The debate on competitive school sport

by Alison Oliver, Youth Sport Trust's Chief Executive

There has been much written recently about the benefits and perceived pitfalls of competitive school sport. On the one side you have those who did not enjoy PE at school and would do everything possible to avoid a competitive sports day; on the other, those that loved the excitement of competition and the opportunity to challenge themselves against others.

There is no right or wrong answer to this debate. The truth is that everyone is different and it is important that schools recognise this and provide a variety of activities that are best suited to their pupils. Some will have a natural pull towards competition and thrive in that environment whilst others will be more comfortable taking part in activities and sports for other outcomes such as fun, health and friendship. 

However, there are three essentials that must not be overlooked. Firstly, to enjoy competing children need to have developed physical literacy at an early age, equipping them with the skills and self confidence to compete. Secondly, the majority of children are de-selected from competitive sport rather than turned off it as many schools only offer competition at inter school level for their very best pupils. Thirdly, competitive school sport is often limited to a narrow range of team sports which only appeal to some children.

A well structured competitive school sport programme should offer the opportunity for all young people to be involved in a range of sports and provide a meaningful experience, whatever their age or ability.

Competitive sport develops a range of life skills which can support young people as they progress through school and into adult life. Everything from the benefits of teamwork, resilience and leadership skills, to the respect and humility in handling success or disappointment.  In addition, the skills gained by involving pupils in volunteering at a sport event, becoming an official, or developing writing skills as a journalist in a young media team, can all be included in modern competitive school sport programme. This is exactly what we are looking to achieve through the Sainsbury’s School Games, which the Youth Sport Trust delivers and is supported by National Lottery funding from Sport England.

Regardless of their engagement in competitive school sport, the number one priority for all young people is to engage in some form of physical activity.  The best schools develop the fundamentals of physical literacy through the curriculum, have a broad and inclusive competition programme involving both intra and inter school competition, and promote health and wellbeing through a commitment to physical activity.