The Dilemma of Performance and Participation

posted: Sunday, 16 April 2017

It's a Netball match against local rivals in a competition that is all-consuming on the day.  It's 20-20 at three quarter time.  One player has not had any court time.  Is she going to be put on the court for the final quarter? Or not?


This is a real time dilemma, lived out on a weekly basis in all school sports.  For all the politically correct talk about performance and participation not being mutually exclusive, at this moment it would appear that they are.  There is no good answer to this situation: put the remaining player on the court, risk losing the game and alienating the other parents - or leave the team unchanged and guarantee an unhappy situation the following morning.


Certainly, no satisfactory solution will be made up on the spur of the moment.  At a time of high emotion such as this, intellectually sound answers rarely spring to mind, and medium term good sense is thin on the ground.  What seems like the right thing at the time can look short sighted when the dust of excitement has settled the following day.


At its heart, how a school resolves this dilemma is the most telling commentary on its sports philosophy.  At the moment when only one of performance and participation can be chosen, which will it be?  Of course, there are strategies to reduce the likelihood of the situation emerging, and there are communication mechanisms to inform children and parents of what might happen in this circumstance.  But in the white heat of the highly charged moment, there is no right decision.  Is the immediate, short term excitement of winning more important that the medium term goals of engagement and self esteem.  Emotion points one way; intellect the other.


Perhaps surprisingly, few schools (or clubs) rehearse this situation robustly and apply a consistent approach.  Too often, it is left to the spur of the moment.  A coach - who make not be thinking clearly at the time - is asked to make a call of considerable educational and philosophical importance.  And to spend the rest of the week in discussions, correspondence and dismay, dealing with the legacy of whichever decision was made.  The organisation should have taken this dilemma away through carefully measured debate months earlier, and through unambiguous communication of its operating procedures and rationale. 


So, what is the answer? Ultimately, there is no answer, as the question is impossible.  However, the situation is inevitable, and therefore a policy needs to be found.  This is a serious debate for a school.  It is not one which should be taken lightly, as it goes to the core of the values of the organisation. Certainly, no one should be surprised by what happens on the ground.   The essence of leadership is to prepare everyone for difficult circumstances.  This goes to the heart of quality control: knowing that everyone will respond to the same situation in the same way with unerring consistency.  All stakeholders should be prepared for the situation.  They will have strategies to minimise how often this position can occur, but when it does, everyone should know what will happen. Some parties may disagree, but no one should be surprised. 


Anything else is a failure of leadership.