Getting Competitive

  • Getting Competitive

I’m not the most competitive of people (unless there’s a race to the fridge to get the last chicken wing). It’s never been something that particularly drives me. I’ve never compared my success, or that of the kids I’ve taught, with others’. I’ve never looked on with jealousy at perfect attainment figures or glowing appraisals (unless they happen to be placed under a plate of chicken wings, obviously). If I win at something, that’s good and if I don’t, well man, it’s like, all part of life’s rich tapestry you know?

But sports day is different

Sports day is all-out, guns blazing, dirty, grimy, leave the injured behind, victory or death, bonecrunching warfare. Or that’s how I see it anyway. Don’t give me that ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ guff. You know who says that type of thing? Losers, that’s who. And I’m no loser.

Or I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the fact that my track record is completely and utterly abysmal in this area. I’ve had many a different form group in my career, most as varied as they could possibly be albeit apart from one indisputable common factor: a comprehensive lack of prowess when it comes to running, jumping, chucking heavy frisbees, spearlobbing, and the ever so difficult passing a metal tube to each other whilst moving a bit fast.

The cruel hand of fate has repeatedly dealt me kids who have both enthusiasm and skill by the thimbleful. Don’t get me wrong, they worked hard in class, were funny, witty, mature, helpful and kind. All fantastic traits for wonderful, well-rounded humans but less than meaningless on the scorched earth of the relay track. Come sports day, I would have gladly given up all that niceness for an extra bit of muscle or slightly more spatial awareness. Or the ability to get their PE kit on in less than 22 minutes.

So after two straight years of coming a solid dead last in my year group’s standings at the annual sweatathon, I decided something must be done. I wasn’t a PE teacher, but I’d be damned if I was going to sit there eating delicious cafeteria chicken wings whilst my form did nothing to prepare themselves.

I showed motivational videos; clips of exceptional sports men and women overcoming the odds to achieve greatness. This was met by some worldclass shrugging. I extolled the importance of striving to be the best at something, whereupon they looked at me with uncomprehending eyes. I reminded them that participating in sport is a great way to stay healthy, at which point there were a few muffled guffaws around the room. I asked what it was they found so amusing.

“To be fair sir,” said Selene, “you’re saying all this but… you know… “

“No, I do not. Please enlighten me,” I replied (mentally sharpening my detention pencil).

“Well, we never see you doing any of this stuff. Unless you count speed eating those chicken wings you always have at lunch.”


Dear Selene had a point, bless her. It’s difficult to try to inspire a winning attitude if all you’re modeling is talk. Also, annoyingly, the entire class held up a mirror to my own blasé attitude to competition in all other areas and this narked me off no end. There’s often a danger in schools that competition can be sacrificed on the altar of self esteem (as if the two don’t often go hand in hand). I hate to see that happen because although it doesn’t particularly motivate me, competition can be a great motivator for the kids, if the culture is there.

So, after Selene had completed her weeklong schedule of detentions, I made her and the rest of the class a deal. If they put a bit of effort in and at least appeared to care about their overall result on sports day, then I wouldn’t touch a single succulent chicken wing until then. I would also take part in a 5km fun run that was coming up around the same time.

Did it work? Well, let’s just say that my form tried, and with a herculean effort never before seen on those hallowed playing fields, lifted themselves from the bottom of the table to the dizzy heights of third from bottom. A small victory there but you take them where you can get them. I replaced my favourite southern fried snack for healthier fare and almost killed myself running (‘fun’, indeed).

After reaching that pinnacle, it’s difficult to find new challenges – although the kids tell me that competitive eating is big in the US, so that’s always an option.

About the Author

Tom Starkey is a teacher in an FE college in the north of England. He blogs at stackofmarking.word @tstarkey1212