We all know that sport is good for us physically, but it can also develop a whole range of mental skills – including a positive outlook on life Four leading independents explain why sport is a winner on and off the field

Healthy competition – why school sports are so important
At Oakham School in Rutland, there are 30 different sports options and a clear focus on commitment, self-regulation and organisation

Oakham School

Oakham School is well known for the scope of its sports offer, with 30 different options for pupils of all abilities. While the choice is fantastic, it’s about much more than that. Director of Sport Iain Simpson says: “We focus on developing skills that can be taught progressively at every age group and at every level, including commitment, self-regulation, and organisation. These skills are equally beneficial for those aspiring to compete at the highest level as they are for those who we hope will follow healthy and active lifestyles throughout adulthood”.

There’s a strong awareness at the Rutland school that sport teaches much more than rules of play. “Challenge and failure are intrinsic to competitive sport,” says Iain Simpson. But the team here see this as an important step on the road to success. “Our approach at Oakham School is to teach and develop the skills which students can draw upon when the inevitable happens,” he says. “Performance evaluation, emotional control, self-regulation, utilising support networks and planning and organisation skills are the real detail behind getting back up and going again.”

Of course, sport is also a wonderful place to build teamwork and celebrate the wins, so Oakham builds that in – everything from ‘player of the match’ to awarding School Colours to athletes at Speech Day. Fielding teams from A to F, it also ensures lots of healthy team building via interhouse sporting competitions where every pupil can win points for representing their House.

“In sport, performance evaluation, self-regulation, utilising support networks and planning and organisation skills are the real detail behind getting back up”

Beyond timetabled games sessions and competitive fixtures, there is additional coaching in core sports throughout the school year – and with close links to professional. For those who might have a future at elite level, there are specialist coaching staff to provide tailored support. “We work hand in hand with external professional sporting bodies in different sports to help our students who are on performance pathways to manage their time and workload,” says Iain Simpson.

“This means that we can work on all aspects of students’ strength and conditioning requirements, including strength, power, and speed development, whilst making sure it is age and stage specific.” There’s education, too, on all aspects of managing time and performance, from nutrition to preparing for the inevitable failures. “In terms of mental preparation for the challenges and risks of high-level competition, we view deselection from a squad or being cut from a programme as a normal part of progression.”

With sport also an intrinsic part of the co-curriculum, Oakham aims to help all its young people find physical activities they enjoy well beyond school. “We have always known that sport plays a crucial role in the development of young people, but a better understanding of the mechanisms of this development enables us to structure cohesive and coherent programmes,” says Iain Simpson. “As well as developing skills such as teamwork, strength and flexibility, we aim to help our pupils discover a sport that they love, enjoy the social aspects of sport and enhance their wellbeing.”

Oakham School oakham.rutland.sch.uk

Healthy competition – why school sports are so important
Every pupil at Emanuel has the opportunity to represent the school, and with a large number of clubs alongside timetabled sports

Emanuel School

At Emanuel School in Battersea, whole year group games afternoons are on the timetable and sports are designed so everyone has the opportunity to represent the school in a competitive match in each term. Extracurricular is also vital to widening enjoyment and participation. “Pupils can select what they take part in. Clubs include our performance sports but also participation an engagement sports such as table tennis, dance, swimming, water polo, tennis and basketball,” says Director of Sport Kerry Smith.

Beyond the obvious physical benefits, she says, sports build a whole raft of transferable skills. “Pupils are often exposed to challenging situations on the field and off the sports pitches. Through sport, pupils have to work as a team to find a solution to a challenge, or as individuals to overcome obstacles.” These benefits also spill over into social development. “Relationships built through sport are enduring and can filter into relationships in the classroom. A netball team can maintain a bond from Year 6 all the way through to 6th form.” She believes the positive mindset sport develops also transfers to daily life. “Success in sport can boost a pupils’ self-confidence which will only help them in their daily challenges, academic, social or emotional.”

The focus at Emanuel is on celebrating participation as much as success. Numbers are reviewed at the end of each term so engagement can be increased. “Our main aim has to be to make sport fun. If we are engaging pupils in physical activity, they will more likely commit to the competitive side of it as well,” says Kerry Smith. The school also celebrates the process involved in building a team or performance. “Successes in individual and team sports are celebrated in assemblies and via staff briefing as well as on social media and via our communication channels. Our sport scholars are rewarded with seminars from significant figures in the sporting world.”

“Success in sport can boost a pupils’ self-confidence, which will only help them in their daily challenges, academic, social or emotional”

For the most gifted, there is also recognition that the path ahead can be tough. Alongside seminars, Emanuel has a mentor system in place alongside extra training and nutrition support. “Our Sports Scholars touch base with a member of the department regularly throughout the year and discuss the challenges they are facing in sport and other areas of their lives. This allows staff to pass on their own experiences and offer advice as well as to just listen.” 

Mentorship between pupils is also encouraged, with older students helping out at after-school clubs and captains chosen not just for prowess on the pitch but because they are positive role models. The sports team also encourage young people with advice on accessing out-of-school sports clubs in their local area. Kerry Smith has no doubts sport does far more than build our bodies. “Sports participation provides pupils with self-discipline including commitment to training and adherence to rules. It develops pupils’ resilience to challenges and builds confidence. These skills will serve them well in life after school when they meet the demands of working life.”

