School Sport – The Runaway Freight Train By Gregg Van Molendorff


Virtually to the day, five years ago, I spent a little time writing down some thoughts about where school sport was headed; raising concerns about the ‘culture’ within the school and the associated behaviour on the sides of the field.

Sadly, I think we are in more trouble now than ever before. In that previous piece of writing, I referred to the Australian cricket chaos that ended in Cape Town in 2018. That was a direct result of a culture eroded away, with norms and values not being respected over a long period of time.

Sadly, we witnessed two horrible events at the recent rugby festival which has prompted this particular concern again. Not that this concern has ever gone away. Both incidents involved parents having despicable altercations with learners that were playing matches in front of them. It is absolutely crazy to think about this happening - but it's a symptom of where we are now, and very much a result of our current culture in school sport, and therefore within our society. SASRA has since banned the one parent from all school rugby anywhere in South Africa, for a period of four years.

Assistant coaches or team biokineticists are seemingly permitted to run up and down the touchline, shouting orders and remonstrating with referees about decisions. Often screaming at the referee in an attempt to suggest or demand decisions go the way of their team. This often fuels parents and spectators on the side of the field. There has been so much said about this, and the modern scenario has created chaos, especially in the professional domain. That has now more than consumed the same space in school sport. It is apparent that we now seem to ‘accept’ verbal abuse from spectators (and coaches), towards officials and players. When did winning become this important in school fixtures? How naive a question is that to ask, when we have 25 000 spectators watching school derby fixtures. The irony of course, is that at those schools, the behaviour on the sides of the fields is probably a lot better (I am hoping), because the sporting and school cultures attached to those particular schools.

You also hear more and more stories about parents questioning tactics and team selections. This was an absolutely alien concept 20 years ago. These days, you can witness unacceptable behaviour by spectators and coaches at any school fixture. When you combine all these scenarios, you find that we create a very unhealthy and significant pressure around school sport. That's when we see coaches and players lose focus; even more so (possibly) when the coaches are not educators. Scrolling through social media platforms, reveals how common this is in our country. There are though, equally, a vast number of posts from schools requesting appropriate behaviour on the sides of the fields. However, the real solution is not to try to stem the consequences, but rather look closer at the culture that allows this type behaviour to manifest.

Over the last two decades, I have had the privilege to spend a lot of time with Greg Wilmot, a psychologist who is also employed by one of our local schools in that capacity as well. Greg has a passion for sport in general. He recently alluded to the fact that we are now in a world, where schools need to create a ‘Spectator/ Visitor Policy’ with regards to behaviour at festivals and matches and then hold the parents (and coaches) accountable to a much higher standard. He has written a great deal about this change in school sport. Please refer to his website for the various papers/ articles that he has written (

Navigating the professionalisation of school sport in South Africa

He investigated the idea of ‘Professionalisation of School Sport’ which hasn't had much research up to now. The ‘professionalisation’ leads to both positive and negative outcomes - but he asks a massive question as a result: Who is addressing how this is managed? His articles raise so many questions about this process and he calls for much more research to be done. He refers to an environment where we are creating unfair scenarios on learners and parents - and create huge expectation from players and teams:

“We are 'priming' boys in high performance matches leads to aggression bursting out needs to be looked at. This is worsened when 'win at all costs' meets adolescent fear-of-failure and poor emotional regulation…

…we usually expect great things from ‘professional’ athletes but we also, wrongly, expect ‘professional’ performances from “talented” school-level athletes. This projection of expectations onto young athletes is fraught with danger and happens all too often in South African school sport. We expect greatness from those carrying our own hopes, dreams and ambitions but don’t consider the potential impact of our expectations. A host of recent Sport Psychology research tells us that the “motivational climate” we construct as parents, coaches and schools has a large role to play in determining our attitudes towards sport and exercise. Sport is a common language that transcends boundaries, barriers and backgrounds but how we as South Africans talk about sport and sporting success or failure will contribute greatly to both adult’s and children’s attitudes and beliefs about sport.”

Greg refers to the professionalisation of school sport as “runaway freight train”, which is such a brilliant analogy. Nobody can stop this process, and we seem to have lost all control. Everybody is well aware of the changes, which possibly started with ranking systems, then moved to live coverage of school sport on streaming and television channels. We have also seen a major growth in what Greg calls “The ‘trading’ and ‘poaching’ of school-aged sportsmen.” School sport has seen a huge leap forwards in highly specialized training and coaching, and with that has come the ‘over investment’ from parents and spectators. We have seen the career option of sport become a bigger reality but we have also clearly seen the overemphasis on First Team results and performances rise significantly. Profoundly, Greg’s most significant conclusion in a way forward is to highlight one major flaw in the current school systems with regards to this growth/ change:

“Just as we increase training, funding, tactics, equipment and facilities to improve a player’s on-field performance, we also need to increase the quality and care given to young sportsmen and women such that they can cope with increased pressure and performance demands both on and off the field. This does not require that each school has its own Sport Psychologist or that every player should be seeing the school Counsellor but rather that we are both sensitive to the wellness and needs of young sportsmen and women and that appropriate support systems and referral networks are in place as and when the need arises. coaches, teachers and parents should be consistently attuned to the subjective wellness of athletes in their care so that a well-timed and appropriate intervention can be implemented. Often, such an intervention might be a casual conversation on the side of the field.”

Somewhere there, schools are possibly missing the role of education and well-being of the learner in this process. But even more so, maybe we are losing the emphasis always being placed on morals, values and culture - ahead of the results. Some schools have possibly managed to keep these all in balance, where maybe others have completely lost the plot. The obvious statement, is that we can all do more, and desperately need to do more. Otherwise that freight train is going to do irreparable damage to the culture within our schools and around the sports fields. Hopefully, each school around the country is urgently addressing this as we enter an emotionally charged Winter sport season in South Africa. Hopefully, schools can make a stand and state what is acceptable on their fields, and what isnt.