There’s nothing like a crisis to make us sit up upright and take a good hard look at life, priorities, and what we value. This period has also given us time to reflect and consider where we are. I’ve cared about and invested in sport from a young age. Initially as a player, and later as a teacher, coach, sport psychologist and ultimately as a performance consultant. In this reflective period, I’ve taken the time to analyse the evidence both scientific and anecdotal about young people’s sport, PE, and physical activity. Whilst there is clearly some good practice across these settings, the collective state is not something we should be proud of or continue to accept.
Carse writes about the finite vs. infinite game, which in simple terms argues that life and its facets is either a game of the short term or of the long term. In recent times there has been a clear cultural shift towards the finite game, where short term results, measures and performance indicators have become the norm. This has permeated into how we parent, educate and coach and consequently how young people have experienced life, education and sports. This has come at a cost. The more obvious costs are related to drops in participation, the ongoing struggle to keep young people active and the negative health risks associated with lack of engagement. We know reasons for the decline are often cited by children as being over competitiveness of the programme, dislike of the coach/teacher, lack of enjoyment, and feeling incompetent. But we should be equally concerned about those still participating and their anxieties, their lack of wellbeing, their low-quality extrinsically based motivation, ethical fading (such as cheating, cutting corners), and lack of problem-solving abilities, independence and transferable life skills. During this crisis I’ve been contacted by athletes, coaches and parents who detail a concerning pattern of young people being lost in this period; lacking the structure, and ability to be self-motivated to pursue meaningful goals at this time. There are no finite short-term rewards in front of them right now, so for many they appear lost at sea without a rudder. Children have arguably become pawns in a game they didn't choose to play.
There clearly has been some recognition of these issues but many of the solutions have been utilised as addons or ‘fire extinguishers’. Consider how mindsets, grit, resiliency, and wellbeing have all been introduced as fixes for these issues. We should be reminded that great leaders don't put out fires; they don't start them in the first place. We shouldn't be focused on equipping schools, teachers and coaches with fire extinguishers especially when often they don't actually know how to use them. John Wooden one of the most successful coaches in the world said, “If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”. Historically all the best programs, organisations and coaches have placed a high value on foundations. Their success is often unprecedented. But more so it is about wellbeing, concern for the future over the short-term and the greater good. This has been lost.
I know we didn't plan to get here. I genuinely believe that. But the reality is we did. It’s like we couldn't help ourselves as we either believed playing the finite game was fine, or we thought that everyone else was doing it and so should we, or we were blindsided or unconcerned by the consequences. Playing the finite game has led to much greater infinite losses. Generation Z have more aspirations than we could ever conceive. But in playing, or being forced to play, the finite game they have been denied the foundation necessary for more infinite gains. These foundations are not only being tested in a major crisis such as this, but also in much smaller ones throughout life. We have an opportunity to reflect. Let’s move away from more for some at the expense of everyone else. To stop over valuing short term, relatively meaningless gains, at the expense of more sustainable longer-term infinite gains. Moreover, let’s move away from the add on sideshows of mindsets, grits, wellbeing and whatever next ‘fix’ we throw at the problem.
I experienced this type of pivotal moment a few years ago when a good friend sadly passed away due to brain cancer at only 49 years old. At the funeral, there was an overwhelming feeling of reflection; that life is short, and we needed to take this as an opportunity to re-evaluate what was important and change. Sadly, it wasn't too long before everyone went back to what they were doing before. I have a similar feeling about this crisis. If we don't reflect well enough and make a collective decision to really address how we got here, this opportunity will be lost. We may not get this time again. There is an opportunity for us all, but it will take all of us. The opportunity is to go back to the foundations. To better understand why we are doing what we are doing. To take the time to build foundational philosophies and sustainable practices that reflect the better good in the long term. The infinite game is better for all. It’s one where all can succeed for the better good of the game. Simon Sinek, who has strongly influenced the business world, wrote in his most recent book “I have a vision where people want to go to work, feel safe and fulfilled”. I have a vision for young people in sport, PE and physical activity where they want to be active, they want to do well and learn and improve, but not at the expense of others, they want to compete, but do it without ethical fading and they want to feel safe and fulfilled in that pursuit. Furthermore, this is so strong, that it endures into adulthood, so they too can ensure their children and future generations do likewise.
We have an opportunity to change the game. I certainly don't have all the questions or answers, but I know they are out there among all the great people who are also passionate about leaving the game in a better place. Yes, there are logistical challenges that need to be addressed right now, but once we have addressed those short-term challenges, let’s work together to consider the longer-term ones. I hope you will join me in this great cause to change the game and help build the necessary foundations for the infinite game to thrive for us all.