SHOULD PHYSICAL EDUCATION be a core examinable subject in Irish secondary schools? A growing number of people seem to think so.
Recent research found that eight in 10 secondary school teachers believe the subject should be examinable, amid concerns about the physical fitness of the average Irish child.
Only 12% of 10-18 year olds in Ireland meet the Department of Health and Children physical activity recommendations of at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day.
However, a Schools’ Fitness Challenge initiative established by Aviva Health, which was undertaken by 219 Irish schools last year, has already had a substantially positive effect, with a focus on further improvements this year.
One of those backing the campaign is Irish track and field athlete David Gillick. As a two-time gold medal winner at the European Indoor Championships, few people are more qualified than Gillick to give their thoughts on fitness and the countless benefits it entails.
The Dubliner believes schools, in particular, hold a degree of responsibility for a child’s health and he stresses the importance of educating them about such matters. Moreover, he emphasises that physical fitness is not the only advantage to be gained from participating in sports regularly.
“Looking back, I’ve been a pro-sports person for the past 10 years and even before that, sports taught me a lot of life skills and lessons,” he tells TheScore.ie. “With the current obesity rates among kids, [it's clear that] on a day-to-day basis, when they come home from school, some will probably just sit in front of the TV. So I think we really have to make an effort in the schools to help shape our kids’ futures — not only from a sporting perspective, but also in terms of life skills.
“With regard to the Aviva initiative, it’s a great way of pushing it and telling people that we need to commit more of an effort as adults for the next generation. And PE teachers who are at the forefront of it on a day-to-day basis, when you hear that they’re all pushing it as well, it makes a lot of sense.
“From the curriculum point of view, if you’re doing English or Maths, it’s all very laid out in terms of what to cover and what you do each week. With sports maybe some people think ‘it’s sport, just go out and kick a ball around for an hour’. I think there needs to be a plan put in place where we’re covering all aspects of sport, not just the main sports. And through this initiative, if a school wins, they get cash and they can go and buy various sports equipment. So overall, it’s a great initiative and hopefully, it’ll gather a bit of pace.”
While Gillick is adamant improvements need to be made and a greater structure for physical education in Ireland should be put in place, he remains unsure how a student’s performance in this area could be measured in an exam situation.
“That’d be the hard thing I suppose to actually iron out,” he acknowledges. “But I do think it has to be in the curriculum. Every child has to do it. There’s no other way around it — the facts are there. We really need to start making an effort. Because we can manage kids in school and the teachers are willing to do it. We really need to carry it all the way up to Leaving Cert.
“It will be interesting to see if it can be examined, but in this day and age, you look at the CAO points system and sports science, physio — all these things you can go on and do at third level are very popular. Sport is very popular and people want to pursue it in their later life. So is there a way that we can bring that into secondary level? Or perhaps other aspects of sport can splinter out — physio and all that sort of stuff.”
(Gillick is promoting the Schools’ fitness challenge)
One way that Gillick feels the current system can be improved is by accommodating a greater variety of sports.
“We all have those stories where it’s left to the students to pick teams and the overweight kid in the class doesn’t get picked. That’s not going to give him any confidence — he’s going to hate PE and he’s just not going to want to partake. That happened numerous times [in my school], but one week, our PE teacher came in with a shot put and a javelin and the overweight guy stood up and launched the shot put further than anyone else in the class. He went home as high as a kite that day and it built a lot of confidence, and he enjoyed PE that week.
“We have to start looking at bringing in sports that certain students will like and some won’t like, but they have to try them all, because who knows what you may find — you might find the next Olympic champion. We need to start that and make sure all the kids are involved and partaking in it.
“We have to make sure that we’re not excluding people when you’re picking teams. That’s why individual sports can be really good. You’re building character, self esteem, et cetera.”
And while the attitude of the child in question will ultimately determine their success in maintaining a certain level of physical fitness, Gillick believes people such as himself also have an important role to play.
“As adults, we all live busy, stressful lives, and sometimes you can forget about the next generation. When facts come out and it highlights what’s actually happening, that’s where people are surprised and they don’t really realise what’s actually going on. It struck me when I read the figures and you go ‘I wouldn’t have thought that,’ but that’s what’s going on.
“You really need to be making an effort and start putting something back in, because we, as adults, help shape our kids for the future, and they’re at the age where they soak things up like a sponge. So we need to make sure we’re aware of what is actually happening.”
YouTube credit: hoslat
The phrase ‘putting something back in’ is one Gillick uses more than once over the course of the interview. As someone who has had a successful career in athletics, he seems eager to help ensure others follow in his footsteps.
“I want to help mentor young athletes getting into the senior ranks, which can be a bit of a transition. We’ve had a good bit of success at the European Juniors. There is a good crop of young under-23s coming through now, but the key thing is to manage that as best we can as regards the services and what we can help provide.
“An individual sport, particularly athletics, is tough, and it’s all about Rio and that’s where the planning has already started for a lot of individual athletes. So that’s where it’s at — it’s about Olympics. We’ve had good success underage and obviously Rob [Heffernan] doing well this year has inspired people. And that’s what you want to see, as success breeds success and you’ve got to make sure that big medals get big stories and you just hope the next generation can carry it through to senior level.
