Deborah Hill Cone: Three cheers for sitting out sports

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Enough of the enforced humiliation at school swimming and athletics days - just let the kids read books.

Why do we persist in making those children who have no aptitude or interest waste their time and knot-up their tender young psyches by doing competitive sports? Photo / Dean Purcell
Why do we persist in making those children who have no aptitude or interest waste their time and knot-up their tender young psyches by doing competitive sports? Photo / Dean Purcell

My daughter's primary school has just had its annual swimming sports day.

This year, in a new policy, she could choose whether she wanted to take part or not. Eureka! How wonderfully and surprisingly enlightened.

Here's hoping this new opt-out policy will extend to the dreaded cross-country and athletics day events as well.

If only we had had that kind of civilised choice when I was a juvenile. I can still remember the icy churn of terror as the day of humiliation approached. I had absolutely not a jot, wot or tittle of athletic ability, but presumably sprouts like me are required to be sacrificed so the hearties can show off their jolly hockey sticks prowess.

Why do we persist in making those children who have no aptitude or interest waste their time and knot-up their tender young psyches by doing competitive sports? It may even be counter-productive.

I'm sure the knee-knocking misery of school sporting activities put me off the sniff of anything athletic for life. (I know Oscar Wilde's attitude to sport was: "I approve of any activity that requires the wearing of special clothing". But I very much doubt he ever saw a pair of Melville High School PE rompers.)

Last week specialist in boy-related matters Celia Lashlie also surprised me when she answered a parent query on Kathryn Ryan's Nine to Noon radio show, saying children who are not vaguely interested in team sports should not be made to do them.

Another grateful yee-ha from me. Wouldn't it be better if, instead of making youngsters persist in trying to be mediocre at everything, we let them just get on with becoming really good in the specialist areas they are interested in?

I wonder if Peter Jackson spent much time in his childhood doing competitive character-building team sports? P.G. Wodehouse: "I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don't know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose."

Jock-inclined children who are into sports can do that and the rest of us can get on with reading books. A bonus: the "PC-gone-mad" brigade who complain that everyone has to be a winner at school sports these days can get on with ripping the heads off small animals with impunity. Although I suspect being outdoors and sporty is so deeply ingrained in our culture we are even unaware we are making an assumption or choice to be this way.

The American author Rick Gekoski recently came here for a holiday and then wrote a piece in this week's Listener questioning education programme Outward Bound's claim to be "New Zealand's leading organisation for showing people their true potential".

What about being Inward Bound? Gekoski says there seems to be a gross national misapprehension that values outward group activities whereas the stuff he likes - reading, writing, music, films - are inward and solitary. I know our anti-intellectualism is boringly well documented but if we are all so snazzily aware of it why don't we do something?

To begin with, we could stop terrorising the unwilling with sports. And we could go further. I dream of an enlightened future era when being a highly sensitive child is recognised as an actual valid "thing" in mainstream circles and not just among a few highly-strung academics with paua-shell earrings.

Yes, I know this sounds revoltingly like I want to create a society of special snowflakes. But if you have children who can't bear loud noises, the feeling of scratchy labels in their clothes, who notice the tiniest subtle changes in their environment, take the smallest criticisms to heart, need quiet time and like hot cross buns without "bits", you will know what I mean.

Maybe one day kids like this will be allowed to just be who they are rather than forced into bracing "outward" activities.

Psychology Today writer Maureen Healy says 15 per cent of children would be classified as highly sensitive. She advises avoiding crowds, putting creativity first and giving your child choices.

So, do you want to join in with the cross country? Great if you do, fine if you don't; I'll see you at the library instead.

- NZ Herald

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