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Winning by smiles

school of sport:with TIM MIDDLETON

SCHOOLS are always very concerned about how successful they are in sports; coaches even more so; countries especially so.  Schools market the school by results (while all the time trying to remind parents that education is not about academic results) though for some bizarre reason it is usually only measured by first team results! Coaches, similarly, will always be quick to share their statistical record which will show them up in the best light. And countries, how do they measure their success? By the results in the World Cup obviously!

Warren Gatland coached the Wales Rugby Union national team from 2007 to 2019, reaching two semi-finals in World Cups during that period but never reaching the final and therefore never winning the trophy. Following the most recent World Cup in 2019, he explained that, “We’ve punched massively above our weight.

Success as a coach isn’t always about winning — I think it’s about overachieving as a team and I feel we’ve definitely done that. We’re a very small playing nation with a lot of history. The biggest memory I have is the smile we’ve put back on people’s faces to wear the red jersey again and to support the team. That makes a massive difference to the whole of Wales as they’re proud of the team and the players wear it with pride. They put in 100% and as a coach that’s all you can ask.” Was he correct or was he just making excuses? Are these the right measurements for success in relation to school sport?

Gatland’s first argument in warranting the label of ‘success’ was that the team over-achieved, based on the fact that as a small nation they have few players from which to choose. In simple terms, over-achieving may simply mean someone does better than expected. At school level, some schools have far more pupils than their opponents, far better resources, far better coaches, experience and history; success is not the measurement but progress. Has the team progressed and developed? Have the players developed and improved? Have they met their goals? Have they realistically, all things considered, done what they could — did they do what they could with what they had? Were they faithful as opposed to successful? That means many teams could be successful, not just one.

The second measurement for success, in Gatland’s description above, was a smile — that would not be everyone’s first thought but it is a telling remark and a vital one for school sport. The question to ask at the end of the season is not how many matches the team won but how many of the players enjoyed the whole season? In a recent article about the rising star of basketball, the Slovenian Luka Doncic, two sentences stood out as his meteoric rise was outlined: “The poise and precision, the confidence behind that knowing smile, were signs he would soon outgrow the EuroLeague” and “Despite his smiling demeanour, he was fiercely competitive”. Yes, even top players can smile during competitive matches but how many smiles do we even see in school sport? The coach’s responsibility is to ensure the youngsters enjoy their sport — and if they do, that will put the smile on the parents’ and supporters’ faces as well. Players need also to learn at a young age that they have a responsibility to ensure spectators watch with a smile on their face.

Thirdly, Gatland identified pride as being a key measurement. Players should be proud of playing for their school, be it the first or the eighth team, the senior team or an age-group team; they should be proud of playing with and for their team-mates; they should be proud of the effort, teamwork, determination that is shown. Is the rest of the school proud of each team? Do they even know how the other teams do? The successful team is the one that shows pride by continuing to play hard even when they are losing heavily, who do not shout at each other, the opponents or the referee.

What was mentioned in passing may in fact be the key to the three qualities mentioned: do the players have good memories of the season? If they have enjoyed it, if they have done better than expected, if they have developed a pride in their efforts, then they will have excellent memories. But will they rather have memories of coaches shouting at them for a poor performance (though no-one ever deliberately goes out to play badly) and belittling their efforts? The test of success in school sport should not be measured by results, by trophies, by victories; it must be measured by surprises, smiles and satisfactions. Those are what makes real memories. Gatland got that right — by miles!

l 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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