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Why is sports day important?

I wanted to ask a question which I think may be on the minds of many parents – why is sports day important? My daughter, who is seven years old, is in a highly competitive environment. There are children in her year who are being coached in running clubs or one to one. Do you compete or should you withdraw your child as the playing field isn’t fair? What should you do when your child doesn’t win a medal?

Sports day is something of a ‘Marmite’ event; parents love it or loathe it, in equal measure. For those who look forward to it, their children might be particularly athletic; bursting with sporting potential. Understandably, for these children, it’s an important day to add to their sporting CVs. For others, it can simply be a day out to have fun, support their friends or ‘House’, and try their best, when they do compete.

The meaning and significance of sports day is in the eye of the beholder. In large part, the attitude that children bring to the event is determined by parents. As hard as it is, I would encourage you to think about the positives that your family can extract from the day. List out which aspects might be enjoyable. Sitting in the sun? Preparing a lovely picnic? Chatting to other parents? How can you influence the extent to which your family makes the most of the day? 

I think it is a mistake to remove a child from any school experience because you anticipate failure. It’s an important life lesson to realise that there will always be people who are smarter or sportier than us! However, with every life experience, there is something meaningful and educational behind it. 

One of the most powerful messages that you can bring to sports day is the importance of ‘giving things a go’. When children recognise that parents celebrate their effort rather than their performance, it can be a game changer. If they know that we are truly proud of their ‘get stuck in’ attitude, it gives them the moral courage to compete. 

Visible parental disappointment, of any kind, can feel utterly gut-wrenching for them. So, ahead of sports day, a good family chat about expectations, in terms of participation and attitude, can go a long way. We parents need to reflect on our own feelings about the day and perhaps talk them over with our partner or a friend. Often, our own early experiences of sporting activity, or of failure in front of peers, feeds our own anxiety and natural desire to protect our children from defeat. 

The truth is, for our children to grow up emotionally and physically resilient, every little school event, whether it is sports day, getting up on the school stage or participating in an assembly, is an inoculation for the future. Each experience helps them to navigate a range of thoughts and emotions, and builds their emotional literacy. As counter-intuitive and uncomfortable as it may be, we do have to watch them learn (and sometimes fail) from the sidelines. What matters most is reframing each loss as a learning experience and opportunity to grow and do better next time. 

In general terms, it is critically important that we nudge and encourage young girls to try out a variety of sports and physical activities. The research tells that as puberty approaches, girls’ participation in sport tends to decline and this can impact both on their health and body image. 

Sport is not just confined to football, cricket, rugby, swimming or athletics. There are literally hundreds of activities which children and young people can try. I promise you that, one day, your daughter will find an activity that she enjoys and where she can truly shine. Our role as parents is to be as imaginative and innovative as we possibly can, valuing challenge, cultivating a ‘courage culture’ at home and showing our children that we believe in them and in their physical potential. 

In the meantime, try to model admiration and pride in other children’s sporting ability. Yes, your daughter is in a highly aspirational environment, but by teaching her to applaud the efforts of others and to celebrate their successes, rather than resent it, we invest in the most beautiful of all qualities: altruism.