Mr Stephen Fogarty, Director of Health and Physical Education
Throughout my primary schooling, I swam. Towards the end of primary school, I was swimming six days a week with a coach who delivered his competitive training programme from the local Municipal Pool. I loved swimming and had no intention of stopping. Also, around this time, I started playing football and cricket. With these two sports, it certainly wasn’t love at first sight (that came later, with basketball), and I could never be accused of ‘setting the world on fire’ in either of them. Yet by the end of primary school, I had stopped swimming altogether and had fully embraced the team sport environment. For me, once I could see that there was an alternative, the individual nature of competing in the pool just didn’t measure up. I started to crave the camaraderie that exists in the team environment — the idea that you could compete against people, with others at your side, was a slowly-realised revelation.
I’m neither critical of swimming (or any other individual physical pursuit), nor am I critical of people who swim (competitively or otherwise). I have the utmost respect for the path that they have chosen. Truth be told, I am in awe of their ability to stay connected to an activity with which I fell out of love. When I think back to my swimming training, it seems to me that it didn’t operate as a club or a team, but more as a group of individuals who all happened to train in the same pool at the same time. I suspect the programme would be different now — the organisers of the modern swimming programme have taken the best of team-sport thinking and applied it to their swimmers, who still compete as individuals, but with a greater emphasis on the others at their side. Perhaps if this team environment had characterised my swimming experience, I’d still be happily ensconced. Given that this wasn’t my experience, I don’t regret for an instant my pursuit of team sports. The team environment has been very good for me.
It seems that it has also been good for others. At the end of February, research — titled The Imagination Gap (2018) — was released. Its related survey asked more than 1000 Australians about their involvement in team sports and, importantly, how these experiences contributed to their success in the workplace. The research aims to encourage girls to participate in teams in order to help foster the next generation of leaders. According to Aubrey Blanche, the Global Head of Diversity for Atlassian (the tech company which, along with the Australian Football League Women’s, commissioned The Imagination Gap) the research found 95 per cent of respondents who played team sports said those pursuits helped them develop key leadership and career skills for the future. Eighty per cent believed it developed their strong work ethic, 78 per cent indicated it developed their competitive edge, and 89 per cent said it enhanced their sense of collaboration and teamwork. Additionally, 82 per cent of respondents who are senior managers said they had played team sports when they were younger and identified the experience as a key factor in developing their skills and establishing their success.
Unfortunately, many women miss out on the development of these skills because of lower participation rates in team sports and higher drop-out rates. As identified in the report, half quit playing in high school with 16 per cent not even staying involved through primary school. Crucially, according to the report, women recognise the lost opportunity. Two out of three respondents believed playing team sports would have helped them develop further skills, while 46 per cent agreed it would have helped them be more self-confident and mentally resilient. One in four women regrets quitting team sport because it has impacted their professional success in the workplace. It seems then, that there might be a link between playing team sport and developing confidence and resilience later in life. For those of us who play, or have played team sport, we might wonder how much of who we are and how we behave is the result of us having been influenced by the experience. Anecdotally, the link is easy to identify, yet more difficult to quantify.
Ric Charlesworth (medical graduate, Olympian, first-class cricketer, Federal Member of Parliament, and Olympic and World Championship medal-winning coach) in his excellent book, Shakespeare the Coach, identifies some of the benefits of team sport:
Teamwork requires individuals to perform their roles with thoroughness, trusting that their team-mates will do likewise, and coaches endeavor as much as possible to outline to the whole team the connections and interdependence that makes great teams reliable, productive and efficient. Each part, large or small can be crucial. (2004, p.114)
Anyone who has ever been part of a beautifully calibrated team (in sport, work, or life) should recognise their experience in Charlesworth’s words.
One of the key lessons taught through team sport is the ability to navigate and develop trusting relationships. According to Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy (2012, p. 145) in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, resilience is predicated on trust in a system, allowing potential adversaries to move seamlessly into cooperative mode — and quickly, during the moments when it counts the most. In a team-based setting, trust can be mercurial; the benefits of promoting, developing and harnessing that trust can be extraordinary. Like any skill, these can be learnt and practised. Perhaps there is no better way for young women to practise these skills than by engaging in team sport.
