Why competitive sport teaches you very little

I don’t believe that focusing solely on bringing back competitive sport in schools is the answer. I believe that engaging children with high quality coaching and skills is far more important than them being able to show off their Win-Lose-Draw stats at the end of a year. One season’s results are meaningless set against longer term engagement.

I played a fair amount of sport when I was young, to what you could describe as a reasonably high standard. Actually, I played a lot of sport, so I’m going to show you my experience, which is arguably very specific but I hope illustrative.

A scholarship to a private school, Bradfield College, allowed  me – the son of a single parent NHS nurse – to get my name in Wisden for taking 15 wickets in a season (1993, under the schools cricket section) and to represent Berkshire at County-level hockey up to Under-18s (as a goalkeeper). I played sport alongside future Olympians (Dan Robinson, Great Britain Marathon runner, Beijing 2008) and against future international sportsmen (Andrew Strauss, England cricket captain, then at Radley).

We played competitive matches on up to three days of the week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) and on the other days there was organised sport with coaching from staff, usually a session lasting an hour to two hours. I was coached during my time by:

  • Former captain of Guildford Hockey club
  • International standard hockey goalkeepers
  • Cambridge cricket Blue
  • Former Derbyshire County Cricket captain
  • Former Somerset County Cricket wicketkeeper
  • Former Wycombe Wanderers footballer

While our competitive records were good – I think in one hockey season we only conceded 2 goals in over 15 matches – they were only good because of the training. An average week of sport for me probably worked out at in excess of 20 hours training and competition. Some days you’d take part in organised sport twice a day – in the afternoon and late in the evening.

Learning good process matters more than who you compete against

What I remember most about all that training was learning the right processes – technique, tactics, structured work – which allowed me to perform to the best of my ability. Back then cycling wasn’t much of a sporting activity for me, I was cricket obsessed, no surprise given my Guyanese mother.

I remember one afternoon going out onto the cricket square to practice with Dickie Brooks, who I’m told was a former Somerset county wicketkeeper. He put a hankerchief down on the spot he wanted the spin bowlers to hit. His challenge: if you focus on technique then you should be able to lift that hankerchief clean off the ground into the wicketkeeper’s gloves. I spent the entire afternoon trying to do that.

From that I learned a whole process for visualising every delivery and discovering the physical shape and sensation that would help me to be a better bowler. I questioned what went right when I came closest to that perfect delivery and trying to eliminate the elements in my delivery that stopped me achieving that goal.

I’d studied the technique of Phil Tufnell, then England’s best slow-left armer and built my run-up to mimic his (I would have found a West Indian to model myself on but for a dearth of spin in any West Indies attack in that era). I’d done that because a coach had shown me how a consistent run-up would allow me to improve my delivery stride because I’d always be releasing the ball from the same spot.

Gradually I refined what I was doing to the point where I could bowl a consistent over of six deliveries which offered at worst one or two scoring opportunities to a batsman. That wouldn’t have happened without good quality coaching and their expertise.

I’ve not played a cricket match of any real significance in nearly 20 years, but if you throw me a ball and show me a set of stumps I can still instinctively measure out me run up and put the ball in roughly the right place, age and injury allowing.

That I can still do that gives me great pleasure. That mastery of technique has lasted far longer than the experience of competition. It’s what Jim Cowan, writing about legacy on Inside The Games, calls “physical literacy”.

Competition only ever served to validate my mastery of skills, and even then it only served to confirm that there were some who had developed better skills than mine and some who had not.

Certainly that was the only conclusion we could draw from watching Andrew Strauss and Robin Martin-Jenkins punishing display when they scored 300 runs in a little over three hours. Even in the face of that we were able to look at our performance and say honestly we hadn’t bowled badly, we had simply been outclassed.



The void of ‘getting a result’

After leaving school I continued playing hockey at university and for my local club, the latter largely because my friend Simon persuaded me. We trained once a week for a couple of hours, but never with quite the discipline we had at school.

The weekend match was the focus of the sport, alongside the social aspect. The same could be said of the occasional cricket matches I played: you might get a pasting or thrash the opposition but the quality of the food and beer was of as much significance as the result.

By then, perhaps I’d reached a level I could get by at without having to improve on what I already knew. Without the time or motivation to do any better I increasingly fell out of love with playing sport because it had become about “getting a result”. It is a horrible phrase and indicative of some of the reasons why I drifted away from being part of sports clubs in my 20s.

I feel those who carried on playing and being involved with sport did so because of a genuine love of their sport, and probably despite the other things which impinge on our time as we get older. They’re the ones coaching, volunteering their time now with juniors who are getting into the sport.

When you are doing sport solely for the desire to get a result, you stop doing the processes that made you good at it in the first place. It’s the anti-thesis of everything that makes kids fall in love with sport and physical activity.

Getting a result is what the parents heaping abuse on football referees down your local park are all about, what that outraged parent berating the commissaire on a Tuesday night are all about. It’s nothing to do with the inspiration that sport can be about and the skills it can teach.

There’s a good reason people take up challenge sports – like triathlon, swimming, marathon running, cycling sportives – it’s because they are disciplines where it is possible to focus on mastering a skill and setting a level of attainment that comes from within, not without.

When I came to cycling seriously in my late 20s, I already had the transferable skills to make cycling something I could enjoy:

  • I understood how structured training works
  • How you can progress by improving technique
  • How to set realistic goals (which frequently I set far to low if I’m honest)
  • Why it was more important to focus on enjoying the activity that winning

Why British Cycling’s success isn’t about gold medals

Competitive sport, right up to elite level, is about process not results. The golden success of  British Cycling are not the result of any focus on simply winning gold.

If you look beyond the results table, it’s not the result that matters to the athlete but the act of performing to the best of their capacity in that moment. When they are disappointed it’s generally not because they didn’t win, it’s because they failed to give a full account of their abilities.

Their ruthless selection process, demanded by funding targets, means that when they apply the processes, they know that they are working with someone who is pre-disposed to achieving an elite level of performance with a likely outcome of winning.

Chris Hoy did not become the athlete he is simply by pointing himself in the direction of the podium and gritting his teeth. He has had to change direction several times and each time, close examination reveals that he achieved gold by mastering processes, mastering skills and becoming entirely literate in what he needed to do to achieve his best. Like a science experiment, Hoy’s preparation for the Olympics is far more insightful than the actual result.

How did Hoy win the Keirin? He knew that from his hours of training, practice and repetition he would be able to accelerate through the bend while keeping his bike below the red line. It was a move that wasn’t born of competition, it was a move born of experience and understanding. It’s the tactic that you don’t use often in competition, because you shouldn’t need to use it if all the other processes work. But Hoy knew – from his hours behind a motorbike on the Manchester velodrome, the coaching, the analysis, the support – that he had that there in his ability.

Competitive sport didn’t teach him how to do that, structured training, top level coaching and support did. The competitive element is a final validation of a way of working that is not about results but about processes that deliver results.

Hoy was not the gold medalist simply because of a competitive sense of “wanting it more” on the day. He was the gold medalist because he had wanted to improve himself as an athlete every day in training.

Like everything else of value in life, the appreciation of skill and learning is what makes the results worthwhile, not the results themselves. And that’s why competitive sport on its own will teach you very little of note.

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  • Lance Woodman

    That’s a great article, Alex

  • Simon Wicks

    Hear hear.