PM says PE teachers not sadistic enough. ‘We do our best, dammit!”

is the message I am getting from this story – which is unfair both on Cameron and my PE teachers, most of whom were fairly decent sorts. However, it does seem to me that there are two competing aspirations here, both laudable, and making school sports more competitive will only work for one of them. To win more Olympic medals, and to get the nation’s children, and, indeed, the nation’s adults, more active.

Let me tell you about how I became more active.

I hated sports at school. As I have hinted above, this was not because of my teachers. It was because of me. I was unremittingly hopeless and, because I was good at pretty much everything else (Design Technology excepted) my sporting incompetence was horribly conspicuous. This held true from primary school (where I was in a year group of five) through Key Stage 3 (class of thirty, year group of ninety) to GCSE, where I was in a year group of one and managed to lose it from my timetable.

I was hopeless. I was the fat asthmatic kid with glasses (not all at the same time, I will admit – the asthma came first, then the glasses, then the fat) and, no matter how hard I tried, I was never anything other than slow and clumsy. I did try. I was a conscientious child, at least in other people’s time, and not being good at stuff frustrated me, so I tried to get better – but my classmates always improved more, and so I continued to be slow and clumsy, and increasingly disillusioned with sports as played at school, with the (apparently insufficient) emphasis on competition. I was never going to be as good as Nicky or Jack or Abby, so why was I even trying?

None of which stopped me being reasonably active. I skipped; I hit tennis balls against walls; I taught myself to ride a bike by throwing it and myself down the drive until I stopped falling off. I stayed fit despite school sports, competitive or otherwise, not because of it. (Although, now I come to think of it, I did do trampolining for a while as an after-school club; that was fun, and I wasn’t too bad.)

Then we moved to the Isle of Wight, and to a house with a much smaller garden, I moved schools three times in one year, I hit puberty (late), my parents separated, and my first bout of depression set in. None of that was much fun, and I stopped doing pretty much everything that could be even vaguely described as ‘physical activity’.

When I was eighteen I got a job at a hotel two miles away. The job was pretty grim, but the two miles was wonderful – I could walk it. Two miles of soul-cleansing cliff-top, two miles of beauty, two miles of exercise – and the first glimmerings of my independence. I started walking between my parents’ houses, four miles apart, and those four miles became mine in a way that neither house ever did. They connected my broken family, but they also gave me space away from it. And – incidentally – I was getting fit. Suddenly I had a form of physical exercise (I’m not sure one can really call it a ‘sport’) that I loved wholeheartedly. The same thing has happened this year with cycling. I’m one of the slowest things on the road – and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not a good thing. It’s just a thing, and meanwhile I keep cycling.

And so my point is this: making school sports more competitive may well give us our next generation of Olympic medallists, and I will be as pleased for them as I am for the current ones – but it will not get the nation fitter all round, because it will do nothing for those of us who don’t do exercise that way, who don’t particularly want to compare themselves to other people, who just want to find something they enjoy and to do it. I have found that I enjoy activities that get me from A to B and allow me to enjoy the scenery. Other people will enjoy other things. Trampolining! Badminton! Judo!

Maybe it’s the fact that it’s at school that’s the problem, the way that most people hate most of the books they had to read for English. I don’t know. I don’t think there is an obvious answer – and I am convinced that making school sports more competitive isn’t it.

(As for the private vs state school question – the GCSE years, where I managed to escape sports altogether, were at a hilariously terrible private school. I will tell you about my wacky adventures there some other time.)

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