Why it's okay for your child to come last on school Sports Day

There’s a whiff of de-mob happiness in the air. Exams are coming to an end and schools are all set for the one day of the year when our children actually wear their daps: sports day.

I’ve noticed a few blogs and stories popping up over the past week or so that got me thinking about the subject. One headline in particular, however, really caught my eye:


Parents banned from sports day in case children get stressed

The story in The Telegraph said that parents at Kenningtons Primary Academy in Essex had received a letter saying the annual sports day would be for "children only". Jo Sawtell, the headteacher, informed her school community: "For lots of children, sports day is a very stressful occasion. This is invariably linked to being watched by a large crowd.” 

Large crowds? Very stressful? I worry that we are in danger of shielding our children from normal life experiences that may help them develop and grow. No, I’m not of the I-had-my-head-flushed-down-the-loo-and-it-never-did-me-any-harm school of parenting. I'm concerned that school sports day is an important opportunity for our children to take part and celebrate in physical activity. I think it’s natural that we want to shelter them if they are less sporty and are unlikely to win. But surely this is only a problem if they don’t show flair for anything? It’s okay to not come first, second or even third in the two hundred metres. Presumably there are other areas of school life where they show less speed but do very well.

Surely our less sporty children can take part in sports day without being stressed at the prospect of a large crowd seeing them come second from last in the sack race. They can celebrate friends being faster – and experience first hand an important life lesson:

We can’t be good at everything.


In their US bestseller Nurture Shock authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explore the dangers of creating a generation of children who are afraid of not coming first. One of the main points of their book is that children are praised too much and can’t handle failure as a consequence. From the youngest age children are roundly cheered and celebrated for completing simple every day tasks. This creates junior praise-junkies. Children who are risk adverse. Bronson wrote in Newsweek: “Praise [your children] less, and help them develop accurate awareness of how well they’re doing—so don’t try to spin them into believing they’re better than they are.”

The key message of the book: praise effort not intelligence. The brain is a muscle that will develop when exercised and stretched.


Likewise, we don’t need to cover up lack of success. One example in the book cites a so-called Tiger Mom Study in an American High School. There was a mixed class of kids from American and Chinese descent. Kids were given IQ tests then their mothers were told (falsely) that their kids had scored poorly. The kids then took the test again but not before a half-time break during which they were told they could leave the test hall and interact with their mothers. American mothers avoided negative comments (‘Don’t worry; it’s not important’) and instead talked about neutral topics. They pretty much talked about anything other than the test. Chinese mothers discussed the test and its importance, saying, "You didn't concentrate. You need to try harder next time." When tested after the break, Chinese kids' test scores rose 33%, more than twice the gain of the American kids.

I suspect the nature of the crowd may be the crux of the Essex headmistresses’ problem rather than sheer numbers. The mothers and fathers that Bronson and Merryman refer to as Helicopter Parents – protective parents who pay overly close attention to their child’s experiences – tend to come out in force at all-school events such as sports day. They hover and coo and want their children to do well. Many have spent their entire life praising their children for completing simple every day tasks. They themselves get stressed when their children don’t do well because they don’t know what to say.

So maybe it’s time for parents to take a step back at sports day before we risk events like this being dropped from the school calendar. Remember last summer’s Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. Children have to work to be fast then faster and perhaps, one day, they will be the fastest. Certainly they won’t get there if we don’t let them try.