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This sporting life

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.12, 3 April 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

I love sport. I will watch it on the TV more than I should especially when the mighty Warriors are playing. How blessed we are to have so much sport on TV!

But it is a poor substitute of playing sport. Thank goodness our schools and educational institutions are still interested in sport.

Back at Frankton Primary School we would look forward each week to school sport. Off we would go to Boyes Park in Hamilton to do battle with Whitiora and Hamilton East. And as summer turned to winter we gave up cricket for rugby. The good thing was that we never had our unique skills coached out of us largely because we were never coached. Teams were assembled in those days rather than picked. Taking part was at least as important as playing well. Positions in teams were assigned and not a reflection of skill. I played lock in one of the Frankton Primary rugby teams if you can believe it!

I think the attraction of playing lock was that you got to wear the head gear –a smelly harness of leather and tatty cloth that must have been a sight to see but I tell you, just strapping it under your chin was empowering as they would say now.

In cricket I was even more hopeless except for one day when I perfected a single-finger-across-the-seam spin and got a couple of wickets. I went home to await my call-up to the New Zealand team which had just been bowled all out for 26 by England. The call never came and I went to school the next day.

I wished I hadn’t because half-way through the morning a teacher poked his face around the classroom door and said “I hear you have a pretty mean single finger spin, Middleton.” My face was redder than a Kookaburra.

At intermediate I was able to get into soccer at long last – my older brother had played for some time. I loved it and it was no surprise that when I went to high school that was my sport. Arthur Leong was the coach – he was selected for New Zealand and was an inspiration. He got us into club soccer – Hamilton Tech Old Boys – winner of the Chatham Cup in 1962 (the greatest day in New Zealand sport!!!). I was not in the team.

At secondary school I played tennis as well and I don’t think I was very good because the only thing I remember about it was walking across the Hamilton Railway Bridge on the way to Saturday morning tennis to meet a mate in the team to be told that John F. Kennedy jr. had been shot! I lost that day!

So on to university and those famous tournaments. From what I remember, and that is not a lot to be honest, I lost comprehensively in every game. In fact, in one game the opposition, having studied my form, asked if it was all right if he played with his track suit on!

Gradually one gives up sport although I should mention my career as an archer. My son had taken up field archery and was pretty good. So rather than spend all day in isolated forests I became a barebow archer. Lots of fun. It is with great humility that I admit to being runner-up for the 1993 Pacific Field Archery Barebow Mens title. OK, there were only two of us in that division and the points were 1320 first and 567 second. But that didn’t diminish the thrill of the silver jingling around the neck.

So it was on the basis of those recollections that I applauded the commitment of Minister of Sport Murray McCully to the promotion of sport in primary schools. That is where it begins. Schools are central to sport in New Zealand and any government that recognises this is on to a winner – literally.

If we are serious about sporting success then we have to be serious about the success of sport in schools. Getting kids involved is more important than worrying about the preciousness of quality coaching until about the age of 12. Then it should start to get serious for those who exhibit superior skill and potential. And any funding regime that ignores the pool of talent in the Counties Manukau region simply doesn’t know that if you want to buy good fish you go to a fish shop!

Secondary schools are critical and SPARC would be better to focus on this amazing pool of talent if it is really serious about elite performance. But regions such as Counties Manukau suffer from underfunding because of the emphasis on programmes. Thank goodness for trusts such as John Walker’s Find Your Field of Dreams in Manukau City. This trust recognizes that mass participation is the base on which elite sporting performance is based and sets out to do something about it.

I think that the days of provincial competition in various sports are finished and that a better format needs to be found. I have no hesitation in promoting the notion of “college sport”. There is much to commend a national sporting competition in different codes (rugby, soccer, netball, hockey, volleyball, basketball and perhaps others) that pits tertiary institutions (the universities and the larger polytechnics) against each other.

In such a competition young people of sporting talent would produce games of high interest and we would be secure in the knowledge that these young people were working towards real qualifications in real areas of achievement. The myth of USA sporting scholarships is just that and so is the mistaken view that USA college sportspeople both get huge payments and are excused academic work.

This is the future of New Zealand sport – linking it more closely to the education system. It is a sound investment getting general commitment to sport in primary school. Building on the specialist skills at secondary school and then giving sport real expression by a national competition that would well and truly capture the imagination of the nation.

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