Why sport matters

James Hodgson | Bedford School | Spring 2017
The time for sport at school can often be squeezed by the pressure of academic success. But, as James Hodgson of Bedford School argues, the lessons you learn on the sports pitch can be invaluable for life.
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Well, Hetty, why does sport matter? 'Keeps you fit, Dad'. Any other reason? 'Well, some people like it, I suppose.' We have two starting points to answer this question in our family: Dad’s sports-mad childhood with three sports-mad brothers, and now in charge of a very sporty all boys’ school; and his four teenage children (3 girls and a boy), who believe they have a more balanced outlook. The truth is that almost everybody has the capacity to like some form of sport. Cricket is very different to canoeing, which is different to target shooting, which is different to squash – and, fortunately, many of our schools offer all of these and more. I like, therefore, to take the starting point that everyone simply requires the exposure to the right sport to get them excited.

But why bother? For me, two reasons stand out above all. The first was encapsulated almost two thousand years ago by the Roman poet, Juvenal, who said that we must all pray for 'mens sana in corpore sano', a healthy mind in a healthy body. The implications of this were debated in classical times – which is more important, the mind or the body? – but nowadays it is taken to mean that the two are virtually symbiotic; one leads to the other.

This second reason why sport matters is sometimes seen in a less politically correct light; but so be it. It is fact. I am going to term it 'social connectivity'. It is important for people to have something they are passionate about, or at the very least keen on; it gives them something to talk about and to make friends. It does not have to be sport, of course, but it certainly helps if it is. It is certainly true that lifelong friendships are made all the time through sport; and that people you played with and against years ago love sharing those happy memories with you when you meet them by chance later in life. The Australians call it mateship; something the NHS would term connecting; and something which Juvenal, even now, would appreciate and love.

With this in mind, it is concerning that the time for sport at school can often be squeezed by the pressure of academic success. We seem to have become ridiculously preoccupied with exams. No school, or parent, will claim that exams have no importance, and nor will I. However, and ironically, virtually every parent I know would swap a grade or two for a child who can model the sorts of lifelong qualities that sport engenders in people. Cricket provides a good example of what is on offer. I believe you can learn a lot from sport so, by all means, read the following as a batting order:

1. You can score 100 one day and 0 the next. This is the most important thing that cricket teaches you, as the line between success and failure often rests on the sheer luck of a catch being dropped by a fielder one day and caught brilliantly by a fielder on the next. Do not get too carried away by success, nor too upset by failure; the opposite is only just around the corner.

2. Conversely, it only takes a single ball to get a wicket. You can be hit for five sixes in one over, but that sixth ball may get the best batsmen out. Be resilient; don’t give up.

3. If you field in the slips, you may only get one chance to catch a ball all week. However, taking that opportunity might make the difference between winning and losing. Hang on in there; keep concentrating; and the moment will come. Carpe diem! Seize the day!

4. Some people do not talk to the tea ladies. You can tell a lot about people from cricket, both on and off the field. Beware those who do not acknowledge the tea ladies.

5. Umpires make mistakes. A football referee rarely makes a mistake which ruins your day personally. But if you are a batsman, a poor decision by an umpire can mean you spend only five minutes of a whole day’s play doing the thing you came to do. If you are a professional batsman, a poor decision by an umpire could end your career. You need to accept this; you can only control the controllable.

6. (Proper) Cricket takes all day. At least. For those 9-12 hours every week (depending on post-match longevity), you live with ten others and get to know 11 more. Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers; bankers, judges and CEOs. Cricket has no hierarchy – over those sorts of hours, it could not survive if it did; and luck, the greatest of levellers, apportions itself evenly. At the end of the day, people, no matter what their backgrounds, share the same hopes and fears.

7. Cricket is a global sport. This may be counterintuitive, but it is one of not many; indeed, it is played competitively in 115 countries. Between us, my brothers and I have played against Nigeria, France, Denmark, United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Croatia, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; and also in the West Indies, Sri Lanka, the Channel Islands, Zimbabwe, India, Wales and Holland. One of my brothers even played for Hong Kong Under 15 by mistake! You can make friends and contacts all over the world through cricket.

8. The Captain. Is there another sport where the captain can decide at a young age when, and even if, you participate? It is the captain’s decision who bowls and when; the captain’s decision who bats and who fields where. Learn about respect, about authority and about the decisions of others.

9. Complexity. Cricket has 42 Laws, each with subsections; these contain a preamble outlining the spirit of cricket. Add in the complexity of decision making (above) and the variety of characters and personalities involved, and you have a lot to talk about in the dressing room. Learn how to get on with, and influence, people.

10. Individual sport as part of a team. If you have a bad game in rugby, regardless of the team result, it is not easy for others to notice or to quantify. After a game of cricket, you will have numbers next to your name: win or lose, you will have a precise score next to your own name, or some bowling figures or averages, which tell your own personal story. Learn to deal with pressure and public scrutiny.

11. The number 11. One or two people can win a single cricket match almost by themselves; only a team can win a series. You never know when you might need a few runs from your number 11 batsman. Never neglect the development of the weakest.

Maybe I should have just one more, to carry the drinks. Last summer, I played in a game where a 74 year-old bowled to a 13 year-old. He got him out, in fact, to win the game. These two were simply passionate about cricket – cricket breeds them. They walked off the field together, the one passing on a few old stories to the other. So my 12th Man is simply this: the wish that I am playing cricket at 74.

So, Hetty, that’s why sport matters. 'Ah yes; I guess that’s true even for me – now I think about it, most of my friends come from sailing…'

James Hodgson is Headmaster of Bedford School.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Attain.

About The Author

James Hodgson

James Hodgson is Headmaster of Bedford School, which was founded by Royal Charter in 1552. The school seeks to imbue boys with four age-old pillars of their community: integrity, responsibility, curiosity and endeavour.

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