I’ve recently started running. Well, I say running. It’s more like short bursts of below par jogging interspersed with heavy breathing and walking. Yes, I’m doing the Couch to 5k programme.
It’s got me thinking about my relationship with sport and exercise. And particularly how ideas of sport and sporting excellence have significantly clouded my own relationship with exercise over the years.
I loved sport as a kid, and particularly football. Hooked by my first visit to Watford’s Vicarage Road in November 1978 (1st Round proper of the FA Cup versus Dagenham, a three-nil victory with a Ross Jenkins hat-trick), I would spend hours kicking a ball around, often to my mother’s distraction as the Size 4 bounced again and again off the exterior kitchen wall.
But whilst I had enthusiasm, I lacked in both natural ability and size. I was a small kid (still only around 5’ 8” to this day) and slight. I longed to play in the school team and occasionally made it to substitute. Mostly I would be asked to “run the line”.
At the end of the last year of primary school there was a photo taken of the school team. I went to get changed into the green and white kit, but the head teacher (who also coached the school team) told me it was bad luck for a thirteenth player to get changed. I made the photo, but in normal clothes and holding a line flag. That I can still remember this, which I can remember little about primary school, is probably an indication of the impact it had.
Secondary school sports were mostly marred by a sadistic PE teacher who would seemingly take great pleasure in allowing us to get changed again and again for a whole double PE lesson because we hadn’t been quiet enough. When sport actually was played it was competitive, and if you weren’t any good then it could be a miserable experience. Cross country, a long trek around the suburban streets of Hertfordshire, was a particularly unpleasant experience where I would regularly finish last or near last.
Outside of school, however, I found activities that I could enjoy that weren’t competitive. Kayaking, in particular, although I probably only did it for a couple of years.
By Sixth Form sporting activity pretty much stopped without the mandatory games lessons. And then I went to University.
Loughborough, where I went, had a fabulous Social Sciences faculty which is why I ended up there. But to most people who know it, it is known as a sporting institution, a reputation that it has bolstered since my time there.
In my first digs in my first year there was a guy from Norwich who was a hockey goal keeper. He was excited heading off to the hockey trials as he had regularly played for his County. He came back dejected. There had been seven goal keepers there, all of whom had played County. Four had played for their country. My housemate had had no chance.
That was what sport was like at Loughborough. And it cemented in me the idea that sport was for the exceptional, the elite. Not normal folk like me.
And so for the last 30 years that been pretty much my worldview. Sport is something other people do.
Hitting a “significant milestone age” has a retrospective impact for me, and so it’s been since last November when in the midst of the second lockdown I hit 50. One of the things that I’ve been increasingly aware of is my ageing body. Things are starting to creak. Or get stiff. Or not move at all.
It’s made me confront my views about sport and exercise. Starting with Pilates earlier in the summer, and now with running too. I’m starting to exercise regularly and with structure. I’m even actually enjoying it, something that for decades I’d taught myself wouldn’t be the case. But it’s been a big thing for me to actually start.
So what? Well, above all else the one thing I think above all else is that the timeless debate about whether sports in schools should be competitive or not needs to be kept going. Competitiveness was one of the founding reasons why I believed that sport was not for me, and as a result why it’s taken so long to get to a point where I regularly exercise.
That’s not to say that sports shouldn’t be competitive, but that they shouldn’t just be competitive. Because if they are then they run risk of locking exercise out of many people’s lives.