24 Jun 2022

The Etiquette of School Sports Day

It’s school sports day season and the knives are out. All over the country, mild-mannered, supportive parents are being transformed into hysterical monsters, screaming encouragement and abuse from the side lines, suffused with a spirit of ultra-competitiveness and cutthroat rivalry.

As often as not, the targets of this naked lust for sporting glory are easily distracted and troublingly unfocused, determined to have a good time, even if it means coming an inglorious last in the sack race. Their main, and laudable, priority is to have fun, outside on a summer’s day, with their friends.

Why then, do parents unleash their inner demons on this most innocent of occasions? A possible explanation is that the sports day provides a legitimate excuse for a release of feelings that are pent-up and suppressed for the rest of the year. Parents want the best for their children; they want them to excel and their ambitions are boundless. Most of the time, they recognise that revealing their inner drive is counter-productive, liable to distress their children, giving them a bad case of performance anxiety.

Inevitably, parents are also hyper-aware of where their children stand in relation to their contemporaries. On play dates and at children’s parties, they cannot resist eying up the ‘competition’, comparing abilities, accomplishments, coordination and verbal skills. Much of this behaviour is to do with seeking reassurance; ascertaining their child’s abilities against a ‘control group’ of contemporaries.

All these tendencies are repressed most of the time. Parents encourage their children’s friends, are supportive of their parents, congratulate them on their children’s attainments, and try to radiate a general air of positivity and encouragement. One-upmanship and boasting about their own children’s achievements is definitely frowned upon, and may well lead to school gate ostracism.

Except on sports days (and match days)… These are the occasions when parents can toss aside their inhibitions and reveal themselves as ferocious partisans. This is acceptable up to a point, but once the social barriers are down it can easily get out of hand – some schools have even banned parents from attending sports day because staff and children feel intimidated by their threatening behaviour.

Ultimately, none of this is particularly helpful to our children. We strive hard to teach them about winning and losing and sportsmanship. We solemnly indoctrinate them with platitudes about being a good sport – it’s not all about winning the game or the race, it’s about playing or competing well. This means being magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. Of course, they must foster a highly developed sense of competition, but they must never let the urge to win debase their own conduct. Most importantly of all, they must accept defeat or victory with equanimity – no bragging, triumphalism, whining, arguing, or whingeing.

These are difficult lessons for any child to learn – their natural instincts urge them to go hell for leather, to rage or gloat with uninhibited glee. They have to learn to control these powerful impulses, and behave in a way that is highly contrived.

So it’s very counter-productive if they see their own hypocritical parents indulging in a storm of emotion in the spectator stands. Wouldn’t it be better if  – as the proud parent of a small child – you led by example? Try and contain your more extreme emotions; support your child by all means, commiserate if they fail, congratulate them if they win, and extend the same courtesies to other children and their parents. That way, school sports day will be, as was always intended, the first step on the long journey towards civilised behaviour, rather than a shocking demonstration that (parental) nature is “red in tooth and claw”.

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