This is not about photography

August 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment


The title does not lie. This is not about photography. But i thought iI'd post it here anyway, as well as on my Facebook page. Read on to the end for a free offer!

I went for a 1hr+ ride on my road bike this morning: I was meant to be thinking about copy I need to write but instead found myself preoccupied with the suggestion that the Government wants to encourage more competitive sport in schools. I see that Sir Steve Redgrave has commented on this – I’d only disagree with the diplomatic ‘slightly’ in his first sentence.

I can testify from my own experience that over-emphasis on competitive sport in schools can be counter-productive and put off as many young people as it encourages. 

I went to a fairly traditional grammar school. I guess it gave me a good education in many ways. I still resent having to choose between History and Chemistry while wasting my time on compulsory Latin, but my biggest issue with that school is that it very nearly turned me off sport for life.

The main sport was Rugby, and the head of PE was notorious for his mantra ‘Rugby takes priority’. We used to devise little scenarios with that as the punch-line:

“Sir, my Mum’s just died and the funeral’s this afternoon.”

“No go, boy, Rugby takes priority.”

I’m still not sure how far-fetched this really was…

Anyway, Wednesday afternoons always crystallised into an excruciating few minutes, having changed into Rugby kit, of standing around shivering and waiting to see if you would be picked for a fifteen. I was always one of the last few, and I always prayed not to be picked. despite the inevitable sense of rejection and the disdainful looks from the chosen ones, it was the lesser of two evils. Of course we rejects were usually dismissed to muck around on a basketball court: I don’t think the PE teacher ever told us to ‘fuck off’ but it felt pretty close at times.

Other alternatives, such as cross-country runs, as well as gym classes, were also pretty miserable. I won’t say, as some people do, that my PE teachers were sadists, but to a 12/13/14 year old lacking in physical confidence it definitely sometimes felt that way. What I did feel, and still think was basically correct, was that no-one really cared. If you weren’t good enough to play at least in House matches, no-one was interested in you. Rugby took priority over my (and others’) self-esteem, fitness or engagement in any form of physical activity. There was no safety net for the boys who didn’t show natural aptitude at the limited menu of games. There was no opportunity that I recall to sample a decent range of other activities or to learn that sport might be enjoyable without an element of competition.

It only changed when I went to Cambridge. In fact possibly because it was Cambridge. Not so much because it was a town where everyone cycled (it still is one of the best cycling cities in the UK) but because it was rather claustrophobic and rather too full of braying Brideshead types. I’m sure most if them were lovely really but I guess I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Anyway, with a few friends, I took to cycling longer distances to get out of town, see the countryside, and – really quite an important factor – to investigate pubs that weren’t full of students. (I really discovered two things in Cambridge: cycling and real ale).

At the end of our first year one of my friends and I had saved up for a long cycle tour through Wales and the West Country, but for reasons beyond my control this had to be cut short. I used the money to buy a better bike and – to cut a long story short – wasn’t long into my second year before I discovered time-trialling. And then I discovered that I wasn’t bad at it. I represented the University a few times and even won a few medals, usually as third counting rider for a team prize.

I went on racing after I left. I was never a star but I did beat the hour for 25 miles, which was a reasonable benchmark in the days before disc wheels and tri-bars, and got within a whisker of 2hrs for 50. I rode in bunched races too, but usually got dropped fairly early on, often by people whom I could regularly beat when racing against the clock. Time-trials were competitive, of course, but for most of us a big part of it was competing against yourself, trying to beat your personal best time at each distance.

It’s always felt to me like a happy accident that I discovered bike racing, and subsequently rock-climbing; between them bikes and climbing have been very important in my life since then. It was nothing to do with anything that happened in school; it still seems like school did its level best to convince me that sport and I would always be strangers.

I’m sure it’s different at my school now. In fact a few years ago I went back there and photographed boys doing all manner of outdoor activities during weekends in the Lake District. I couldn’t help wondering how my 12-year old self might have responded to those opportunities. We’ll never know; but what I do know is that I had to find out for myself, and at a relatively late stage, that there were sports and activities that I could do, could be not bad at, and ultimately come to love.

I really fear that many kids growing up today will never make that discovery, but it’s more important than ever when we consider issues like juvenile obesity. Elite sport is important and it really can “inspire a generation”. It did and does inspire me: I still remember discovering races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France and following them through the pages of Cycling Weekly.

But there are things far more important than gold medals and the real but temporary euphoria of Olympic success. Elite sport is like the uppermost few bricks of a very large pyramid: it needs a broad base. And widening participation in sport – and physical activity more generally – has such obvious benefits in terms of health and well-being that it really should be one of the highest priorities for any Government. It makes economic sense, too. It undoubtedly reduces the burden on the NHS and I don't think it’s totally fanciful to suggest it could reduce crime and anti-social behaviour too.

The way to achieve this is not by focusing on competition, by branding some kids as winners and others as losers. I was one of the losers and it could very easily have stuck with me for life. The aim must be to give every child the chance to experience as many different forms of physical activity as possible, to find the ones they can do and can enjoy. This won’t hurt competitive sport. Frankly, if more kids are fit and active and trying different things, competitive sport can take care of itself.

Of course, it’s not just about kids. There are many adults who would benefit from being more active. I’m sure many would like to try new things but need more encouragement and need to feel they won’t be laughed at (this probably applies even more strongly to women and girls). 

And it’s not just about what Government can do. You have to applaud Sky for putting money, not just into the elite cycling programme (and what a triumph that has been!) but also into the grassroots, with the Skyrides programme. Yes, it’s given the brand name massive exposure, but it has also encouraged a lot of people into cycling, and that’s a win for everyone.

And it’s also about what we can do as individuals. Which is why I’ve already offered, if any of my Facebook friends or blog followers would like free advice about getting into cycling/mountain-biking, or taking it a bit further, please get in touch. And if you live within reasonable reach of my main stamping grounds (Lancashire, the Lakes and Yorkshire Dales) and would like an introductory ride – as gentle or as challenging as you want it to be – then please get in touch.


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