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A Radical Proposal: Eliminate Competitive Sports From International Schools

By Bridget McNamer
A Radical Proposal: Eliminate Competitive Sports From International Schools

I recently read a blog about the benefits of team sports programs in international schools. While I don’t disagree with the author’s points - that team sports can be helpful in fostering a sense of camaraderie and learning resilience when things don’t go as planned - I do believe there are important ways in which these sports programs can be detrimental both to individuals in schools and to the school community as a whole. And I believe there are positive, alternative ways to retain the benefits of physical activity and challenge that can reinforce team-building and collaborative problem-solving, skills that are arguably more applicable for more people in the “real world” than competitive sports.

Let’s start with inclusivity. It is the norm rather than the exception that school team sports programs cater to the physically able and hold up athletic prowess as a highly desirable state. This can lead to environments in which those less physically gifted can feel less than in other ways, notably, socially. Even for the athletes themselves, the pressure to perform can have negative social ramifications when things don’t go as planned (Missed that buzzer-beater shot? Allowed that match-ending goal? These can too often be a recipe for shame and bullying). Removing competitive sports programs and focusing on a broader range of physical activities that cater to individual preferences and abilities, and/or team-oriented challenges that support people of all physical abilities, can create a more inclusive environment. Imagine a school where the school community engaged in collaborative, team-oriented obstacle course challenges that develop abilities and build confidence in individuals, trust among teams, and a supportive environment for all. Check out this article (from 2003!) for inspiration.

Participating in competitive school sports teams can put excessive pressure on student-athletes, who are expected to devote hours to their sport as well as to academics. This can lead to stress, burnout, and poor mental health, not to mention the risk of physical injury and ailments that can last well beyond a sports season. An underacknowledged reality for many student-athletes is the tremendous sacrifice that their dedication to a sport can entail: the hours of training and performance (and travel to practices and matches) that could be spent in other ways, the development of a “sports identity” that so often eclipses other aspects of a young person’s being, the heightened expectations for success in the sport in university and beyond, when the reality is much different, and when a physical injury can mean the end to their sports dreams. Further, the emphasis on competition and “winning” can take the joy out of sports! Many of us have witnessed the destructive behaviors of overzealous parents and fans when athletes aren’t performing at their best or when coaches' or referees’ decisions are unpopular. What messages are we sending to these athletes about the relative importance of their chosen past-time and their personal value when we take these sports competitions so seriously? Imagine a school where physical activity was a source of joy, release, and learning more than another marker of a student’s relative worth; where sporting activities didn’t necessitate the sacrifice of other aspects of the student’s self-development!

International schools devote considerable resources to sports programs. Schools boast about their Olympic-size swimming pools (make the case to me why any school needs an Olympic-size swimming pool? How many international school students have become Olympic swimmers?), devote large tracts of land to playing fields, and fly their sports teams to other countries for weekend competitions. Imagine if those resources were re-directed to academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular programs that benefit a wider range of students! Imagine if local/ host-country communities were included in school-sponsored sporting (and other) activities, rather than athletes flying to other countries, where they are experiencing the inside of a gym or an outdoor playing field but not the country itself? And at what cost to family budgets, school budgets, and the environment?

I don’t deny the tremendous benefits of physical education and sporting activity for a healthy learning environment and for healthy human beings. There are plenty of ways schools can incorporate physical movement and sporting activities into the curriculum and pedagogy without emphasizing the super-competitive aspect. There are plenty of ways to instill a sense of camaraderie and to learn resilience through non-sports activities. There are plenty of ways for the physically gifted to continue to physically challenge themselves that don’t involve competitive team sports in schools.

I’m imagining the tremendous possibilities and opportunities that await schools that redirect their hefty school sports budgets towards more inclusive activities, physical and otherwise, that benefit the “whole student,” a broader range of students, local communities, and the environment. Imagine with me!


Bridget McNamer is the founder and chief navigation officer of Sidecar Counsel, which aims to bring more women into educational leadership and support them while there. She is the mother of a former student-athlete who approves this message.

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