Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

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    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.
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Shock report: Competitive sport may not be good for kids!

Posted by MikeCooper on September 5, 2008

There’s a piece on page 17 of today’s Times that suggests that forcing kids to do team sports at school could put them off exercise for life. Well, roll me in honey and throw me to the bears – who’d have thought?

With no disrespect to Laura Ward and her talents as a lecturer in Sport Pedagogy (in what?!) for what I’m sure is an impeccable body of research, I imagine that a quick chat with anyone who’s ever found themselves at the end of a line of kids waiting to be picked for football/cricket/rugby would have revealed the same answer, without her and her mates at Loughborough Uni needing to go to all the trouble. “Many pupils are turned off by PE,” the article goes on, and it’s suggested that the vast majority of PE teachers interviewed “had a narrow view of what healthy exercise involved”. Ground-breaking stuff, then…

The problem with the article, and with the study, as far as I can see, is that it will most likely be rejected out of hand as being too namby-pamby. Following up what’s basically some sound reasoning with the idea that the kids should instead be forced into doing “non-competitive lifestyle activities such as aerobics [and] Pilates” sounds like it’s going to backfire even before the “drill sergeant types” mentioned in the article have stopping rolling around laughing long enough to order twenty extra press-ups for answering back.

As someone who was routinely picked last for games, who did anything he could to avoid it at all costs (short of permanent, physical self-harm), and who spent most of the time walking around the perimeter fence rather than actually playing anything, I think a different approach might be needed. There’s a side issue here, which is that I’m gay, and in my experience, at least, being gay and enjoying sport aren’t typically happy bedfellows. Why should this be? This is an interesting and thought-provoking topic, and one which deserves more time than either you or I have here, as well as the attention of better brains than mine to fathom it. But I do have some theories and thoughts to share.

Part of the conundrum seems to be the “nature versus nurture” argument. Now, I don’t want to come over all John Barrowman (I’ve checked and reordered the words in that phrase several times, and I’m still not committed), but I do wonder if at least part of what cemented my burgeoning sexuality at the age of 14 (and believe me when I say it was burgeoning…) might have been exactly this type of macho posturing: the further division at team picking time into the tough, hard lads at one end of the field, and the slightly less macho, more sensitive boys like myself at the other (I’ve toughened up since, mind, and if you mention a word of this to anyone I will, of course, give you a right good kicking). This can only be part of the puzzle though, as some of my other physically inept friends of the time are now happily married and raising families of their own.

I actually think the biggest issue with me and what became my loathing and mistrust of team sports was a much simpler one: no one ever bothered to try to get me excited about them. Firstly, I came from a home where sport wasn’t a topic of conversation. My father has never taken more than a superficial interest in sport, my mother even less so. Secondly, I grew up in Wolverhampton, where in the late seventies and early eighties, our local football team were languishing somewhere in the lower divisions, their glory days a dim-and-distant memory. And lastly, none of the kids I hung around with seemed particularly interested in sport. We lived in a nice suburb on the outskirts of town where we could go cycling down disused railway tracks and build tree houses. Kicking a ball around at a goal painted on a wall didn’t hold much appeal, to be honest, so sport and me went our separate ways. Actually, it was more like were never properly introduced in the first place.

At the age of 26, having run for a train and nearly coughed my lungs up, it became clear to me that there ought to be some form of exercise in my life. I joined my first gym and found – much to my surprise – that I could actually do exercise too, without being made to feel self-conscious or being subjected to ridicule. Sure, there were finer specimens than myself in the weights room (and certainly in the changing room), but I began to turn the occasional head when I was out on the town. Powerful stuff then, so why hadn’t I done it earlier? (It’s also true that my first gym intstructor went on to pursue an alternative career as a drag queen and perhaps the sympathetic welcome he gave me helped my transition to being an exerciser, but really – ten years without doing any form of exercise at all? That can’t be right, can it?)

