It’s the taking part that counts, right?
Not the success? Not achieving a personal aim? Or becoming highly proficient in some skill?
Taking part – that’s the thing. Right?
I heard two seven year olds sparring today. One was adamant that taking part was the main point in sports events. The other’s daddy had told him that taking part wasn’t enough if you didn’t try and win. And he agreed with his daddy and was not going to talk about it any more. The first lad returned to scratching stones out of the dirt in front of him and creating an interesting collection, avoiding all eye contact and clearly humbled by his fitter and more confident classmate. He did not try to win the point.
But he had just taken part in a tournament. He had managed to get through eleven sweaty tennis activities on a hot morning with no shade. And his team had not won. Oh, I know that feeling well. I have never achieved great things in sports. I came last in sports days every year. I had to learn to swim with small children at nearly 6 foot tall. I didn’t get picked to play for my college football team – despite the captain being my room-mate. Even my form group came last each year at sports day. Taking part didn’t wash with me. Taking part was rubbish. Taking part meant being vulnerable and inadequate in public. Not just the Not Winning, but Not Managing. Not managing to catch a ball and being the kid who chased after it twice every time – once in the general direction (it would never normally go that far!) and a second time when it rolled out of reach or some stray foot of mine made contact wrongly. Taking part in sports days was choosing to be humiliated in skills we had not been working on. Skills which favoured the naturally talented, those who liked an audience or were happy to sit in fields stewing with grass pollen and the few who had remembered sun cream.
Winning was even less of an option. I registered the probabilities and was prepared to concede the fight before even beginning. Taking part meant taking the high moral ground, because it certainly wasn’t going to achieve anything for me. Taking part meant allowing others to prove themselves though their legs were shorter, their language cruder or their times tables wobblier. Taking part felt patronising. Like being taken apart. Like some twelfth night twist. In summer. In infants and junior groups. In bright primary colours with odd names, whose allegiances was sudden and sincere and stupid because my team Never Won.
And in the 1980s if you did not win, you went home empty-handed. Or you competed against yourself. One year – trying my utmost – I did worse than in the previous year, but still got a certificate. I wished I could have refused it. Receiving no certificate would have been a better reward. My efforts had not been successful and I did not want patronising, which I decided devalued other achievements.
There are arenas in which you are not born to win, yet you are compelled to make your best endeavours – perhaps even in full view.
Many times in life winning is just not an option. Managing may not even be an option. Taking part carries baggage. Taking part is utterly unfair if winning is not an option. Taking part means creating a pedestal for the few, which the many uphold merely by their presence.
Most participants at most sports events lose. Is this the lesson we spend a dozen summer days lining up for in primary colours?
Most participants at most sports events have chosen to be there and have worked hard, with a goal of personal success and new best scores.
Taking part cannot be enough if you are not trying to win. So I agree with that boy’s daddy. You have to put your best into it. You have to give it everything, accept defeat graciously if that’s your lot and use your victories – if you get any – for the good of the team, the school, the nation or the almanack writers.
But I also agree with the stone-scratcher. Taking part takes real courage when you know you cannot win. Taking part takes tenacity and a willingness not to think too highly of yourself. Taking part can (and should) mean encouraging others. Taking part can open your eyes to new ways of looking after your own fitness. Taking part means seeing yourself as part of a team, and not merely as an individual who needs the kudos of standing on others’ losses for personal gain. Taking part challenges the normal hierarchies and routines of academia. Taking part can be part of a pattern of humiliation, which makes you want to scratch a hole in the dirt and gather stones.
There is a time for gathering stones. To cleanse, withdraw and reflect.
And a time to scatter them. To say how it is and how you feel, even when it makes a mess.
Lily has been involved in two competitions this month. The first involved a national search for a child to represent English Heritage. Someone passionate about history and willing to dress up as their historical hero or heroine. She did remarkably well and got through to the final 35, but the competition was very strong and she didn’t win. What struck me, more than her confidence and knowledge at interview was her resolution to do her best and to be content whatever the outcome. She understood that not everyone could win and that it was unlikely she would. She wanted to win and therefore wanted to take part to have the chance, but her sportsmanship was touching. That is what made me so proud of her. She didn’t refuse to take part (as I would most probably have done these days) – she refused to let the competition dominate her.
The second competition was today’s meet up of year two children from three local primary schools at the local secondary college. Teenaged sports leaders directed twelve groups of brightly coloured children around a circuit of throwing, running, batting and catching games. I was there to be an extra pair of hands and eyes. Our small team were not always the fastest or most accurate, but we were told to enjoy Taking Part. And that there would be only one measure of success – the team who encouraged each other the most. Sportsmanship.
My dormant competitor recognised something. Here was a talent anyone could master. All of the children could take part in Encouraging. And the act of encouraging others was to be encouraged. So I cheered the team on and they cheered each other on and we got through the heat and the running after the tennis balls (twice) and the water bottles and at the end we all sat near some shade and waited for the results. And I wanted to encourage everyone and say ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter whether you won or not; well done for encouraging each other so well guys!’ but that would have been wrong.
And finally the results came in. There were joint second place teams from Lily’s school and another school.
There were joint fourth place teams from the two other schools. And the winning team, by just two points…
…was Lily’s team.
I joined in the victory cheer and suddenly the thrill of victory made sense. It was the winning that counted for most. But of course it was not only the winning that counted. Or even the managing.
And I wish I had sat with stone-scratching-boy and told him what he needed to hear. That he was right. And also to keep his head up. And to keep trying. And to find arenas to excel in. And that he could encourage others too. And I hoped others would encourage him, because he needed it more than a lot of the others did.