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How Good do you Want the Opposition to be?


School sport needs opponents. Programmes of competitive activities require other teams - whether they are houses, schools, counties or countries.  We feel that we need to compete against them. The word suggests that.  But mostly we need to compete with them. There is a subtle, but significant, difference.

Elite competition is a zero sum game, in which there is only one winner.  The best school sport is a positive sum game, from which all can benefit.  The collaboration of the other team is necessary to make a high quality experience for all.

At the heart of collaboration is the difference between competition and competitiveness. The latter is what we really prize.  Games in which the result is in doubt, the lead changes hands often and is determined by the direct efforts of all involved.  A one sided game, where there is no uncertainty of outcome, is the enemy of pre-maturation sport.

One team cannot determine the quality of the experience.  Uncertainty of result, and the tone of the game, depend on the approach of both teams.  How good the opposition is, how enterprising its approach and its respect for sportsmanship influence both teams.  Collaboration creates a situation from which everyone benefits.  Fixtures are often categorised as “great games” – or otherwise - without sufficient attention to the criteria that determine this label.

Counterintuitively, therefore, we want the opposition to be good.  Maybe not too good, but certainly capable of providing the level of competitiveness that is a crucial component of the high quality sports experience.  We want them to play the game in the right way, and contribute to a positive atmosphere in the game.  Everyone benefits from that.  It’s a positive sum game. When the game is competitive, every moment counts.  Fighting hard to win, working together, trying everything, absorbed in the moment.  And dealing with the disappointment when it’s not quite enough.  The sharp end of everything that is best about sport.

Choosing a programme of competition is disproportionately significant in providing children with the experiences that inspire a love of the game, and of competing.  And making the long, expensive journeys worthwhile. Pupils don’t choose that themselves; it is done for them by adults.  It is the responsibility of the adults to collaborate before, during and after the game to ensure the best  chance of a “great game”.  And that requires competitiveness and sportsmanship. 

When the number one driver is winning, it’s a zero sum game and someone has to be a loser.  Every week.  When the principal driver is the quality of the experience, everyone can win.  And everyone is more likely to want to come back next week.  That is a function of collaboration.

Constructing the competition programme is a big responsibility, which should not be taken lightly. By either side.  So, let’s hope that the opposition is good this week… 

Blog written by Neil Rollings, November 2018