The Secret Teacher: Sport should never come at a cost to a child’s school work

Extra-curricular work is invaluable, but too much can affect pupils’ overall wellbeing

Shane gleefully volunteering to go bag-packing to raise funds for the rugby team was the last straw.

Ironically, when the coach came to the classroom looking for volunteers, Shane was busy writing all the homework he had missed recently into his homework journal. He has taken photographs of the missed notes, as he will need one long, uninterrupted stretch of study time to go through them.

Due to our school’s recent success in GAA, rugby and basketball, I have hardly seen Shane. He really isn’t that bothered though. Even though he is only in attendance for the third time in the last four weeks, he’s visibly over the moon at the opportunity to escape the classroom again and go out fundraising.

Laura is a different matter.


She spent yesterday’s breaktime with me trying to understand the new and complex material she has missed recently. She’s an asset to her hockey, GAA and basketball teams, and all three have progressed to the later stages of their various leagues and competitions.

She is an industrious student who would very much prefer not to have missed so many classes. When she was showing the strain yesterday, I asked her why she didn’t just relieve some of the pressure by narrowing her choice of extra-curricular activities.

She admitted she would love to, but would feel as though she were letting her team down if she quit. Despite playing some of those sports with clubs outside school too, she feels a genuine camaraderie and team spirit with all three school teams and cannot bear to choose between them.

Extra-curricular work is invaluable, but it must never come at a cost to the curricular work or to the child’s overall wellbeing.

Promoting how talented a student is at a sport and how much you are doing for him by training him and bringing him to matches, only makes sense if you aren’t creating curricular problems for him.

He will still have to take his exams, and it is a teacher’s responsibility to ensure that when the time comes, it won’t be a more traumatic experience as a result of time missed while away. It can be hard to wear a coach’s hat and a teacher’s hat at one and the same time, but part of involvement in such extras is teaching the students how to achieve good balance in their lives, and enabling them to find strategies to attend training and matches without accumulating a burden of missed schoolwork.

Cannot do everything

Like everything else on a school campus, this area of school life simply needs careful managing. As adults, we learn very quickly that we cannot do everything and we must choose and prioritise. We must weigh up options and make informed decisions.

These impact on others, and will sometimes be welcome and very popular with our circle, be it personal or professional. Other decisions will be less well received, whether it is reneging on a work commitment or turning down a social engagement.

One of the eight key skills which underpin the new Junior Cycle is "managing myself", and main elements are identified as knowing myself, making considered decisions, setting and achieving goals. Surely there is no better way to ease the pupils into this necessary life skill than by actively engaging them in a thorough analysis of their weekly school timetable and commitments.

It’s an excellent practical exercise to ask them to assess how capable of it they are and if it is sustainable in their individual circumstances.

Going through this process may well involve students such as Shane and Laura consciously choosing and committing to three sports teams. Some students simply do not thrive on academic work, and their enthusiasm for school may well be driven by what it can offer in terms of other activities, which are in themselves learning situations.

If Pupil A is at risk of school refusal or dropping out entirely and a high proportion of sporting activities keeps him in school, then isn’t a school week packed with extra-curricular activities the best option for him? If Pupil B has learning difficulties and struggles to keep up even while attending every class, how is it to his advantage to miss time unless this is unavoidable?

I meet many parents who are taken aback by how many lessons their child has missed as a result of matches, despite surely knowing that school carries on as normal when only small portions of a class are away. Can they not connect the dots and see that a child playing for three school teams attends a significantly lower proportion of the year’s lessons than a child who confines their sporting commitments to local clubs?

There is no better or right way here. What works for your child is what is better or right, whatever the profile of their week. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula.

Commitment and collaboration are just two examples of qualities which are essential in an enriching workplace and best acquired through practice. It’s hard to argue that these skills can be learned any better in a classroom than on a sports field.

The merits of the time on the sports field are therefore not in dispute here; I am merely questioning any individual’s capacity to juggle everything on offer without occasionally dropping a ball. Individuals struggle when overloaded, hence the importance of managing oneself.

The new Junior Cycle theory on this is sound, and achieving the correct curricular/extra-curricular balance presents a fantastic opportunity for a practical and meaningful life lesson.