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Head Master’s Blog – Why do we play team sports?


9 October 2018

A theme has been buzzing round my head for the last couple of weeks, but this weekend just cemented it as something I wanted to talk to you about today.

Any school or institution which spends a lot of time and a lot of its budget – its income: in our case your parents’ hard earned school fees – on anything, needs from time to time to consider why it does so and how it benefits the institution and its people, in our case you. As you may have noticed, at The Oratory we spend a lot of time – and a large proportion of our budget – on the provision of sport, in particular team sport. I hope you will be pleased to learn that I wholeheartedly believe that this use of resources of time and money is entirely justified.

The lessons that team sport teaches us – of courage (mental, physical, even moral); cooperation, self-discipline, resilience, camaraderie, a sense of proportion – are all extremely valuable both in their own right and as part of your preparation for life beyond school. It was wonderful to welcome back so many Old Oratorians to the London Oratory fixtures on Saturday, and you could tell that they had these qualities in spades, which I’m sure were fostered on the playing fields of the OS and on its stretch of the Thames.

I’m not a golfer and don’t tend to choose to watch it on TV, but I watched quite a lot of the recent Ryder Cup and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think this was because it is a superb game made even better by being made a team sport. The drama was only heightened by the dynamics of the teams, and who can forget the “bromance” between the inseparable Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood, players who normally would be trying to beat each other. Foursomes in particular, in which the pair play with one ball, is absolutely compelling: if your partner hits a terrible tee shot, or hits it into the bunker or the rough, you have to take the next shot and try to recover his mistake, and vice versa. And as it is a team game, players have to learn in the pressurised cauldron of competitive professional sport to cooperate, for example if your partner is left-handed or likes to play the ball from a particular position.

Would it be an exaggeration to say that the reason why Europe beat the USA so convincingly was because they came to terms with, even embraced (literally: there were a lot of hugs!) the selflessness inherent in being in a team? Tiger Woods, great player that he is, looked lost in an environment where he was expected to discuss, negotiate, cooperate.

Watching our rugby teams on Saturday, in fiercely contested games played in an excellent Oratory spirit, brought this concept of the essential generosity of team sport powerfully home to me. In the 1st XV game, in a two-on-one towards the end of a tiring match, when Morgan fixed his man and delivered a perfectly timed pass to Will to race in unopposed, the measure of success for Morgan was by timing the pass so that he was tackled just after releasing the ball – and therefore potentially being hurt – so that the defender was committed and couldn’t track across to Will.  I’m sure those of you who played in the epic 2nd XV 5-0 victory, defending your line for the whole of the second half, will admit that it wasn’t scintillating rugby that won you the game: it was your team spirit, your togetherness, your unshakeable belief in the shirt and, even more importantly, each other – your teammates, which isn’t at all the same thing as your friends.

This stuff is hard to put into words, you can see, but I hope you can see what I’m getting at. Individual sport is wonderful too, don’t get me wrong: you learn an awful lot about yourself in a single scull, in a swimming race or in a singles tennis match, but I have to say I think there is something even more profound about the dynamic of a doubles pair, a medley team or a rowing Eight. Not least physically, as I say, you consciously make a decision to put yourself in a situation where you could either be physically hurt or at the very least be extremely unwell at the end of a race through the effort you have put in (we’ve all seen the vomiting Boat Race crews). And you do this essentially for other people.

If you’re interested in these ideas I would recommend you read anything by Matthew Syed, who writes in the Times and has written some excellent books on sport. Essentially, he says, sport is both utterly pointless (although try telling that to Captain of Rugby Tom Grenfell on a Saturday morning) and one of the most profound and joyful things a human being can do. Thank you to all of you who put your body, your heart and your character on the line week after week for your school, and for each other.

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