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  • annabelchaffey

Sport as a learning gateway

I was recently asked to write a piece for InspireU Global on how I see sport being a gateway for wider learning at a young age and how it can help to promote a wider acceptance of difference and individuality!

Here is what I had to say on the topic...

One of my earliest memories is watching Kelly Holmes race at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and me running around my living room at the same time, stopping when she crossed the finish line and utterly convinced that this meant I was as fast as her. What that moment ignited in me was a life-long passion of being active and wanting to improve myself and my performances. Initially this was just in sport or physical activity, where I wanted to be the fastest and jump the furthest but through my early teens I began to recognise the value in applying this same desire to improve into my academic life and then more recently as an adult trying to apply it holistically to my job, where I live, how I socialise etc.

But why share this with you? I’ve have always been passionate about sport and the lessons it can teach you about life. I never thought that I would get to experience them quite like I did. Fast forward to age 15 and when I never thought I would be an elite athlete… This very quickly changed one afternoon spent trialing for the national bobsleigh team.

From there I was fortunate enough to spend 4 years training and racing for Great Britain in the sport of bobsleigh. It wasn’t all plain sliding (pardon the pun), I managed this alongside my most formative years of education taking my GCSEs and A Levels during this period.

As a student, I was lucky enough to attend a school where sport was valued and supported across the board, with a recognition that the values learned in it are applicable to everyday life and who we are as individuals. It didn’t mean my combination of training for elite sport and completing my exams was easy but it certainly helped to ease the burden when the teachers appreciated me as a whole individual who did more than just take their one subject. I was multifaceted and in understanding this they helped me to achieve my potential across the board in all areas of my life.

I experienced a lot in my time as an elite athlete, I spent time away from home and school, missed birthdays and parties, but also was raced in multiple international races, became World Number 1 and World Number 2 in consecutive seasons and represented Team GB at the Winter Youth Olympic Games, in 2016. I recovered from serious injury and I studied hard alongside it all. I am beyond fortunate to have learnt many lessons from this experience, and whilst I did it in an extreme and rather unusual environment I believe the foundations for many of these learnings came from the everyday sporting interactions and opportunities I had had prior to this world of elite sport.

By the time I trialed at the age of 15 I had already learnt;

  • that you don’t always win;

  • that you have to keep working at things to succeed and;

  • that actually the process can be more rewarding than the outcome.

The experience of bobsleigh for me just magnified these learnings on a stage where there was slightly more impact and consequence to them.

I fundamentally believe that we can all learn something from sport, even those of us who deny liking sport. I believe that to be true for people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages and genders. Sport teaches us humility and the reality is when it comes down to who is fastest or strongest or can jump the furthest our nature tends to make us forget the other differences we may have.

I have experienced first hand how that works as a young woman, in a society where we notice what you wear and what you look like, sport was my escape it was my place to be accepted. One of the very first reasons why I was good at a sport like bobsleigh, was because I’m heavy and physically bigger than many other girls. Something I had never before appreciated about myself, but eventually sport helped me find where I fitted. It’s now given me the courage, as a young woman, to own my physicality and not to make apologies for it, something which I feel more women and girls could learn to do - I still now continue to weight train and enjoy it. Fundamentally, this journey of self-acceptance for me started in my earliest experiences of sport; the ones where I tried everything available and soon worked out that perhaps trampolining or cross-country weren’t for me. Eventually, I fell into the activity that was for me, and there is one for everyone.

Trying to find the sport that makes you tick, in my view, is a crucial way to understand that we aren’t all good at everything but that there will be something that we are good at. In an educational setting this is a powerful lesson for students to learn; just because you aren’t good at one subject does not mean you won’t be good at another - it’s just not the right fit. Understanding our physical selves is the gateway to learning and engaging with our mental, academic and creative sides to understand who we are and what we can achieve.

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