Today’s lesson: real life isn’t full of Olympic golds

COMPETITIVE sport is all the rage now, thanks to the unprecedented nationwide surge in inspiration, emotion and positive thinking brought on by Britain’s Olympic gold rush. Boosted by David Cameron’s getting in on the act, promising that every child at primary school will have to take part in team sports, as well as a national newspaper campaign to “keep the flame alive”.

Britain’s Olympic heroes have been quite rightly widely held up as brilliant role models for children; and, for the girls, contrasted with the fake-tanned, high-heel-tottering, half-starved, false-eyelashed plastic martians that wags and Towie creatures aspire to become.

So far, so excellent, and the Games organisers must be gratified.

But at the same time as we are offering children role models, inspiration and new facilities, there’s another valuable lesson they should learn, involving a dose of reality.

For every Olympic medallist, there are of necessity many others who didn’t make it, the many who came ninth or tenth or twenty-seventh in qualifying heats. In the same way, when they leave school, pupils will need to know that for every successful job applicant there can be dozens who fail to even get an interview, and many who fail at the interview itself. And yes, I mean fail – not just outstripped by a superior candidate but people who did not meet the standards the employer wanted in particular areas. And if and when they do get jobs, there will be times when they suffer disappointments, when they do not do a good job, when they get poor appraisals, when they don’t get promotion.

Along with giving kids exemplars in any field, we owe it to them to show the flip side – that for every success there are many more failures. Failing is normal. Failure is a fact of life, and it happens to everyone at some point.

And more – failing is good, because it teaches us humility. It teaches us to try harder next time.

Sadly, some schools are hampering this learning process by holding events such as prize days at which every child gets a prize. There was even a London school choir whose leaders did not dare give the solos to those with the strongest voices, feeling it necessary to give everyone a turn, resulting in performances that were at best mediocre. It’s politically correct nonsense that in the long run offers the children no lesson or benefit. After a couple of decades of these types of farcical practice, in this atmosphere of sporting success, at last politicians have dared to speak out against it, Cameron himself taking a swipe at the “all-must-have-prizes culture”.

Maybe Hot Chocolate’s 1978 upbeat, comforting “Everyone’s a winner” hit sparked something off. But these days, we’re always “celebrating” something – usually something or other to do with diversity. The meaning of the word has become distorted in the efforts of lobby groups, spin doctors and the like to change attitudes. But what every child needs to learn is that not everything is a cause for celebration. Failure in life is more common in life than winning, and winning usually requires an awful lot of planning, extremely hard work and determination. Those who succeed rarely got there through luck or genes alone.

When I was at school, success and failure were never mentioned, never talked about. But in maths classes at primary school we were put into football-style leagues, determined by our test results, which motivated us to try harder if we wanted “promotion”.

While Britain’s gold-medallists didn’t exactly make it look easy, there’s always the danger that if we hold them up as role models while underplaying the years of sweat and ignoring the ones who tried and failed, children will have no idea of just how much effort has to go into succeeding.

Over the past generation or so, in giving children the impression that everyone can win, we have been doing them a disservice by giving them false hope. You just have to look at the number of wanna-bes who line up for auditions to the television talent contests, many of whom can’t sing a note in key, to see how many people have misplaced belief in their own ability. Because nobody has ever told them they won’t succeed. Their parents and teachers swallowed all the advice books and articles give about “boosting children’s confidence”, and somewhere along the line it all got a bit out of hand.

In the real world, not everyone is a winner – for every successful effort there must, statistically, always be many more losers.

If the next generation don’t know about failure – the far more widespread cousin of success – the shock will hit them all the harder when it happens.

PS. While competitive sport is to be encouraged, it must be exactly that: sport or exercise, and must never be confused with punishment or ritual humiliation –  forcing intelligent kids to stand in a field or playground for an hour or so, letting them freeze to death on the sidelines, clueless about arbitrary rules of the “game”. PE should be enjoyable for every kid in the class – or else it will have the opposite effect from that intended and turn them into couch potatoes for many years to come.

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