Sack Race

The Virtues of School Sports Day And Encouraging Competition

The journey is better than the inn

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, La Numancia

I loved School Sports Day. In my world, it was like a mini Olympics; with sprinting, cross-country, the long jump and high jump; I think there was even a game of ‘rounders’ thrown in there for good measure, with the girls against the boys!

For what felt like weeks leading up to it, there would be practice and anticipation. And for weeks afterwards there would be the conversation, debate and analysis of the performances.

But back in late Primary School, the misinformed bureaucrats decided enough was enough, and that was that – the end of Sports Day. I remember asking my teacher why it was being cancelled, to which she replied, ‘We’re replacing it with Play Day. We don’t want to encourage competition, and the notion of winning or losing.’

Now I know I wasn’t the only one and that mine wasn’t the only school to be affected by this policy change; and I may be at risk of hyperbole to suggest that ‘an entire generation of athletes was lost’; but perhaps I’m not too far from the mark!

So the closest we came that year to competition was the Sack Race – and only then because we’d badgered the teachers into letting us do something which was even remotely competitive!

And although this was some 25 years ago, what’s worrying is that this mindset still exists out there in some places today.

So what’s the problem?

The problem lies in the misunderstanding of winning and losing versus competition; that people think that winning and losing – and competition – are the same thing. But they’re not. And had those responsible for School Sports Day understood the difference, they would never have cancelled it. Their focus was in the wrong place.

Forget winning and losing

If the focus is on winning or losing, then by definition, you’re measuring success by whether someone finishes first, wins Gold, lifts the trophy, or is number one in the sales team. You’re putting the emphasis on the fact that only one person can win and that success is measured as such.

When there are 100 people taking part, does the person who finishes first or top or ahead of the rest win, whilst the rest lose? In a sales team of 100, are those ranked 2-100 losers who should be sacked tomorrow?

As the field in any pursuit gets larger, then the chances of you ‘winning’ under this definition become less and less likely. And the chances are that there will always be someone faster or stronger or more intelligent or with higher sales than you.

But success isn’t binary and so it shouldn’t be defined as winning or losing.

So whilst the idea of winning may preclude many people, the result is only ever the bi-product of an event or series events. But it is those events – the competition – which form the journey and the heart of what really matters. And that’s where the focus should be.

Why you should encourage competition

Competition encourages many elements which equip us well: in sport, in business and in life.

It teaches us that a certain level of competence is required to achieve and the impact that varying levels of competence have on performance. It teaches us how to set stretch targets and it gives us the motivation to learn new skills or improve those that we have; and to apply them in different scenarios.

It teaches us confidence – the confidence to try new things, to give things a go; and to push our abilities further. It teaches us to try our hand at new roles, without such a fear of failing.

It teaches us connection and caring; to be considerate of others and to look after the people around us and to help them develop. It teaches us how to work with a broad range of people and to share our learning. It teaches us to lead. It gives us the context in which to value and respect the contribution of others.

It teaches us character; perseverance, not giving up, ‘grit’, and getting up when you’re down. It teaches us the importance of practice and integrity. It teaches us fairness – and unfairness.

And it teaches us creativity – about how to try something new or adapt what we already know. It teaches us about positive and negative feedback – and how to manage both kinds. And it gives us the chance to modify our skills or develop further to achieve.

And finally, it teaches us about passion and emotion, and that it isn’t always about the prize at the end.

What’s the point?

Now had my teachers understood the difference between competition and winning and losing 25 years ago, they would have realised that their focus was in the wrong place; that it shouldn’t have been on the negative implications of winning or losing, but the many positive aspects of competition.

Similarly, for those sales organisations who don’t have a sales league table for fear of ostracising the majority of their team, their focusing in the wrong place. Conversely, for those sales organisations who put all their emphasis on winning and being number one, they’re also missing the point.

It’s great to be number one, to win the trophy or the prize or the event. Those individuals should be celebrated and thanked and congratulated. But being number one doesn’t necessarily equal success, no more so than not being number one equals failure. Competing on the other hand, and doing so with competence, confidence, connection, character and creativity – and with passion – almost always will lead to success, in one way or another.

And it may not be the type of success which is celebrated or revered, or which means a place at the awards dinner or on top of the podium or other such extrinsic rewards.

But it will be the type of success which means something to you – the intrinsic sort, which no one can take away and which isn’t defined by someone else.



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