Dear Iain Sproat: Says the marathon runner to the sports minister: your idea for an hour of compulsory team games every day is surely enough to put many children off for life

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Do you remember those Health Education Council posters showing people of all ages cycling, swimming or running while sporting blissful smiles on their faces? Presumably, you won't have an accompanying poster campaign if you force through your policy compelling 14-to 16-year-olds to do team sports for an hour a day. Imagine it: stern magisterial faces would overlook the action, spying out those who didn't make their full contribution to the team cause. Sport for all, for sure, but the more appropriate slogan would be 'Big Teacher is watching you'.

Fewer thugs and fitter children? Your policy claims offer the grand illusion of simplistic social engineering. Simplistic because you neglect human responses. It would be better to get back to the basics of your portfolio. My experience of compulsory team games in adolescence was that they provided a context in which nascent thugs could flourish, with a ready-made gang and easily identifiable victims.

Teenagers are acutely aware of shortcomings of any kind, but team sports relentlessly highlight limited inadequacies out of all proportion to their importance. No one should be forced to suffer this, least of all for a nebulous 'team spirit' which can be acquired readily enough through classroom activities.

One hour of games isn't really that much, out of 24 in the day. But out of the scheduled school day of around five hours, it is an enormous chunk. Do you think that compulsory competitive team games are worth that much time? After all, you can take a child to a games field, but you can't make him or her lap up the action. Every athlete knows that it is the quality of the time put in that improves fitness. Skulking around on the touchline won't improve anything. The only way that participation in sport can be meaningful is if it is done with some enthusiasm - which can only mean voluntarily.

At school I spent more than your proposed daily quota of time engaged in team sport - kicking a football around the playground for the whole of the lunch hour, bar 10 minutes for bolting the food down. Our enthusiasm for it was such that we would show up for school 45 minutes early to get in a session before lessons.

Voluntary effort is also effective when it comes from the teaching staff. The games teachers responsible for enforcing your proposed new regime, against their inclinations, will risk becoming hectoring camp guards. They too, will be acting under compulsion.

Teachers used to have time within their working day to bring their own interests to after-school activities. I became a regular runner - and 27 years later I remain one - largely because of the infectious enthusiasm of a maths teacher.

If schooling for life is what lies behind your prescription of sport, then my sympathies are with you - individual and team sports are great tonics. But we must leave the dosage to discretion. Don't let your own enthusiasm for sport stand in the way of other people's enjoyment of it.

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