The happenings on a traditional sports day in a British primary school represent a cultural mindset prevalent through British society – and its impact reaches deep into the veins of sport – and especially football.
Most schools organise their sports day in a carousel fashion where pupils rotate around a series of activities. Often these are comprised of simple multi-skill games or activities like throwing a beanbag or balancing a quoit. But then at the end comes the moment everyone has been waiting for – the running races.
Normally there would be six to eight children in each race with a gold, silver and bronze sticker shaped like a medal awarded to first, second and third. At their age it might as well be an Olympic medal.
Teachers like equality – they’re not bothered by who wins – as long as everyone is involved in a fair race. The pupils will almost certainly have had ‘run offs’. A practice, most likely the week before, to determine who in the class or year group can run at the same speed over the same distance.
The parents line the edge of the wobbly race track lines painted on to an even stretch of the school field, each with their smart phones poised in preparation for capturing their precious little one’s moment, ready to upload onto social media minutes after the race’s conclusion.
The races throw up a mixed bag of events; overlooked false starts, lane crossing, collisions and falls. The parents remain rapturous in their applause for everyone who takes part.
Then the last of the pupil races line up. Usually the fastest racers, which are normally boys, are saved to last. These are the children who are quicker, stronger and more skilled than their peers. They probably play for a football or rugby team – often both. Six boys take to the start line.
The boy in the middle is the young man who, at playtime, wins all the races, scores all the goals and wants to be picked first by all the others. He is sure he will win. The other boys are also pretty sure he will win. And his spectating parents will have told him in the morning over breakfast that he will probably win – reinforcing the message that he doesn’t need to try as hard as the others.
The teacher starts the race. “On your marks… get set…” – some of the boys flinch and take a step forward. The teacher doesn’t stop them and shouts “Go!”.
All the boys stutter as they are unsure whether it is OK to run or not. The parents and other children in the audience roar them on – so they run.
In the early stages of the race the little lad who always wins in the playground finds himself behind the others because of the confusion. He strains and tries to run as fast as he can. When young children do this they have never been taught to relax and stay upright. Instead he tightens and leans forward. He crashes to the ground on to his stomach, chest and inevitably, his face.
He lifts his chin and watches the other boys accelerate ahead of him and reel away in glorious victory. He pulls himself up and sprints for the line. Last place.
At first he doesn’t seem too bothered. He looks around and sees his mother rushing towards him. That is when he bursts into tears and she grabs him and hugs him. They sit together on the side of the track as the other races finish. She cradles her son, who is crying his eyes out, simply because he didn’t win.
The teacher goes over and tries to offer a word of wisdom about how it is OK to lose. But the message has little impact. The young man is beside himself. Eventually he returns to sit with the other children. But he remains inconsolable.
The next phase of the day arrives – the parent races. The little boy’s mum comes forward and streaks away ahead of all the other mums sealing her victory in emphatic style. She is awarded her gold sticker and thanks the marshal handing it to her. At the conclusion of the sports day she finds her son and sticks her gold sticker with “1st Place” written on onto his shirt. She says “Here you go, darling. This is what you should have won.”
You can look this outcome in one of two ways. Either as a fantastic and comforting act of parenting, or as an open display of refusal to accept defeat and failure.
Whichever way you look at it – the consequence is the same. The child doesn’t learn how to fail and how to lose. It is one thing to be a humble winner – but it is entirely another to be a gracious loser. Our children need to learn that it is perfectly acceptable to be disappointed if they lose – but it is not acceptable to be upset or angry.
This translates into football terms through the very fabric of English footballing DNA. The very same DNA the FA have tried to build a masterplan around. But what that plan distinctly lacks is an approach to ensure our young players are resilient to defeat and setbacks.
No matter what plans the FA put in place to ensure English players emerge from academies with dazzling talent and unrivalled technique – at some point they will still experience defeat. If they are unable to accept this defeat, embrace it and learn from it – the prospect of English footballing DNA will be nullified.
At Euro 2016, England were eliminated by Iceland. A small island with a population a fraction of the other competing nations had emerged from months of qualifying, made it through the group stage and into the knockout section of the competition where they were rewarded with a tie against the footballing superpower of England. Of course, the term ‘superpower’ is self-proclaimed and based on little substance. The efforts of the Icelandic minnows proved victorious – and England left embarrassed. In the same competition, England’s neighbours Wales had also pushed their way through the tournament against all the odds.
The England team was littered with Premier League stars who played for top club sides and demanded astronomical wages. Iceland and Wales were the distinct opposite – and I argue this is why they succeeded.
Iceland and Wales both possessed players who had played outside the top flight and had at some point been part of a relegation battle. At the business end of the season when teams are competing for the title it takes nerve and guts to hold on and secure trophies. Just look at the two Manchester clubs – Steve Bruce scoring late against Sheffield Wednesday to all but clinch the title and Aguero scoring in the dying moments against QPR to bring the trophy back to the blue half of Manchester.
But it takes a completely different brand of psychological skills and mental strength to survive a relegation battle. Players who have been in this position know what it is like when teams push back against them – and they have the resilience to ably deal with it.
The vast majority of England international players have never experienced a relegation battle and have had little exposure to having their backs fully against the walls for long periods of time. It is telling that over the years when England have been pushed back there have only been several players able to show the resilience required to emerge triumphant. David Beckham is a case in point. After his dismissal for kicking Diego Simeone he bounced back to become a beacon of hope for England. Wayne Rooney, as great a servant as he has been, like most of his fellow internationals often lost composure and became frustrated when England had their backs against the wall.
When England don’t perform, the press assign blame, the players and manager cover up their mistakes with excuses, and the governance of the FA shows ignorance to the issue at hand.
The best teams and the best players are those who have struggled, preserved and succeeded. Basketball legend Michael Jordan said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
How often can we say this of England’s football players? And can we be certain that our past, present and future players have this mental strength and resilience?
We must ensure our academy youngsters understand what it means to try hard and still fail. Only then will they learn to embrace defeat as an opportunity to learn and grow. The FA, when considering their DNA masterplan, should heed the words of philosopher Karl Popper: “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.”