Sport as a key activity undertaken by all boarders outside the classroom has long been a tradition of boarding schools, certainly since the great Victorian reformers. Before that time boarders were at liberty to do as they pleased and were entirely under their own direction, doing anything from water fowling to playing rackets up against the school house wall.
Nowadays, the assumptions and agenda are different – we see physical activity through the prism of wellbeing as much as competition. Sport is a space into which ideas about body image, collegiate identity and community are addressed and all in the context of a far greater awareness of supervision and safety. Long gone are the days when the house captains of games would together manage the junior and senior leagues themselves and enjoy the leadership experience.
Boarding schools aim to encourage and support each pupil as they explore and develop into their better selves as part of a community. This is at its best when houseparents, tutors and matrons act together to steer an otherwise reluctant individual to play their part either as an unlikely participant in a house team to serve the greater good or to keep trying new sporting enterprises until they find one that fits.
I reflect with joy on former pupils who arrived at boarding school showing no sporting interest and who left as national champions or went on to play for their university’s first team in their chosen sport. It is our great privilege as boarding professionals to have the confidence to encourage pupils in this way. There can be no greater evidence for the power of sport in the boarding context than in the boy or girl who starts resolutely in the B or C team but by wise and kindly insistence from the house pastoral team persists, discovers the endeavour spirit, trains themselves outside of practice times and finds themselves though dedication a member of a national championship winning team by the time they leave school.
House matches are important – educationally, physically and for showing that participation is as important as elite excellence. Most of our fee-paying parents do not have children in the 1st team. Indeed from a pragmatic point of view while 11 pupils might be in 1stXI, more than a 111 may be in the year group. The majority of parents are not receptive to talk about ‘elite’ and ‘high-performance’ but rather want to know how their child is getting on, how they are being involved and included, and what progress they have made from whatever the start point might be. Sustaining the life blood of house sport helps stop the inevitable drift towards fitness/weights. Even if it is playing in aleague on Friday afternoons that only has non-school-team players in it, it is important to have a team to identify as one’s own.
In modern boarding pupils may excel in sports not offered in the mainstream programme. They may need to train with external professionals, have highly specialised strength and conditioning coaches or physiotherapists. They may have commitments to clubs or have to travel long distances to competitions and selection events. Inevitably this presents challenges in terms of our normal expectations of the school routine. But it is important to have strong engagement with these national level athletes and their parents right from the beginning. The school needs to ensure they are grounded members of their houses who will contribute and turn out to play, regardless of whether they are any good at that particular game, with cheer, charm and good grace. This is good for everyone and will improve the outcomes for the individual in the long term.
Boarding school sport has never been more important in the whole-school co-curricular balance and in making the difference in terms of the development of integrity and character and the lifelong friendships formed by pupils.
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