My school was a breeding ground for excellent hockey players (including, in a very envy inducing way, my little cousin who went on to play for Munster and maybe even had an Irish trial, I can’t remember now) and the team always did well in the Munster schools’ tournament. Part of the reason for this was that all of the effort was focussed on the first team who were drawn from across the cohort of 500 girls. The school didn’t field a seconds team and those of us who didn’t make the first team hung around to provide training practice for the firsts. Not many did but, I suppose, those of us with a fondness for ritual humiliation stuck with it. It was particularly irritating to my mother as she and her fellow parents were paying – over many years – for the all-weather hockey pitch on which the ritual humiliation took place. We were trained by an elderly gentleman (I think that he must have been in his early 60s) who was adored by the firsts and whom I pretended to adore too, ever hopeful of making the first team. Let me remove the suspense now, I never did make the first team. Let me also remove some of the pathos, when I was in fifth year, someone’s mother, appalled by the way hockey was run in the school decided to start seconds and thirds teams and my last two years were spent happily travelling to matches in lower leagues (I was wing and the heart surgeon was inner – a lifetime’s friendship founded on her constant irritated observation that ‘grass is for cows’).
But let us go back to third year when I was still hanging around the fringes hoping against hope to make the first team. I went to every practice and I really had improved quite a bit. The gentleman trainer certainly knew my face, if not my name, and he had even, very occasionally, commented favourably on my play. At the end of the season, in April or May when, really, it was too hot to play hockey and we were all leaning exhausted, red and sweaty against the wall of the bicycle shed with jellied legs, our gentleman trainer announced that he was giving out prizes for achievements during the year. I didn’t have high hopes, clearly, and, indeed, the prizes went to the most likely candidates. The last prize, however, was for most improved player. I allowed myself to indulge in a moment of hope. It couldn’t possibly go to one of the first team becasuse they were all really, really good already. But it did, of course it did. Not one prize went to anyone who wasn’t on the first team. The unfairness of it stung me at the time but it had its own logic. Excellence was rewarded; anything else, however deserving, was not. It was that kind of school.
I’m still bitter. I could tell you what brought that little vignette to mind, but then I’d have to kill you.
On my first day of secondary school, my hockey stick was held up as an example of a good hockey stick (to this day I don’t know what was so good about it). This turned out to be the high point of my hockey playing career. I ended up in the ‘E’ team, which was the bottom, and as there was no F team so we had to play 7-a-side (we weren’t allowed out to play with other schools, probably because no other school went down as far as E). This was exhausting but, with no pressure to actually be good at it, more fun than proper hockey, once you have taken away the running around in February with bare legs in Scotland part.
Basketball was the big thing in my school and the penny dropped with me after first year that I would never be picked to play (even at informal lunchtime games). My non-sporty tendencies were thus doubly reinforced. Some years later when one our PE teachers made us play other games occasionally I was pleasantly surprised not to be always the second last person picked (the last person was unable even to break into a jog at any time) – I was a slightly less bad goalie than other people.
The bad thing about the system of your and other schools is not that it only rewards excellence but that it gives everyone who is not a natural athlete a further reason to avoid sport. Only in my thirties did I find a few forms of exercise I actually didn’t hate.
Am very envious of your opportunities TM.
E, I always feel boys’ schools manage these things much better – what do you reckon?
Not sure – my brothers went to a boarding school so things were too different to compare. Everyone was taught to swim, for a start. They all played some kind of sport on Wednesday afternoons. If you weren’t good at football or whatever you could go off and play golf (they had some kind of small course on the grounds). It seemed to cater for all levels. There are no doubt plenty of boys’ schools where being bad at sports is a recipe for misery and pariahdom.
It was kind of like that at my school. There were games teams in each year group, but it was the same people in the teams from day one to the end. Hockey, netball, tennis, athletics for girls and rugby, hockey, cricket, athletics for boys.
I went and joined the orienteering squad instead. Running about hills in the rain is much more fun than dealing with hypercompetitive hockey girls. And we won stuff, I don’t think the hockey team ever won anything at a British Schools Champs…
Okay, I’m still bitter too…