When we take a moment to consider what sports day is, it's worth really thinking about what it could be. When doing this, the impact of the day can transcend any real sporting achievements and it can become a day about so much more. I would argue that little brings people together, or can stir emotions, like sport can do. Behind every participant is a unique story, which is why this day can get people talking about achievement in the purest sense of the word, and not in reference to 'performance', grades or scores. As a headteacher, you also know all of those back stories, and so I always felt that the occasion was further heightened.
The rule at our sports day was that every child participates. It was everyone in, or no sports day at all. We would do our best to pitch each 'race' by ability, so that things could be as close and fair as possible. Relay races were also a great way to carefully include all abilities in one event. That said, the real beauty of the day was not really about anything related to winning status.
Out of all of the events that we hosted in school, one of the most fun and the most important, was sports day. I believe that on this day, it can be possible to strengthen the self-worth of any child, if we can get the approach right.
There's a recurring discussion when considering sporting events, and whether or not it should be competitive. I have my opinion on this one. The classroom is a place where many children thrive, but not all. We have a duty to provide the opportunity to for all to shine, whether or not it's a classroom, a school concert, an art studio or a running race.
We had talent ID with representatives from local running clubs offering exciting pathways to our high flyers and the parents races were legendary amongst our sports obsessed families, but often with embarrassing tumbles and laughter.
'This day was an old school track event. The children in their smart house colours and the parents and families spectating on blankets and camping chairs. And when the children ran, the sun shone. You could see determination and pride on faces, fuelled by noise and encouragement.'
For our sports days, we had the largest turnout of the year. Hundreds of families. Not only did they cheer for their children, but for all of the others too. In a school where there were 30 nationalities, nothing could unite the community like this event.
We had winners and those that did not win, but every child participated, was cheered, and that was the expectation. Children who were good at running. Children with disabilities or impairments. Children at risk of exclusion. Children with worries and insecurities. Children who felt seldom noticed. Children who couldn't read or write. Children who didn't speak English. Children who had fled war. Children who lived with chaos.
'So many schools have adopted the growth mindset approach. The trick to ensuring that this can live and breathe within the children, is to create an environment in which this can be explored and can thrive. Sports day is a fantastic opportunity to promote effort as well as to acknowledge the efforts of others. This is often a very difficult position for so many children to adopt.'
If you're going to promote positive mindsets, then this day is significant. To learn how to cheer and be happy for others, regardless of where you may finish in the race. Whilst the discussion about competitive or non-competitive sports days will no doubt stumble on, I would argue as always that the trick, as always, is in the application.
The WIN / WIN
There's a simplicity about running. So many sports and events have specific rules, strategies and expectations, but to run is what children do. We just have to make sure that it can be running within the right conditions. To capture the same freedom that we can see every playtime when the children dash around the yard, full of laughter and smiles, and without fear.
For the parent of a child with special needs, to see your boy or girl run a lap of the field in front of hundreds of cheering people, can be life changing. This is inclusion in its finest hour. We had one boy who ran in callipers and would often fall. And when he did, his brother instinctively ran onto the track to shoulder him across the finishing line. This was by far the noisiest and the most uplifting part of the day.
Communities can be complicated places. Despite so many differences within our community, this day brought everyone together. It was a day explicit in presenting and celebrating differences. Everyone could see the full array of nationalities and abilities at a glance, in a climate rooted in mutual care, respect and happiness. After a while, I could see that days like this, and the true purpose of our school, would be to provide a blueprint for the community of the future.