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Tennis IS an education

The common notion is that you either get an education or you become a professional athlete and tennis is no different. This means many parents and children have to make the tough choice between tennis or education. The funny thing is that I do not really see the problem. For me tennis IS an education. Few others see it that way but that is their loss. My view is that all sports, tennis included, reflect life and education in its purest form is simply lessons on how to succeed in life. Unfortunately school covers what people think is necessary to succeed but I don’t think it covers enough. It is just not practical enough. It only teaches people skills and knowledge but not how to use these resources to overcome the challenges life brings.

Sport on the other hand can do just this. At the top level of every sport I have always noticed one underlying principal. The best do what is necessary to win. The rest do what they want to win. The difference is everything and it is a principle that applies in education and work just as well. To do well in education it is not enough to love what you study and talk about your favourite aspects, you have to learn how to answer the questions that others set. often the questions that seem dull but test your deeper knowledge of a topic, the core principles. You must show balanced knowledge in all areas of your topic and be able to express that knowledge in different ways.

This is the same skill you must learn to progress in sport. The best in each sport are rarely the tallest, fastest or otherwise naturally gifted. Roger Federer was not the tallest tennis player with the fastest serve and hardest shots. That is not why he dominated the sport for years. He did so because he out thought his competitors and learnt how to answer the questions that they posed. He overcame the challenge that each opponent represented and he did this by carefully listening to their game by trading shots, exploring their strengths and weaknesses and then formulating an answer.

My background is academic and that is my strength. Sport is simply my passion. However I feel that both education and sport are missing a huge opportunity to partner with each other because exams are by nature competitive. It is common for good students not to achieve their best in exams because they lack experience in producing results under pressure. Sport is all about delivering under pressure.

It was clear to me while studying sport science at Loughborough that the students who did well at sport also did well in academics when they put their minds to it. Simply because they understood from sport that the result isn’t all about how good you are, it is as much about how good you are on the day and how you handle the situation at hand that matters.

People who compete a lot learn how to turn a loss into a draw and a draw into a win. That means playing badly but still winning. It is that very skill that is not taught at school. I did very well in my exams but that is because my teachers taught me this very concept. I was also studying physical education and had a passion for sports so I understood these principles of competition and learnt from them. Others around me didn’t learn this valuable lesson and I have seen the value of it ever since. I feel it is a fundamental lesson we should all learn. How to compete and deliver under pressure.

I say this because we must all pass exams, go for interviews and hold down a job. Each of these is about competing and winning. However what we actually learn is good technique in specific crafts and skills, maths and english for example. This means we might pass an exam. What we do not learn is any practical skill in turning this knowledge into something that will ensure we pass an exam. That ability to determine what actually needs to be done or said and then the skills to do exactly that instead of focusing only on what we want to do.

Sport is all about overcoming challenges but doesn’t know how to brand itself. I see sport as human excellence. Putting yourself on the line. Learning from failure and trying again. Continually examining yourself and learning to perform under pressure. Interviews are exams and matches with only one winner. Sport prepares you for this. The trouble is.that no one really makes these lessons obvious. These life lessons in sport are ignored too much. I want sport in my sons life so he is well rounded. I need to make up for the things school can not teach. Teaching games for understanding (TGFU) is my approach.

There are many values of sport and activity particularly those around testing yourself.

  • Overcoming challenges: Understanding risk and reward
  • Dealing with pressure: Using matches and competition to get used to pressure.
  • Attention to detail: Match analysis and learning technique involves solid attention to detail
  • Health for life: inactivity is a road to ruin.
  • Learning through Fun: We often learn a lot without noticing it when we have fun. If someone has a passion for sport it is worth knowing how much they can learn. I learnt to read well because I liked reading books on sport, football and formula one in particular.
  • Fun and Stress relief: Stress is bad. You can not be stressed if you are having fun and distracted
  • Balance and wholeness: The top players in all sports must be balanced. Attack and defence, mind, body and emotions. Roger Federer has shown how to reach the top without breaking himself because he is rarely injured. 
  • Dealing with emotions: You cannot play sport without feeling emotions. Learning to channel them is one of the biggest and most useful lessons. Frustration and anger in particular prevent success. Sport gives you ample opportunity to learn how to channel these emotions properly to get the best result.

Curriculum subjects

Now let’s have a quick look at some of the curriculum subjects that can benefit from exposure to sport

  • Languages: Most sports are now global. Played by people from across the world in all sorts of locations. I make the effort to understand spanish to hear what Rafael Nadal has to say, I brush up on my french when Roland Garros is on. Learning different languages can give you a leg up in sport and sport itself can make learning a language easier. Just by following an idol and learning their native tongue.
  • Science: physics, chemistry, biology (psychology, sociology). All sciences apply to sport. I learnt all about heat, friction and the principles of grip through formula one
  • History: All sports have fascinating histories. Understanding how history affected their development gave me a real passion for history itself and the basic skills to learn about it. 
  • English: lit and lang reading about tennis past and present. Improving reading and writing skills. Michael Hardcastle was my favourite author when I was young because he wrote about football. later on it was reading about cars and Formula one, these days it is reading about tennis. Boys particularly don’t read much they do other things. Reading about sport though, that is just normal for us. Atleast this is why I never had trouble reading because I had a reason to read in the first place.
  • PE this is more obvious but equally many students don’t really get the benefit from physical education that they could. I just want more people to understand its value and be in a position to benefit from it. 
  • Maths: Maths is critical in all sports. In tennis for example once I was explained the impact of geometry and how it affects every shot I learnt how to use that knowledge to win. I now think in terms of a ball moving across a court at a given speed and an opponent moving to intercept it. With maths I can calculate the best chance of success instead of hitting blindly and hoping for success.

There are many more things you can learn through sport I just included a short list here. I want my son to benefit from exposure to sport because I want him to see how it can get him any where he wants to go. All careers touch sport including law, medicine, media and teaching to name just a few. I want him to understand the basics of many professions by exploring their place in sport. Much like the Football Manager games teach you the administerial and management side of sport I see other games throughout sport that capture other professions and share their lessons and value.

Instead of thinking only of playing in the sport I think it is important so see the lessons of sport as skills for life. Something that is relevant anywhere there are humans because anywhere there are humans there are jobs.

For example I am currently a software developer so I can make tools that debug sporting performance, stream matches or help setup up deals to sign players. Each is part of the industry. My passion for and background in sport becomes a stepping stone that can get me anywhere.

I just googled and found a few sites linking tennis with education. I can’t say I was overwhelmed but I also haven’t looked into this a great deal. Just including for reference. I’d like to follow these up in time.
LTA: Schools oferring tennis and education programmes
LTA: Education, high performance centers and academies
Tennis Education

This is my first attempt to show the value of sport. I can see it still needs work but it is a start. Let me know what you think. I like to hear other peoples opinions.


A list of useful items I didn’t manage to cover in the main article

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