Aubrey Blanche states:
Playing team sports builds things like confidence, resilience, collaboration skills, and the ability to give and receive feedback. The research shows those who play team sports are significantly more likely to reach managerial and other roles of responsibility, while continuing to play into adulthood increases this likelihood. They’re more likely to meet their goals, handle what comes their way, feel prepared, find solutions to problems and stay calm in the face of adversity. (2018, p.2)
Along with opportunities to build trust systems and resilience, team sports also offer the chance to practise leadership — an opportunity that is being missed by many women.
In The Imagination Gap, half of the men surveyed said they find role models in sport, but only a quarter of the women said the same. Combine this with the significantly lower team sport participation rates of adult females compared to adult males and it is easy to see why the experience of playing, and maybe even the desire to play team sports, has been different for girls.
Perhaps the change that we want to see is best explained by Aubrey Blanche:
The development of more role models of women at high levels [in sport] is an incredibly important aspect. Seeing women at the elite level of their craft is an inspiration for all women in sport and the workforce. Seeing more women in these prominent roles doesn’t just build role models for young girls and other women; it reprograms how everyone thinks of a leader… it’s making sure boys [and girls] are excited to look up to female leaders. (Blanche, 2018 p.1)
Fortunately, Brisbane Girls Grammar School has always gone against the dominant paradigm. The School has a long and proud history of engagement with sport and Health and Physical Education, and importantly, it has a long and proud history of strong, thoughtful, intelligent women who have developed and delivered these programmes. The School intentionally includes a significant number of Grammar Women among our sports coaching ranks each year. We want students to see that there are sports opportunities that exist beyond their time at the School. When they are in the McCrae Grassie Sports Centre, looking up to the Sports Honour Board and the framed Olympic and Commonwealth Games memorabilia belonging to Grammar Women, we want them to be inspired to achieve great things. But mostly, we want them to keep playing: to stay involved, and to take the positive lessons of the sports field and the Health and Physical Education classroom with them into adulthood.
If the collaborative, team environment is the best way to encourage long-term participation for women, I’m confident that at Girls Grammar we’ve got them covered. I’m confident because I know the secret of sport at the School — every sport that the girls participate in at Girls Grammar is a team sport. Whether or not they swim, dance, climb or spar individually, all players compete with a host of supporters and team-mates, decked out in Girls Grammar blue, beside them. Nicole Livingstone (Australian swimmer, Olympic and Commonwealth Games medalist, media presenter and the AFL’s Head of Women’s Football) reflects on what it was like being a member of the Australian Swimming Team:
It was a collective mission. As an individual in that team, when you stand behind the blocks you’re not just standing there to race for yourself. You’re also racing for your team-mates — and there’s a real pride in that. People think of swimming as an individual sport, but it’s not. It’s a team sport. (as cited in Elliot, 2012, p. 99)
She could be talking about Girls Grammar at this year’s QGSSSA Swimming Carnival. It was the experience that I wish I’d had as a swimmer.
The final word on the team experience comes once again from Ric Charlesworth:
Nothing is more important than the team. Building a successful organisation requires the development of a cooperative, trusting group of team players. For the team to succeed each individual has to be committed to the team’s goals and perform their role with pride and thoroughness. (2004, p. 118)
This is what we strive to achieve for our girls in sport and in Health and Physical Education at Girls Grammar. As it turns out, it might just help them to be the best adults they can be as well.
Blanche, A. (2018). The Imagination Gap: Teams, Dreams, and the Future of Women in Leadership. Melbourne: Atlassian & Australian Football League Women’s
Charlesworth, R. (2004). Shakespeare the Coach. Sydney: Pan Macmillan
Elliot, H. (2012). Winning attitudes: sport’s messages for achievement in life. Melbourne, Vic: Hardie Grant.
Zolli, A. & Healy, A. (2012). Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. London: Headline