he lived by one kind of gambling or another.”

As one critic described the events of King Lear, “Instead of divine justice, there is only the ‘sport’ of vicious, inscrutable gods, who reward cruelty and delight in suffering.” That seems to sum up sport: the competitive aspect can become comprehensively destructive. Competition can be cruel — are we preparing our youngsters appropriately? We certainly cannot afford to gamble on their lives.

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

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