Sports & Strategic Thinking in Education

Previously I wrote a blog suggesting that PE at school should not stand for ‘sports’ but should instead be focussed on physical activity for middle and mature aged health. However, sports should remain an important curriculum topic in education in my opinion and this article explains why. 

The sporting arena is many things to many people. One hopes it is fun; it provides opportunities to demonstrate a competitive spirit; it can help develop a sense of ‘fair play’; or a sense of responsibility to one’s team, and so on. As valid as these areas are, I feel that these are secondary to the idea of using the sports arena to teach children how to think strategically.

During a school ‘PE’ session, I observed how during a team game, the ball fell unexpectedly into the hands of one our less abled players who happened to be right at the goal mouth. A better player to her left side shouted ‘To me!’, and she obligingly passed the ball to him; he took the shot and missed, which was not a big surprise given the extreme angle that he was shooting from. I’m sure most of you have seen or been part of similar situations. However, I would like to dissect this scene a bit more. I am confident, knowing the personalities of our two students, that the thought processes went something like this:

  • Weaker athlete thinks: ‘Crikey I’ve got the ball and I know I should shoot at goal … but wait there’s a stronger player to my left asking for the ball … he should probably take the shot’.
  • Stronger athlete thinks: ‘Ooops, the ball has gone to the weaker player on my side … even though she’s standing right in front of the goal, it’s probably better if I take the shot … I’ll demand the ball and take the shot’.

What I recognised out of this encounter was that the players were not thinking strategically, or rather they were, but in a very narrow way. What they did not take into account, other than their playing skills, was their respective positions on the pitch (weaker player directly in front of the goal, stronger player at an acute angle to the side); or the timing of passing to the side instead of just taking the shot (by the time the weaker player has passed to the stronger player, the element of surprise has gone). 

I started to remember the times when I’ve seen this happen outside of the sporting arena. A junior sales executive established a strong relationship with a potential client who was not expected to be a big spending client for some expensive scientific equipment. However, it turned out unexpectedly over time that this potential client actually had a substantial budget. After this became apparent, the senior executives decided that the potential sale was too valuable to entrust with the junior executive who had initially built the relationship, and replaced her with a senior sales executive who took over the negotiations. However, within a few meetings the client left to a competitor along with the sales totalling millions of dollars. Apparently he did not trust a company that did not value the relationship already established with the junior sales executive. 

To make the analogy clear then, the senior sales executive is in my mind the same as the ‘stronger’ player put who is not ideally placed to ‘seal the deal’, or ‘score the goal’. The junior sales executive it was true, did not have the sales experience of her more experienced colleague. However, she was ‘in front of the goal mouth’ and was therefore in the optimal position to ‘score’ or in other words to conclude the deal. If there was strategic thinking by this company, it was very one dimensional and seemed to be based on seniority not taking ‘time’ and ‘place’ or ‘value of relationship’ into account. 

Imagine if we could figure out a way to train our people to think more strategically, particularly beyond a one dimensional focus. 

Well of course there is a place to train people to think more strategically and beyond one dimension and that is on the sports field. Here are three areas that seem lend themselves particularly well in terms of strategic thinking skills in sporting environments which translate to off field events:

  • Creating opportunities: the same mindset that goes into creating opportunities to score on the sports field can be used on any aspect of business or running of an organisation. As one example, people in marketing, advertising and branding understand this crucial mind set very well.
  • Passing to where your team member will be, not where they are now: that is understanding that life, as in sports, does not stay still and one really needs to think ahead of time as to where business, people and opportunities will be, not where they are now.
  • Constantly changing the breadth of focus of attention: a fast flowing running game of rugby requires a broad attention of focus, taking a penalty requires a narrow attention of focus. This same adaptively changing breadth of focus is required in non-sporting fields whether it is surgery, accounting, policy drafting, advertising, legal work or land planning.

Undoubtably there are many more areas where strategic sports thinking overlaps with real life strategic thinking. 

So how might such a focus for sports look in a learning environment? Here’s one way that we are exploring this. We’ve chosen teams sports that require teamwork rather than individual skills and particularly when working with younger children, we chose sports that do not require extensive specialised motor skills that need to be learned before the team work can come to the forefront. So, to take an extreme example, sky-dive formation competitions require incredible teamwork, however the motor-skill set of learning to sky dive will predominate before any ‘team’ skills can be identified, taught and honed. 

SkyDiving Formation


We’ve tended to use sports that require throwing or passing objects to team members: netball, touch rugby, or ‘ultimate frisbee’. Rather than playing the full game, or international rules we’ve tended to play much simplified rules just to enhance the team work components. Over time we can increase the complexity of the game to the ‘full set of rules’. We break our ‘game’ relatively often just to gather around and talk specifically about ‘strategy’. Eventually we will be very keen to have our children take part in competitive sports because this is the ultimate ‘examination’ that our children could take that assesses their strategic thinking skills.

Finally, and this we believe is the critical and crucial step, we work with our children after the sports has finished, to identify and discuss situations that we’ve encountered on the sports field, which could be similar to other situations that they have or might encounter: their families, their immediate living or social communities such as school or youth groups that they might attend. We discuss how strategic thinking might be effectively translated and used in these situations.

What is truly exciting, is to think what Fiji could be like if we had a whole generation of children that were trained to think ‘strategically’ through sports. They would enter their respective work places being able to create opportunities, change their breadth of focus quickly & appropriately, and recognise where the opportunities will be in the future, not where they are right now. I for one, am looking forward to this time.

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant