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Win-at-all-costs mentality makes sport a victim of its own success

THE impact of the medal haul from a home Olympics and Paralympics is only part of the story.

Jessica Ennis was just one of numerous victorious British athletes this summer but winning should not be everything according to Positive Coaching Alliance whose chief impact officer Tina Syer, below, is addressing a series of Scottish audiences. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Jessica Ennis was just one of numerous victorious British athletes this summer but winning should not be everything according to Positive Coaching Alliance whose chief impact officer Tina Syer, below, is addressing a series of Scottish audiences. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Add Tour de France success for Bradley Wiggins, the Ryder Cup Houdini act, US PGA success for Rory McIlroy, US Open victory for Andy Murray, a glorious grand slam for Welsh rugby . . . they have all conspired to create a vintage year for elite competitive sport; but also a rod for our society's back, by embedding a damaging win-at-all-costs mentality.

Constant media emphasis on victory is reinforced by government funding cuts for sports which fail to measure up. In football, to which our culture is over-exposed, winning is in our faces during every TV broadcast, underpinned by the consequence of failure: dismissal. This all adds up to permanent endorsement of gridiron's Vince Lombardi ethos: winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.

I am not alone in the conviction that this obsession is unhealthy. The more discerning surely recognise fertile soil in which unhealthy values take root. The counter notion is that sport is about very much more than just simply winning.

So it is comforting to report that a Scottish programme is influencing behaviour on and off the sports field, trying to change the culture and create a positive environment for young people to learn through sport.

The Winning Scotland Foundation, brainchild of the 1970s Scotland rugby player and Cairn Energy entrepreneur Bill Gammell, has licensed Positive Coaching Scotland from the USA. It aims to instil self-confidence, a "can-do" attitude in children, working with parents, teachers and coaches to engender the values of effort and a positive attitude. It is nothing less than an attempt to instil life skills, restore traditional values and reverse national physical and moral decline.

It's called the Positive Coaching Alliance in the USA, where it has already reached four million young people, including those in deprived inner cities. It has made giant strides in Scotland after conclusion of a two-year pilot in five local authority areas in 2008. During that time it delivered 456 workshops to 12,500 key influencers.

It has now been adopted by 29 of Scotland's 32 local authorities, directly engaging 5000 coaches, parents, club leaders and teachers. It is now led nationwide by sportscotland, and partners involved in delivery include the Government, Scottish Football Association, Football League, and Premier League, Scottish Rugby, and other national sport bodies. In 2011/12, 14,682 people attended 718 workshops.

Tommy Boyle, the internationally renowned former athletics coach, is PCS programme director, and highlights the potential negative impact of TV. "It is evident everywhere," he says. "You can't expect parents to be any different from bankers and politicians: they are brainwashed by the win-at-all-costs mentality by the media. How can it be any different? That's what they see. When I grew up, there was one TV in the whole of the high street in Newharthill. Now there are two or three in just about every house. And every time you turn it on, it's win at all costs.

"Virtually every parent you meet sees his kid as being a Bolt, a Messi, or someone like that. That's the way society is, and it's increasing every day. The pressure put on a lot of kids by parents to win at an early age is part of the reason we are where we are. The number of kids dropping out of sport before 14 is horrendous. So they don't get the chance to learn sport's life lessons: avoiding obesity, drugs, alcohol.

"That's why we developed the PCS programme. The challenge is how we educate people, and right now is a fantastic window of opportunity. We have all of the backwash of Enron, the financial stuff, cheating in cricket, cycling. If we seize this, sport can play a massive role in redressing some of the balance of what we have lost over the past 30 years.

"The emphasis on winning is never more in your face than in the football shown every night on TV. Society has changed over the past 40 years and sport has been caught out. Football is entertainment, and a win-at-all-costs attitude in entertainment is probably the correct one. It's why people pay to watch it. That's fine, but the win- at-all-costs culture has overflowed.

"Enron, MPs cheating, banks, cheating in cricket, cycling: society now faces an enormous challenge with the potential disaster of this overflowing into youth sport. Winning is success through effort, but we have confused this with success on the scoreboard."

Football and rugby are already kite-marking coaches and clubs through PCS, but they know the key to long-term success will be engaging with parents in particular, plus coaches, club leaders and teachers in sufficient numbers to change the culture. They have to understand the true value of sport, and spread its message.

That message is that sport is not necessarily about producing medallists. It is about effort, learning from mistakes and bouncing back from them, and kids having fun.

Scots will have a "lesson from America" when Tina Syer, a Stanford psychology graduate and sports coach chief impact officer of the PCA in the USA, outlines the transatlantic perspective at a series of meetings starting tonight, and culminating in one with Gammell and Boyle in Edinburgh a week today.

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