James Ihaka of the New Zealand Herald has reported on a new scheme to prevent walkover wins from junior rugby players. Is this really the way to respond to sporting talents? Are there more constructive approaches we could use? Guest blogger Sue Breen, founder of Small Poppies, and wearer of many hats in the New Zealand gifted advocacy community, responds with her views on winning, losing, fairness and excellence:
When my own children were young we spent many hours playing a variety of board games. (Actually – even now they are adults – we still do.) Board games contain (as well as the fun factor and spending quality time as a family) a heap of life-skills: including sharing and taking turns. Board games that use dice have both skill and chance elements. Board games can be used to help children learn how to win and to lose with grace. (Graciously and gracefully) There is nothing worse than a poor loser – unless it is a poor winner. ( The “Nah Nah N’ Nah Nah – I won and you lost!” attitude.)
Games that rely solely on skill (e.g. chess) have many more life-skills embedded in them.
I have seen 4 year-olds tutoring their opponent (partner) as they played. “Actually, look, if you moved here rather than there – then you could check-mate me. That would be a better move for you. Otherwise ……”
I encourage parents not to deliberately lose games they play with their children – but rather handicap themselves at the start of the game (e.g., in chess, remove a rook or a queen at the start of the game and then play to the best of their ability). With 8-10 year-olds I often have to get them to remove two or three pieces so we can have a better-matched game. (Having my 6 year old opponent deciding that they needed to remove both rooks and a queen and then still winning was a little hard on my ego – but ….. a great time to put into practice all those things I am trying to teach those students in my care.)
Sports in NZ has been an area where celebrating excellence has been a given. Leader Boards, “A” teams, representing your school, your region, your country, Commonwealth Games, Olympics etc. Take a look at the prizes/trophies handed out at most School Prize givings. The biggest and shiniest are usually for sporting achievements. We have ticker-tape parades and National Award evenings to celebrate the ‘best of the best’.
Celebrating excellence has not been as obvious in the NZ schooling situation – with students often trying hard not to stand out for a variety of reasons and teachers trying desperately to ensure all children are recognised for their strengths, their intellectual improvements and their attitude improvements. Often this is to the detriment of the gifted student who is not a behavioural problem. I spoke with one such child recently who was confused. He had yet to get a certificate at assembly although most of his classmates had received multiple ones. His teacher gave them out for improvement in behaviour, so many of the ‘naughty’ children were getting them for being good for a few minutes during a day (he was consistently ‘good’ so hadn’t improved at all) or for improving their scores in maths or spelling etc. (100% is hard to improve on.) He wondered why he wasn’t recognised as being ‘special’ in some way – in ANY way. (Special enough to get to stand up on the stage at assembly – like all of the rest of his classmates.)
Standing student rugby players down and replacing them with less able players so the end score is more consistent – or having skilled players playing in positions that do not use their strengths and skills – or arbitrarily removing points from the winning team are not the way to go forward in sport. What life skills are being taught?
Life is unfair. There will always be winners. There will always be those with skills you do not possess – and will never have – no matter how hard you try/practise. What we are doing here in rugby is changing the ‘who’ it is unfair to – rather than removing the ‘unfair’.
It is no surprise that the NZAGC magazine is called ‘Tall Poppies’. NZ is still very good at cutting our ‘best’ down to size. We are still giving our students the message that ‘different’ is wrong. Calling the magazine ‘Tall Poppies’ is a reminder that this happens (especially in NZ) and an alert to us to be aware of it.
Surely we should be using the board-game-skills-for-life model rather than the everyone-WILL-be-the-same-or-else model when teaching our gifted and talented children how to fit in to society and to succeed in their journey through life?
I hope this rugby decision is reversed before it is put into play.
Photo by Flickr member John ‘K’.