“With athletics, the Olympics comes around every four years and if you don’t produce it when it matters, it can have an effect on your funding and sponsors and things like that. One thing rugby and soccer players might not have to think about is the financial set-up. I’ve been lucky to have had great sponsors and been well funded by the sports council. But it does make individual sports that little bit different. And at times, it’s a little bit harder because it’s all down to yourself, you have to get out there, you have to perform when it matters and there’s no hiding and no one else who can pull you through.”
While Ireland have enjoyed moderate success in recent times, no one has come close to the phenomenal achievements of Sonia O’Sullivan in the 90s and early 00s. Is Gillick optimistic the country can produce another athlete of this calibre in the near future?
“Growing up watching Sonia, that’s what I was inspired by — the fact that an Irish athlete can be up there beating the rest of the world on a regular basis.
“It’s very hard to say why haven’t we produced another one or why is there a bit of a gap. But if we can all help put something back into the sport, hopefully we’ll have a few more.”
(Sonia O’Sullivan, who Gillick says he looked up to as a youngster — INPHO/Patrick Bolger)
Moreover, one of the points he will be keen to stress to younger athletes is the importance of enjoying the sport. As someone who has lost two years to injury, Gillick is all too aware of the fleeting and precious nature of a career in athletics.
“Right now, I just want to get back enjoying my sport,” he explains. “I want to make sure I’m getting through my training intact and not breaking down. Injury is a killer. It crept up and blindsided me, and inhibited me making the Olympics, and that was hard to get over.
“When things are going well, you’re loving the sport, but you’re also getting caught up with what’s next, and I was producing very good times and I was making finals and winning medals. But I never looked back and took stock of what was happening. It’s like Muhammad Ali once said, you climb one mountain and you realise there’s a bigger mountain in front of you.
“So I was very much immersed in the process of it all. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have done. So I want to get back to enjoying my sport and loving what I do, and if I can stay healthy, I’m sure I’ll do that. I wouldn’t say I neglected the enjoyment of it, but you get very caught up in the process — you’re focusing on the outcome and results and stuff like that. And there’s the pressure that comes from professional sports — you have your funding issues and you want to keep your sponsors happy and that all adds stress to it, but you have to enjoy what you do — otherwise you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.”
And aside from the injuries, another unsavoury aspect of his sport is the cheats it sometimes attracts, many of whom attain significant success. In 2013, a number of high-profile athletes, including Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell, were suspended after being caught using performance-enhancing drugs, and Gillick says he finds this problem in the sport frustrating.
“Looking back now, I would be a bit frustrated and you’d probably still have questions about certain athletes. But at the time, I was just focused on how I was going to better myself and run fast times. I can put my hand on my heart and say I never went near performance-enhancing drugs. Unfortunately, some athletes have, and they taint the sport.
“On a positive note, it’s very good that they’re coming out now and naming these people, because 20 years ago, there were some big names that got caught who were never named and shamed, and that was wrong. Now they are coming out and we’re seeing more advances with blood profiling and that measures you over a certain period of time, so you’ll probably see a lot more people getting done this year, as you did last year. And wherever there’s fame and fortune, you’ll always get cheats — that’s part of life unfortunately. But as long as they’re catching people and they’re naming people, that can only be a positive.”
At 30, Gillick knows his time in the sport is running out, though the injuries he picked up have already forced him to consider life away from athletics and broaden his outlook considerably.
“Injury taught me that I can’t run forever, so you have to look off track and see where you’ll be in 10 or 12 years. Right now, I’m looking at what I enjoy. One of the things I do want to do is get back into schools and help inspire people. I’m very lucky to have New Balance helping me do that. I’ve done a good bit of media stuff and that’s something I quite enjoy. If an opportunity presented itself, I’d jump at it. I enjoy talking and public speaking and I’ve done things like that with Enda McNulty’s company Motiv8.”
YouTube credit: RTÉ – Ireland’s National Television and Radio Broadcaster
Another of his interests is cooking — and his talent in this area was in full evidence last summer, as he was crowned the winner of Celebrity MasterChef Ireland.
“It was a great experience and a blessing really,” Gillick recalls. “I was injured at the time in Australia. And about two days after I was injured, I got an email about doing it and I jumped at the opportunity, because I am into my food and I’ve watched all the MasterChefs, so it was very surreal to actually be in a MasterChef kitchen.
“It was very tough, it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve done. The pressure was through the roof. It was very hard to plan because you didn’t know what was coming. It was almost like trying to study for the Leaving Cert and not knowing what was coming up. You’re walking in there and there’s cameras and you’re just under pressure, but I absolutely loved it.
“I was afraid going in that I wasn’t going to do well and I didn’t want to look like an idiot on national TV. But it went quite well, and the more I was in there, the more I got into it. It was great coming off an injury, when you feel people have forgotten about you, and you walk in and you make a dish and they pat you on the back for it. It’s great for self esteem and it gave me great confidence, and I’d love to do it again.”
Aviva Health’s Schools’ Fitness Challenge 2014 is calling on all secondary schools and teachers across the country to register their interest in the national fitness challenge online at www.avivahealth.ie/fitnesschallenge by the closing date, Friday, 17 January.
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