A whole eight years later, at 34, and for no reason that I could pinpoint even now, I started taking an interest in the idea of being a spectator. Rugby league came first. Admittedly, professional rugby league is a spectator sport that, for a gay guy, works on at least two levels (these guys are as fit as…) but again – much to my surprise – I found myself enthralled by the gameplay and the skill involved. I started following my local team (a newly-rebranded London Broncos side making their first outings as Harlequins RL) and then, when I found the climax of the 2005 Ashes Test taking place at the other end of my road and could hear the cheers from my front room, I dipped a toe in the water of cricket. Maybe taking two slightly left-of-centre choices like cricket and rugby league (“that’s your northern roots coming through,” people jibe) was my way of demonstrating non-conformism: following football and rugby union would have been the easy way after all, but there’s no doubting that I was becoming someone who was interested in sport.

Three strange things then happened. The first thing was a slow but welcome realisation that I wasn’t alone amongst my gay friends. A minority of them turned out to follow sport too, and an even smaller minority (two, to be precise) were interested enough to join Jules and me for the rugby. I found that I had gay mates I could talk to about sport. This was a bit of a shock, to be honest, as part of the “gay uniform” we all stereotypically wear is a T-shirt which proudly proclaims that we aren’t in the least bit interested.

The second thing which happened was a complete and utter surprise: the more I watched, the more I wanted to get involved. For the first time in my life I wanted to have a go at playing. That, in itself, wasn’t impossible. It might have been foolhardy, in the case of an only moderately fit 36 year old without the musculature or experience wanting to take up rugby league, but hey, semantics – there was always the option of a friendly game of cricket in the park, right?

The third thing which struck me was sadder. It was a realisation that, beyond the idea of wanting to “have a go”, the real emotion I was experiencing was a sense of loss: I wanted to have been involved all along. I longed to be fourteen again, or twelve, or eight, and to have the option of becoming a sportsman for a second time but, paradoxically, with the interest in doing it that I’d only found later in life. Yes, I might have turned out to be crap and become a spectator after all. But what if I’d actually been any good? I might have had a sense of belonging which eluded me throughout my teenage years, and my life might have gone off in a completely different direction. And, of course, now I’ll never know.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, I have no issue with the fact I turned out to be gay, and I’m not hypothesising that if I’d become a star striker/bowler/half back that I would have turned out any differently. My real issue is that I wish my own PE teachers had done more to make me feel involved, and to help me realise that I could enjoy competitive sport too, rather than just concentrating on the kids who came to the field all fired-up and ready to play. I’m not sure the Loughborough Uni report’s suggestion that sending kids rollerblading or hill walking is really getting the point, sadly.

So, sitting here writing this, yearning gently for the long-past opportunity I was never aware was there for the taking, I come back to my original point: forcing kids to do sport when they don’t want to probably doesn’t help. But I’m not sure that saying “all competitive sport for kids is bad” is the right thing either. What I do wonder is how we can get kids interested enough in the sports themselves for them to make up their own minds. And that, my friend, is another discussion entirely.



4 Responses to “Shock report: Competitive sport may not be good for kids!”

  1. Laura Ward said

    Firstly, I by no means feel that “all competitive sport for kids is bad”. Sport holds a very valuable position within PE. However, the point I was trying to make – which was completley missed by the media – is that a broader and more balanced PE curriculum may help more young people find physical activities that they enjoy and that they can continue to participate in across their life-span. It may seem simple but…anyway,thank you for your comments.


  2. mikecooper said

    Hey Laura! Thanks for reading my post and for taking the time to reply.

    Perhaps the issue here is that I’m responding to an article about your report, rather than to the report itself. Secondary sources and all that. And yes, you’re right: anything that encourages young people to find physical activities they enjoy has to be a good thing. I’d be careful about the danger of the baby getting thrown out with the bath water though, and the point I was trying to make was that I think I would really have enjoyed team/competitive sports if the culture had been better; I’m not sure that Pilates or stretching would have given me the same buzz…

    Thanks for reading!


  3. Letha Mills said

    I was really wondering if you could possibly give me a link to find the acutal article in question. I’m doing a research paper for college and it sounds like something I could really use as a periodical source.

  4. mikecooper said

    Sure, it’s here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article4678215.ece

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