Friday, 9 October 2009
First steps in climbing and a new life, Craigmore 1993. Note improvised self belay top rope technique. Photo by my mum (who drove me there - in one sense!)
Was just building the fire this morning and listening to Kelly Holmes (olympic gold winning runner) promoting a new system of encouraging competition through sport among kids at school. Seems quite a polarising issue, some feeling that competition is good for kids confidence and motivation, others feeling it was destructive to these aspects.
The defense of the latter view was that competition can be good for kids but it’s very dependent on how it’s presented. I agree with this, and I think they should be making this message the centre of their promotion rather than the simpler message that competition is good per se. When this idea reaches through schools, it’s delivery won’t always be optimal, so the messages that will make it work need to be super clear. And applied badly, I could see it seriously backfiring.
The atmosphere of competition at my school, especially in sport, left me demotivated, unhappy and ready to drop out of the system at 16. Discovering climbing transformed this for me over the course of a couple of years - the sport teaching me how to enjoy competition, how to handle failure and learning, and eventually becoming able to apply this in other fields.
The key to why climbing succeeded was that the nature of climbing mountains and rocks dictates a focus on personal improvement and effort rather than some public measure. The mountain doesn’t care whether you get to it’s top or not, so failure is not embarrassing and bragging to the mountain is kind of pointless. Also, it’s in the character of the places climbing takes you to (impressive landscapes I mean) to encourage humility even during the fiercest competition and effort.
The above transformation is clearly exactly what Kelly’s new ‘schools olympics’ promotion is aiming at. My contribution of ideas would be:
1. Take kids climbing. It would be a shame to stick to the bona-fide mainstream sports - it’s a fickle business trying to find that spark of a sport you connect with. The wider the net of sports tried, the more kids will find the one for them. Also, the fact that it’s a little outside the mainstream is a great leveller - everyone will be starting from square one. It’s a great motivator to see the kid that was always best at football, fighting and bullying can’t get off the ground on the climb you just flashed. Being light, skinny and thoughtful rather than big, brash and overconfident tends to do well in climbing.
2. Educate parents as much as kids - that making reward and praise linked too closely to public success is dangerous ground. Valuing effort, preparation, patience and critical thinking and leading by example rather than actively pushing will always work far better in the longer term.
3. Train teachers and politicians to better understand and pass on the true value and meaning of competition in sport. In many cases they are too focused on cold hard results, with the important bit - the learning and human performance - relegated to an afterthought.