Sport for all

For every teenage Owen Farrell or Jessica Ennis-Hill, there is an equivalent youngster hanging back in the changing rooms. But with so many life lessons to be learned through sport, how do schools ensure that even the most reluctant young athletes don’t miss out? By Charlie Knightley, director of sport at Felsted School

Strength of character, resilience, respect, fairness – playing sport develops all those great personal traits. Of course, as a PE teacher and keen sportsman myself (I played for Gloucestershire’s second XI and turned out for London Scottish, spending as much of my spare time as possible playing some sport or other), I would say that. The challenge for those of us who love sport and know the value of it is to encourage not just the natural-born young sportsmen and women but also to cajole teenagers who are reluctant to go out and play.

Particularly at senior school, the students come to you with an already formed love or dislike of sport, but it’s so important to engage each individual in some way for their health and wellbeing but also to make sure they don’t miss out on the valuable life lessons that sport can teach.

Felsted has an undoubted reputation for sporting success at the highest school level. This year the U18 Girls were National Cricket Champions, the U18 Boys’ tennis came fifth nationally and the U18 Girls’ Hockey reached the last eight in the country. And while elite sport is certainly a focus for us, we also pay plenty of attention to making sure that students of all abilities engage with sport and have opportunities to represent the school at their own level. 

Identifying barriers to participation

We have professional coaching specialists for many sports at Felsted, but the best thing about my job as director of sport is that I can take a much wider perspective.

That allows me to identify some of the barriers to participation in sport across the whole range. Certainly, one of the major hurdles for many students is finding a sport they enjoy and feel comfortable playing. Gone are the days of rugby and hockey in the winter and cricket and rounders in summer; these days schools are offering a menu of games and activities to interest all comers.

Pupils in years 9 to 11 at Felsted have more than a dozen sports to choose from in any one week – alongside the seasonal team games there are badminton, squash and swimming, but also polo, golf and yoga. Even ultimate Frisbee (already popular at universities) and Teqball (the table tennis-style game played on a fiendish curved surface and enjoyed by Premiership footballers for R&R) are on offer.

Fortunately, enough students still want to play the traditional team games, so we don’t dilute our top teams. It’s about engaging each student meaningfully in sport in some way and making sure they are getting enough exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Felsted has professional coaching specialists for many sports

Felsted timetables four sessions of sport per week, but the school approach is to be flexible for those whose main interests lie elsewhere. We work closely with the music, art and drama departments, for example, and make sure individuals balance their time, particularly in the run-up to concerts, productions and exhibitions.

Opting out entirely is not an option but keeping sports sessions short can make them more enjoyable and productive. All of our sports facilities and pitches are on-site, so it’s well worth running sessions of an hour or less. We would rather the students got something out of a shorter session than flagged and switched off.

The key is to inspire all students to put on their trainers and go out to the playing field willingly and we find that current and former students are our best sporting ambassadors. They speak with such passion about playing any sport at any level and emphasise the enjoyment, the camaraderie and the skills they have developed. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

The aim at Felsted is to encourage each individual student to give sport a try and find a game or activity he or she likes. We may well be able to improve their wellbeing, health and fitness, and grow a love of sport and activity for life.

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