Gifted and Sidelined!

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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.

My thoughts.

Keen young rugby player.

Would this youngster look so enthused if he could only ever achieve a moderate win? Are we clipping the winds of those destined to soar?

Photo by Flickr member John ‘K’.

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About Mary St George

I teach in gifted education, both online and face-to-face.
This entry was posted in gifted, New Zealand, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Gifted and Sidelined!

  1. Jonathon says:

    At what stage though does a game become untenable and ridiculous? What good is there in watching a team of 7, 8, or even 12 year olds being embarrased on a rugby field? Seriously. If a team is down by 35 points that is the equivalent of 5 converted tries. Looking at it one way the winning team is as a ratio 5 times better than the other team.

    I support the idea of a points capping. This idea is not about handicapping excellent players and teams. It is about ensuring that younger, smaller and less developed teams have the chance to not be completely embarrased or demeaned in a public setting. Yes – there are winners and losers in life and there will always be some who are better at some things than others.

    The real issue here is about the retention and developing of young talent and ensuring they continue with a sport or exercise into the future. The issue is about ensuring that those young kids aren’t completely put off sport forever due to their lack of development at a certain stage in life. There is no constant in development in kids – either physical or intellectual. Therefore let those who are the best be the best – BUT – they should not entitle them to be able to make a mockery or fools of those who aren’t as good.
    At what point do we say enough is enough?

    I propose that a simple handshake and an acknowledgement that the either side was far more dominant (at that young age) will achieve more than if the lesser team is completely obliterated on the field. Long term retention and development of tomorrows stars is just as vital as nurturing and developing the stars of today.

    • Thanks for posting, Jonathon. As we look for the best models to encourage the talents of the future in every field, all points of view are welcome. I’ve had great experiences of kids in my classes deciding how to make very unbalanced teams fair for themselves, and they have tended to enjoy doing that more than having an imposed solution. I’ve also noticed that they go through phases of wanting to make every match well balanced and phases of wanting to battle it out by the rules of the game. It is really interesting to observe.

      (Comment from Mary, rather than guest blogger Sue.)

  2. Sue Luus shared a link comparing classroom culture to sporting culture in their stereotypical responses to high ability. It’s well worth a read, and certainly makes you question this change in junior rugby. Instead, maybe classroom culture should be taking on ideas from the world of sport, as some theorists have suggested in a “Sports Model” of gifted education.


  3. Page one of Theodore Gourley’s article on the “Varsity Sports Model” for gifted students can be viewed at


  4. Brian Smaller says:

    Hi Jonathon. I have to disagree with you. If you are going to have a points cap then for starters the game is over once that is reached. Having coached junior rugby for many years and been involved with representative junior rugby I think I have a reasonable handle on how the kids think about this. One thing we used to do was swap players. We would take two or three of the dominant side’s best players and put them into the other team. The result was usually a big lift in the game.

    The reality is that once kids finish in the junior grades and hit college there is a massive drop off in player numbers. The reasons for that are varied – huge opponents, no age/weight restrictions in most school comps, other activities vie for their time, team sports not compulsory etc. There is no real problem retaining junior players in the junior grades – other than over protective mothers.

  5. Sue Breen says:

    Jonathon, you have commented strongly on one of the actions that is being taken: arbitrarily removing points from the winning team.
    I would like to hear your comments on the other two proposed actions:
    standing student rugby players down and replacing them with less able players and having skilled players playing in positions that do not use their strengths and skills.

    I cannot see how either of these actions aid in “retention and developing of young talent” or “long term retention and development of tomorrows stars”.

    Brian, this swapping of players from the dominant side to the weaker side happens unofficially regularly in younger-aged games in all sports and has so many positives. It seems to me that this is a better model to be advocating.

  6. This is also being discussed in two places in facebook, one with 33 comments at present. Well done, Sue, for hitting on a hot topic!