Emanuel School emanuel.org.uk

At Sydenham High, the approach is to teach pupils that sport is about winning and losing – and losing teaches you valuable skills

Sydenham High School GDST

Sydenham High School incorporates its original Anglo-Saxon motto, ‘Nyle ye drede’, (‘fear nothing’) into sport as well as academic life. “You learn more by losing by two points than you do by winning by thirty points.” says Director of Sport Jenny Matthews. The focus at the all-through girls’ school is to encourage girls never to be afraid to try anything, and especially not to be afraid of failure.

There’s a ‘sport for all’ policy within the PE Department to encourage all pupils to join in recreationally and competitively and build a healthy approach towards physical recreation and fitness, in and out of school. Sports teams are created on a no trial basis, giving every girl the opportunity to represent her school. This approach is reflected in Sydenham High’s annual sports awards, which span every year group and level, while House Sports Days ensure that every girl takes part in football, netball or hockey tournaments. “For those who show a particular aptitude for a sport or pursuit, we offer a huge range of opportunities through our Sports Scholarships and High Performance Programme,” adds Jenny Matthews.

“Participation in sports has a host of benefits for body, mind and soul – pupils are encouraged to try new things and challenge themselves”

She and the team at Sydenham High believe sport is a perfect way to learn how to move forward. “Competitive sport gives pupils the opportunity to develop the psychological skills essential to building resilience, including challenge, goal setting and commitment to that goal.”  Alongside the awards that mark the big wins and achievements, the team here try to ensure every victory is recognised – it might look small from the outside, but they know it can represent a huge achievement for that individual. There’s a busy social media feed for the Sports Department and announcements of successes and progress are also made in assemblies and at staff briefings, so that girls can be congratulated for their wins.

Sport is also a vibrant extracurricular activity, with football, cricket, rowing and basketball in the mix alongside tennis and athletics. The school is a keen competitor in regional and sometimes national leagues in sports such as hocket and netball, including via the Girls’ Day School Trust national tournaments.

For the most able, including Sports Scholars, there’s access to a mentor, bespoke training advice and half-termly workshops from elite professional athletes, as well as nutritionists. The aim is to help athletes realise their potential and achieve the right balance between sports training, academic and social life. On this year’s programme, sessions have included a workshop on ‘Body Change: Training though puberty’ and a talk from a physiotherapist about injury prevention and rehabilitation. Recently, the programme welcomed back two notable Sydenham alumnae, netballer Ally Housley and cricketer Kira Chathli.

Sydenham High has no doubts that sport, at whatever level, is an essential. “Participation in sports inside and outside of school has a host of benefits for body, mind and soul,” says Jenny Matthews. “Girls are encouraged to try new things and challenge themselves, as well as enhance their overall health, which in turn has a positive impact on their mental wellbeing.”

Sydenham High School sydenhamhighschool.gdst.net

Healthy competition – why school sports are so important
At TASIS England in Surrey, coaches focus on building enjoyment and skills to take back to academic and day-to-day life

TASIS England

For the past five years at TASIS there has been a ‘no drop’ policy for all students who would like to participate in the sports programme. The team here, led by Director of Sport Marc Butler, say that this ensures that all students can sign up for a sport in the knowledge that they will be supported through the programme.

The Surrey through school, which welcomes over 50 nationalities offers everything from co-ed lacrosse and golf to soccer, futsal, golf and Ultimate Frisbee. “An important focus for our coaching staff is to create positive relationships with the students in their teams and consider the person before the athlete,” says Marc Butler. “This frequently opens up discussions about other aspects of the school day and provides the opportunity for coaching staff to support students in identifying how drawing upon both their negative and positive experiences through sport can help with academic, social and/or mental health issues they may be facing.”

“Some students want to win trophies, while others want to feel part of a social group, improve fitness or just have fun”

Sporting success is celebrated in many ways. The gymnasium has banners on the walls, photos of triumphs and a healthy trophy cabinet. But, says Marc Butler, it’s not just about winning – however good that feels. He says there’s an important element in role models and sports ambassadors, and it’s also vital to celebrate the team effort.  “A great example of this takes place following the conclusion of the end of season sports tournaments where a guard of honour is formed by students and staff to welcome teams back to campus.” This is to recognise the efforts of every individual, and the value of school spirit.

Alongside the many positive examples offered by team and individual success, the sports staff go out of their way to make sport a welcoming social and learning experience. For those heading for the top of their game, there’s a dedicated Athlete Development Coach to provide personalised/bespoke coaching sessions. Marc Butler says that while TASIS values the sporting edge that that can bring for the most able athletes, it’s equally important to enable students to carry on through school-led programmes to maintain social ties and mental wellbeing.

“Some students want to develop skills, win trophies, or participate in competition,” says Marc Butler. “Other students want to feel part of a social group, improve fitness or just have fun enjoying something they like.” While ensuring a full suite of sports opportunities to embrace every sporting persuasion brings its own challenges, Marc Butler and the TASIS sports team have no doubts about the long-term benefits participation in school sports brings. “The benefits to those involved can be truly life changing.”

TASIS England tasisengland.org

Further reading: Out to play