Leona O'Neill: Winning isn't everything

School sports days bring out the worst competitive elements in parents. Leona wonders why it's so hard for us to follow our own advice about focusing on just taking part rather than winning

A simple school sports day sack race can turn some parents into shouty monsters

HAVING spent many years on the sidelines of football matches with my son, I thought I had borne witness to some of the highest levels of parental competitiveness in today's society.

I have seen parents arguing with each other, arguing with the referee, shouting and screaming to the point that blood vessels are visible on their foreheads, kicking bins, shaking fists at the heavens and yelling insults at their kids and other people’s children.

It seems that in every environment that allows our children to be competitive, some of us turn into shouty monsters for whom winning is everything.

It’s the end of school term now and I’ve had the opportunity to attend at least six school sports days. To be fair, they are a lot more civilised than the football sidelines, but there is still a strong element of parental competitiveness.

I’ve witnessed parents screaming themselves blue in the face for little Johnny in the sack race like they had £1,000 running on him. I’ve seen advanced cheerleading, clapping and enthusiasm which would have Jose Mourinho thinking he needs to go home and rethink his team support strategy.

I’ve seen parents running along the sidelines, giving Braveheart-esque pep talks before the three-legged-race and lying to their kids, telling them that "it’s not the winning that’s important, it's the taking part" like they actually mean it.

I was not shocked last week to read that TV star Amanda Holden's oldest daughter banned her from going to her school sports day. The presenter told listeners to her breakfast show she had been barred because she "got too involved and too competitive". It happens to the best of us, Amanda.

I can relate, I honestly can. It’s just too easy to get caught up in it all when your pride and joy is up there on the world – well, OK, the school – stage, competing professionally with other seven-year-olds.

Parents queue to commandeer the prime sideline spots from early morning, their adult weight putting the tiny primary school plastic chairs in mortal danger.

You say "this year it will be different, I’ll not go overboard", but still you’re there with a plastic cup of luke-warm tea in your hand, roaring yourself hoarse on the sidelines as your youngster battles it out for first place in the 100m fancy dress sprint like it’s an actual life and death scenario.

And don’t get me started on the parents' race: 'yummy mummies' ruining their heels and spraining their ankles, running like their life depends on winning while pretending like they weren’t training for this moment for 12 weeks and then letting on like it doesn't really matter when they come 12th.

The dads are just as bad. At one of the sports days I attended, a dad tripped and fell while running at high speed in the parents' race. He hit the ground hard and did several rolls before rolling back to his feet and sprinting on to the finish. I think he came third. I also think he might have broken an arm.

But the biggest race of the day is the sprint, the one where your child – even though they are only eight – can show the other kids who is boss in the sporting stakes.

The parents are there on the sidelines, biting their nails, concentrating hard to hear the starting pistol and hoping against hope that their offspring can be this year’s champions.

Meanwhile the kids are on the starting line, the words of their parents ringing in their ears. "It’s the taking part that matters, not the winning". Well, why are they all standing on the sidelines like they are waiting outside an operating theatre?


The whistle blows and the kids take off down the field. There is much shouting, much clapping, much high decibel encouragement, a few expletives, parents wondering aloud if the race leader – who isn’t their child – had an unfair advantage because he is taller and therefore his legs are longer.

And, in the end, there is much crushing of plastic cups in angry hands when their child doesn’t get a medal.

But once the smiling sports day selfies are posted on social media, along with a picture of the child’s certificate or medal for all the world to see and be impressed by, we all walk out the gate laughing, leaving the competitive monster behind in the playground.

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