December 2017

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We need a cultural and philosophical change in our approach towards physical education and sport. Our society pays minimal attention to their importance in the lives of our youth. Schools are concrete jungles and there are no playing fields, green areas and space for children to run, jump and develop other fundamental motor skills.

At the primary level, Physical Education (PE) is sometimes seen as ‘play time’ for the students, with no established structure. Some teachers see this as a time to do some other form of lesson planning or for relaxation. Although PE is a documented primary level subject of the Ministry of Education, it is not recognised by some teachers.

Many teachers do not teach this subject because they simply do not have a passion for the subject or they place little value on it. Some do not know how to teach PE; they lack self-confidence to deliver the content or were not trained in the field. In the era of Teachers’ Training College, Physical Education was an optional subject, yet, when placed in a primary school, teachers were expected to teach it. When fully dressed for the day, some teachers find it unpleasant to change into PE attire to engage in classes which involve perspiring and time in the sun.

I was once a teacher at a primary school with a passion for PE. When I began to pursue my studies in this field, I persuaded the principal to make me the PE teacher for the entire school. I had observed the lack or complete absence of teaching in this area, which when done, was more in the realm of fun or games with little structure. Staff was obviously happy when she agreed. I believe the students were even happier as they got a chance to engage in organized PE classes. This programme continued for three years, before I was transferred to a secondary school.

All primary schools should be staffed with specialist PE teachers (also for drama, music and art), who bring with them special skill sets to promote physical education and to enhance the development of the child in the formative years. Children at this age are now developing their fundamental motor skills – running, throwing, catching, kicking, striking, jumping and landing – which are the building blocks for future sporting activities. Mastery of these skills at an early age is an essential part of enjoyable participation in sport and a lifelong interest in an active lifestyle. When they go through the primary school system and fail to acquire some of these basic skills, it sets the tone for their future lack of participation in sports and active lifestyles. By not catering to their needs at an early age, we are shooting them down before we give them a chance to fly.

All secondary schools should have a full-sized covered hall as well as a playing field to accommodate the needs for the delivery of the PE curriculum and the school’s participation in ECA. These are realistic, justified and necessary facilities, yet we continue to have secondary schools being built with facilities that are inadequate or absent.

National Primary and Secondary Schools Track and Field Meetings need to be reviewed. The stadium is literally empty except for the athletes themselves. Why is it that when Jamaica is having their National Secondary Schools Track and Field Meetings, their stadium is packed? Their Championship is an important event in Jamaica’s calendar and the nation looks forward to it. Where are we falling short? We don’t we look at their system and modify our structures to bring it up to par with theirs or even ask for their input?

There are some schools/districts that have structured after-school clubs and programmes, which allow them a chance to have an athletic team in the true sense to represent their school/district. However, this is the minority and may not be the general case. Some schools send athletes who have not trained and are ill prepared for zonal games. Principals send athletes just to show that their school participated and to look good in the eyes of the MOE. An organized structure is needed to ensure that our athletes are well prepared in their respective sporting disciplines, starting from the school level. This structure must be embedded in the school with the support from the MOE, principals and the teachers.

When games are organized, there is the perennial issue of inadequate funding. Eventual winners of zonal and national competitions need to be given special attention. These are young men and women who have displayed talent in their respective sporting disciplines. We cannot just let them loose and hope that in the next year’s competition they will do well again.

This is one of our greatest shortcomings, especially when it involves students from rural areas, who because of lack of transport and facilities cannot build on their raw talent. We need a structure that will look after the development of our young charges, and it MUST start from the primary school and continue into secondary school. Schools must have after-school programmes and networks with established community sporting groups. These sport groups must be structured with qualified coaches and work in partnership with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Sport.

I am an advocate for establishing at least three sports schools within Trinidad and Tobago. These schools would serve promising athletes who excel at zonal and national games in their respective sporting competitions. Here students will be taught academics and are expected to maintain a predetermined score. They will also be trained in their chosen sporting discipline by qualified coaches whose long term goal is to prepare them for regional and international competition. This concept was pioneered by the Soviet Union in the 1930s and has been practised by countries such as Germany (East), Singapore and China, which currently have over 3,000 such schools.

There are many implications for the execution for such a programme, but with careful planning, funding and a change in our philosophy and culture it can be achieved. Sacrifices have to be made. One can reflect on the sacrifices made by Gabby Douglas, a US gymnast, who at age 14 left her home in Virginia to live with a family in Iowa to participate in training. Gabby, an African-American went to live with Caucasian foster parents for her training. She was focused, persevered and won two gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics and gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In the USA, there are schools called Boarding Schools by Sport that generally follow the principles of sports schools however, people pay to enrol their children at these institutions for the specialized sport training and academic support.

I firmly believe that early identification of gifted athletes and sport specific training and guidance, will make a difference in our country’s future sporting performance.

Kenny Kitsingh is an Assistant Lecturer at the School of Education, UWI St. Augustine.