They say never to start with an apology, but today I want to cover my back by doing just that! If there are any parts of this blog that don’t make sense, or don’t flow, then I apologise! I am dictating this blog to my phone as I recover from surgery – so I don’t have the full checking capabilities that I normally would have!
This week is National School Sports Week (NSSW). An opportunity for schools to promote not only PE as a subject, but the importance of sport as an opportunity for wellbeing. I want to share with you a very personal story about why sport has been so important in my life, and why I think NSSW is a brilliant idea.
I was always someone who loved sport. Not someone who was particularly good at sport, but someone who loved it. An avid football fan, I’d never pass up the opportunity for a playground kick about. As I moved on to secondary school, friends began to get selected for the school team and I lost interest, but tennis and dance began to take up my time instead. Sometimes that meant huge events (of which dancing in the Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in front of a full stadium, the Queen, and millions on TV will always be the highlight), sometimes it meant being down the park having a hit around on the courts with my family. Yes there’s an undeniable buzz from the big events, but sport was more important than just the buzz – I was out the house, keeping my body in good shape, and having fun.
As I moved on to university my dance stopped but new hobbies took it’s place…I began to take up running. I wasn’t a great runner, but it began as a wellbeing activity – an early morning run to clear my head became an essential part of my day. The mental benefit was huge – I was awake and ready to focus. I caught the running bug and before long decided to challenge myself. I was going to run a marathon for charity, in memory of my twin.
Then my life changed.
Whilst I was training for this huge challenge I began to get increasingly unwell, and eventually ended up a permanent wheelchair user. It honestly felt like my life was over. Then my family found out that the Great South Run allowed wheelchair users to participate in their day chair. I had a new aim. 10 miles in my day chair – it was hardly running a marathon but it would get me out the house again, get me keeping fit again.
This became the start of something more. Long story short wheelchair racing became the new sport in my life. It’s given me something to wake up for, something to live for. Psychologically the biggest moment came in October 2013 when I was the first elite wheelchair racer across the line at the Yorkshire Marathon. I’d done it. My wheelchair didn’t stop me – I’d completed a marathon. My friends and family know there’s so much more – so many achievements I’m proud of since then…and hopefully so much more to come.
But I’m not writing this to talk about what I’ve done – it’s about what sport can do.
See throughout my life sport has been something I’ve enjoyed, something that’s given me a feel good factor. And this is the first thing I hope teachers will let children know about in NSSW. In my time both in sport, and in education and youth work, I’ve seen too many children put off simply because they can’t win. “It’s pointless.” “I’ll never be good at this.” This week I hope that children get to see the fun side of sport. That it doesn’t have to be about winning. It can be about the laugh and the joke during the casual kick about on the playground. It can be about cycling around town with your mates. It can be about the fun you have whilst improvising new dance moves.
And yet I also hope they see the other side. Some children will grow up to live off the buzz, feed off the buzz, of being the very best they can be. Of looking to smash their PB, of aiming to get the medals. For some, sport becomes about achievement, they live for that buzz. And if you can hook them in to that, we will see some great British athletes in the future.
Not only that, but the attitude of determination sport can breed really can change lives. The attitude I built up when training to run the marathon is ultimately the attitude that turned my life around. The attitude that made me want to prove I could do it got me back outside, pushing my chair and regaining my fitness. It’s that same attitude that kicks in now at every 5am wake up, every training session in the rain, on every start line. And I have the love of sport I developed as I grew up to thank for that.
And if all that wasn’t enough, it’s now widely understood that just 5-10 minutes of exercise in the morning can change your daily outlook, your productivity levels and your mood. Even if that strenuous cross country session on a gloomy and wet December afternoon isn’t every child’s cup of tea, there are numerous ways that this 5 minutes of activity can be made fun for everyone – the quick game of fruit salad, the dance to ‘Happy’ (still a firm favourite!), or even a quiz that involves moving to different locations. Implementing such a daily activity can be great for a teacher – science suggests it will improve your classes concentration – but it will also help even those who don’t want to join in cross country to understand that keeping fit can be fun and quick. Even better – it will also help a generation to see the difference a quick fitness session can make to their day.
I fully accept that not everybody wants to be the next Cristiano Ronaldo or Jessica Ennis-Hill. But I hope that this week teachers will lead from the front and embrace National School Sports Week. I hope they’ll present sport in a way that appeals to everyone – that means including the competition element but ensuring it’s not all about that. I hope they’ll breed an attitude of not giving up within their classes – an attitude that can change lives. And most of all I hope that they’ll show everyone that there’s something in sport for them.