  7. Felicity says:

    I am going to leave commenting on the recent junior rugby decision aside – I am no expert in sport psychology or the rigour of rugby games. I am the mother of a ‘gifted child’ who incidently loves his rugby and, while my expertise ends with supplying oranges for the odd game and cheering loudly from the sideline, I do believe that my child is learning so much from winning AND losing. However, as I said that not’s what I wanted to comment on…… Sue made a very valid and succint point in saying: “Life is unfair. There will always be winners.” Sue also mentions the case of a gifted child who was confused by the current system whereby they had yet to receive any recognition by way of certificates etc in their school awards, whilst watching on as many others collected awards for a range of behaviours and achievements that they had already attained. The penny then dropped for me…. in all three and a half years of my son’s life at school he has only ever received one certificate from weekly assemblies – and that was in his first week of school, for settling in well. Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticising the school here – the Principal is hugely supportive of attendance at One Day School. But what Sue’s comment has validated for me is the feelings recently expressed by my son after school, which I tried to (naively) brush aside in an effort to take his mind off the injustice that he had rightfully identified. He said: “Mum all the other kids get ‘Principals Certificates’ for things like using commas in their writing, doing good research, trying hard…. I have been doing these things for a long time now and I never get one of those certificates.” To add to this he explained that whenever the class is asked a question and he has his hand up, he is left out of answering. He even identified that 4 people will have their hand up, including him, and he can predict that he will not be asked for his answer/input. Please don’t get me wrong here, I fully appreciate the need for encouragement and acknowledgement for ALL kids. And I appreciate the amazing job and devotion that many teachers give to our children. But what are these common place practices towards gifted kids doing to them. Whilst I brush it aside and try and cheer him up with light hearted comments, he continues to feel a real sense of injustice. Aren’t these the kind of kids that this country needs to encourage and foster to benefit Aoteoroa in the future? Are their talents and skills worth recognising from an early stage? Or is the current system of making them sit on and watch others be continually acknowledged, because we supposedly know that they (the gifted child) will always be a ‘winner’ no matter what, the right way to nurture and develop these capable minds and souls. Does any one know of any longitudinal studies or observational research done on the effects of the above practice on gifted and talented children? If so, could you please let me know. As I said, I am merely a mother of two neat kids (yup, biased I know…. but aren’t all Mums allowed to be?!) and I am trying to understand the environment that shapes and influences them so that I can give them the best support possible to survive and flourish within that. All power to Gifted Awareness Week I say! May we all strive for better understanding for the good of all.

  8. Kim D says:

    I too have seen the injustice of gifted and intelligent children rarely being chosen to share their ideas. It is cruel to teach them to raise their hands instead of blurting out their ideas and then regularly not choose them. I realise that the reason is to make sure that other children get a chance to speak and there is a real risk of everyone switching off if they can’t contribute. I have found the normal scenario of class discussion extremely frustrating and inefficient in my different roles as a Student, Mother and Primary School Teacher.
    So what to do? I have been trialling asking open questions and then getting children to discuss them in groups. We now have set groups for discussion which I have chosen for the best dynamics. The rules are that everyone gets a chance to contribute and someone reports back. They are getting better at staying on task and valuing everyone’s ideas. I’m sure most teachers do this from time to time but I think it could happen a lot more – say 3 times per day.
    Another method with class discussions is that everyone gets 3 discussion sticks which they can use and once they are used up they cannot speak.
    Obviously the ideal would be to have smaller groups – I was lucky enough teach extension classes last year (before funding was cut) and was amazed how different discussion in a group of 8 -10 students could be. I might try giving the class an independent activity to do whilst I take the discussion groups one at a time and record their ideas and get them to probe deeper. This should also help with modelling what good discussion looks like when they are by themselves in groups.
    The only problem (as usual) is time in an already crowded curriculum. But thinking and discussion skills are extremely important for today’s world so I think it is worth it.

    • Great approaches, Kim! In some classes, with a high degree of trust, you can get the kids who think they know but aren’t sure to give the first answers to questions, and then ask the kids who “know they know” to comment and add to what has been said, or to add a question that they believe will add to the depth of the conversation. It is brilliant with the right group, and asking kids to use self-assessment to guide them as to when to contributes seems to flow over into a wider understanding that it is helpful to “think before you speak”.

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