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Open letter to Mr Rio Ferdinand concerning the "PARTICIPATION MESSAGE"

Dear Mr Ferdinand,
I watched you in your interview with Jonathan Ross on October 25th. You said something that I felt could not go unchallenged.

You said that you were irritated when you hear teachers say, "It is not winning but participation that's important" or words to that effect, and said that winning is the important thing.

I do not deny that teachers, at least many good teachers do say that participation is the primary thing, and I would like to set out the reasons why, in my opinion, this is the right thing to say.

To begin with let me say that the "Participation Message" is not about an excuse to slack off and not try one's best . This was how you represented the Participation Message on the show but that is simply not the case.

We need to firstly put the Participation Message in its proper context. I would be very surprised if the captain or manager of a professional team were to say to the players "The important thing is that you participate and the final score is not that important." Indeed, your careers stand or fall by those statistics. That is the world of professional sportsperson.

However, the context where the Participation Message is appropriate IS SCHOOL and growing people, not only academically, but physically and emotionally and socially.

I would say that the Participation Message is not only appropriate but it is essential.

It is a motivational message. It speaks of valuing every individual no matter who they are, and believing that every individual can achieve and develop. When it comes to physical education, we actually want every student, whether they're potential Premier League material or not, to associate sport and exercise with fun and maybe something worth keeping up into their adulthood.

The Participation Message says that even if you know that this sport or activity is not your forté, and others will beat you, you can still enter into it with a determination to do your very best and that when you have finished, even when the scoreline goes against you, you can still be proud of the effort you put in. This not only benefits those individuals may be overwhelmed by the opposition but it benefits the strong too as if those who felt overwhelmed thought, "what's the point, we are going to lose anyway" they may be present on the field but they won't be playing their best as the scoreline is a foregone conclusion. Therefore they won't present a challenge and the winners will come away with a hollow victory.

The Participation Message says recognise the strengths of others as well as your own and play to your strengths and let others play to theirs - that is team work.

The Participation Message says that defeat, losing, failure are an unavoidable part of life - we shall all experience failure at some point - BUT that does not make you a failure.

If you, as a child, are learning to ride a bike, you are bound to have a few spills as you get used to coordinating to balance and propel yourself forward. When you fall off the bike, stand up and get back on. Winning takes perseverance and willingness to keep trying after we've "failed".

The Participation Message says we all rely on one another to progress and achieve. This is very clearly seen in team sport. An individual can never succeed against a team. A football team needs strikers and goalkeepers. And within any team you are going to have those who are more and less competent.  Football teams also have reserve players ready and at the peak of fitness to go in if one of the regular players is injured. Do we say that the reserve player is a loser because she wasn't selected as an on-field player? Was she "not participating" because she wasn't playing? She might have felt that way, but if she showed up, she deserves the accolades along with other players. Now if truth be told, at a school level, especially in the primary years, participation is so important, that coaches do field players, who would not normally make the selection purely on a basis of ability. Again, this is because a teacher has to bear in mind MUCH more than the ultimate scoreline. For a child to feel INCLUDED is a very big deal. You ask any boy or girl who hears another child say "I'm not your friend any more" or " Go away, I'm not playing with you." As adults we may forget how deeply hurtful that was when it happened to us. For children, participation is important.

To quote Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If" : "If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same"

Winning is fun, and every child should taste a victory, even if it's a personal victory, from time to time. Winning is itself motivational.

However we should not try and sugarcoat the difficult experience of losing. We must not deprive a young person of the experience of losing just because you don't want them to feel sad because that experience is itself a learning experience, and ironically may prove motivational to some.

So as Rudyard Kipling says: We meet with TRIUMPH and DISASTER. (losing can be perceived as disaster).

Winning can be a false friend, as the one who wins may become complacent and perhaps overconfident and if the winning is an illusion created by well meaning adults who want a child to feel happy, then when the illusion is exposed as it often is,  the child's confidence and trust of the child is destroyed. In that sense, Triumph can be an imposter.

If momentary victory can lead to delusions of grandeur, so too momentary failure can lead to delusions of worthlessness.  Every victory and every loss is momentary.

It's nice to win at something, and we all like it when our team wins the cup, and we celebrated every Gold, Silver and Bronze medal won at the Olympics but let's be honest, if you're a sportsperson representing your country at international competition, you are already a winner, even if "on the day" you are not the winner.

A delusion of worthlessness is the FALSE BELIEF that you are worthless. It's bad enough when people accuse one another of being worthless but we believe that about ourselves it's life-sapping. In fact the delusion of worthlessness is a symptom of depression.

And it IS dangerous.

The Participation Message says to the individual child: You are VALUED. If I feel valued by others, it will make it less likely that I'll feel worthless.

Teachers are dealing with a variety of children with diverse needs and abilities. Among them will be some who have a limited life expectancy; quite a number have conditions such as Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and autistic spectrum conditions and some may have sensory impairments.  When you see children such as these and even those without these challenges participating in a group activity, whether it's football or a school play, you can see the value of participation. How much it means to them that they're included.

A teacher has to be able to say to your eight year-old son, the same thing as they would say to any of his or her students and that is that participating is important.

Finally, but by no means least, the Participation Message is about HOW WE PARTICIPATE. We learn that we need to respect other participants and facilitators or in football terms other players and officials and to participate fairly, that is within the rules of the game. In short we need to be "good sports"

So, daft as it may sound to your pro-footballer ears, "It's not winning but participation that's important." Is an important message to give young people.

Yours sincerely,

John Fairlamb


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