Sports carnivals are a staple of school life and designed to get children engaged in physical activity. (Supplied: John XXIII College)
Schools are being urged to make competitive events such as running and jumps voluntary at their sports carnivals because of the mental anguish and humiliation it can cause students.
- Experts say it can be harmful if children are forced to compete at carnivals and fail
- Schools are being urged to offer leadership roles or novelty events as fun alternatives
- John XXIII College in Perth has already turned its carnivals into a diverse spectacle
Researchers said while some children thrived on competition, forced participation could produce extreme anxiety in non-athletic students and put them off exercise for life.
Mental health researcher Helen Street said there was nothing to be gained from making children compete against their wishes and schools should be encouraged to rethink the traditional approach to carnivals.
“Forcing kids to compete when they’re not wanting to can cause extreme anxiety,” she said.
“It can be really humiliating and stressful for them.
“The problem with a race is it’s done across the oval and for a lot of kids who don’t like to be on show, the humiliation is amplified.
“They don’t get through and think, ‘oh that wasn’t so bad’. They get through and think, ‘my God that was awful, I don’t want to do that again’.
“It means they’re less likely to participate in forms of any exercise in the future and can be left feeling really upset about the whole experience.”
Winning ribbons are the tradition, but some carnivals are also doing more for non-sporty kids. (Supplied: John XXIII College)
Dr Street — who founded the Positive Schools Initiative that focuses on educational reform and youth wellbeing — said while most schools tried to create equality in sport by grading events, it made little difference to reluctant students.
She warned even the process of being sorted into grades could trigger anxiety.
She said it was not uncommon for non-sporty children to take carnival days off and did not blame parents for not wanting to drag their kids to school on those days.
Opening up carnivals to non-sporty children
Instead of forcing children to compete in individual events, Dr Street said schools should provide fun alternatives.
She suggested creating leadership roles including marketing, marshalling, scoring and catering, as well as the option of participating in novelty events.
Helen Street says forcing children to take part at carnivals can sometimes be harmful. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
“I’ve met lots of sports teachers who feel, ‘gosh, it builds resilience’ and, ‘you can’t be good at everything’ and they should have a go,” Dr Street said.
“But the thing is, if you’re not very good at another subject, you don’t have to compete against all of your peers in a public forum to demonstrate how bad you are at that subject.
“For some reason, in the sporting arena, we deem that appropriate.
“Failure can be good and help build resilience but only if you feel you had a chance of success in the first place.
“If you enter a race and you think I’m no good at this and then you fail, that sense of failure can lead to disengagement and despondency. It doesn’t lead to resilience.”
Setting up a negative attitude to exercise
UWA researcher Karen Martin, who specialised in physical activity for children and adolescents, also believed schools should give children the choice of whether to compete or not.
John XXIII College held its Interhouse Cross-Country carnival for Years 3-6 last month. (Supplied: John XXIII College)
“Schools, teachers and parents want the best for their children and likely think that competitive sport is a good way to get them active,” she said.
“However, forcing children to participate in competitive sport is likely to take away the benefits of the activity and generate anxiety.
“Research demonstrates that children who have negative experiences in youth sports, and who are forced to exercise, are less likely to be physically active as adults.
“This is important — as a nation we need to provide environments that are supportive of physical activity.”
Dr Martin said while it may not seem like a big deal to some, the importance could not be overstated.
Karen Martin says it is vital to think about the future mental health of students. (ABC News: Rebecca Carmody)
“With the current rates of anxiety, depression and suicidality in young people, there is no such thing as being too precious,” she said.
“As a community we need to consider how we can best support today’s children and what will help support their mental and physical health into the future.”
Cheer squads, war cries and novelty events
At John XXIII College in Perth, sports days are not just for serious athletes.
House groups at John XXIII College’s senior athletics carnival compete for the coveted “Spirit Award”. (Supplied: John XXIII College)
The school strived to get all students excited about carnival days by making them a spectacle, where there was something for everyone.
At the start of its senior athletics carnival, Year 12 students entered the stadium in their house groups, or factions, and put on a special performance, giving students with more theatrical or musical talents a moment to shine.
Throughout the day, students were judged on their stand decorations, cheering, war cries and participation in novelty events, with points determining which house group won the coveted “Spirit Award”.
John XXIII College gives students with theatrical talents the time to shine at its carnival. (Supplied: John XXIII College)
Students were not forced to compete but were encouraged to give it a go, for fun if nothing else.
Principal Robert Henderson said student attendance on carnival days was the same as any other day, which he took as a sign the format had widespread appeal.
“We like to think that all kids can find a niche and we want all kids to be healthy, but being healthy and running extremely fast around a track are sometimes different things,” he said.
“Different kids can excel in different ways.
“We certainly want our children to be engaged in physical activity but we also understand that different kids need different opportunities to have that engagement.”
“Some of the dancing and the carry-on is also very healthy for the kids too.”
Schools given freedom over sports carnivals
While the WA Education Department was supportive of school carnivals in general, it did not have a specific policy on how they should be structured.
The Education Department says sports carnivals continue to encourage students to exercise. (Supplied: John XXIII College)
A spokeswoman said that was left up to individual schools to determine.
“Sports carnivals at WA public schools encourage physical activity, participation and team work, and are a great way for the whole school to get together for a fun day,” the department’s executive director of statewide services, Kellie Properjohn, said.
“Schools often have a range of activities planned, [both] individual and team events, so all students can get involved regardless of their sporting ability.”
“We know how important it is for children to be outdoors and active, and positive physical activities such as sports carnivals can help them enjoy being physically active while learning vital skills.”