Which is more difficult: world’s toughest sport or teaching?

 more difficult

With the Rio Olympics and school term in full swing, I poured a glass or red and asked myself: Which one is more difficult: the world’s toughest sport or … teaching?

For the record, I played THE sport for 20 years, 15 of them at the highest international level, coached it at that level for another 5. I have also been a teacher for 15 years. If you want to see my playing/coaching as well as teaching/education credentials I would be happy to expand. In short, it would be reasonable to say I know enough about both to attempt to answer the question. I do so using five categories, defined by a suitable dictionary definition and stated in each case.

Pressure (a sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources)

In the sport – the kind of pressure in the definition is incredibly intense, focused, but then again fairly organised and usually does not last very long. The battle(s) last seconds, minutes, hour(s) at most. Sure, the lead up is often interpreted as ‘pressure’ but that’s not the thing in the heat of the battle of either centre-forward or fast break or man-down defence that you tell your grandkids about one day and for which you are known for.

Mention “sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources” to me as a teacher and I’ll thank you for putting just about any day I spend at school in a sentence. The ‘urgency’ part could erupt any moment, the demands on me by students, colleagues, admin, parents and beyond are too many to count and always too many to fully attend to. They are also constant, never ending it seems. As for intense, telling a child in tears and standing in front of you that you can’t help them because you have to help someone else, putting on a calm face discovering the lesson you’ve planned with twenty teens wielding sharp tools is going to fall apart because some unforeseen event and you have to come up with a great Plan B (and C, and D …) on the spot, copping abuse from a parent or their progeny while ‘acting adult’ are just a few of the countless examples of getting the butterflies in your stomach going like crazy. You rarely ‘nail it’ and there is a sense of constant triage, rarely one of systematic, orderly, heavily invested in yet predictable progress and feedback you get by scoring that goal.

Decision-making (action of process of making important decisions)

If you have never heard a sports commentator hailing a player or coach for their ‘decision-making ability’ please listen out for it. In a dynamic sport like water polo, decisions are made frequently. Position, ball location, shot clock, score, momentum, shooter, tactics are just some of the factors that a water polo player regularly takes into account throughout the game, more so when they are directly involved in the action. “Seeing a step (or two) ahead” is a hallmark of a great player. The playmakers are a valuable commodity for this very reason and their fast-processing ability, borne with and out of experience.

Just how often does a teacher make a decision? According to research quoted by the highly respected Dr Larry Cuban  – one every 0.7 seconds! Yes, you read that right. Just like elite athletes, they mix the routine with the unexpected. Non-stop. They, well we, have to ‘read the play’ and make decisions that are sometimes more akin to chess grand masters, eight or more steps ahead, just to bring a lesson to an agreeable end after one or more (un)expected, teacheable or otherwise, events. And that’s every day, not just during the weekend league game.

Endurance (the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way, the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear)

Water polo players have to bear a lot and play at their peak of mental and physical capacities for an hour a game. Add to this the gruelling training day in day out that makes games seem easy, if possible at all, and you can’t possibly be a wimp. You simply would not make it. You would eliminate yourself and/or have all the excuses before not making the grade. Bear the wear and tear for about twenty or so years, if lucky maybe ten of those at the top level.

As a teacher, unlike my sporting career, the toughest years were probably the first few years. As the aquatic pun would have it, I was “thrown in the deep end” and I had to swim. I had to withstand the storms of volatile teens, unfamiliar content, new surrounds, endless curricular changes, difficult staffrooms and my own demons of insecurity. I’ve had to read articles screaming that “if only you [teachers] were better our kids would be better off” while knowing very little of what I do will make a lick of difference for all the structural issues that are the real issue but one too hard to address. And please don’t think life has gotten all peachy now with a few years of teaching under my belt. My elephant skin got thicker, my ears more attuned, my head wiser but my heart no less aching seeing the issues, especially those relating to inequities affecting those in my care.

Skill (the ability to do something well; expertise)

Breeding a top class water polo player is a messy, risky proposition. The genes, the environment, the systematic development, the web of career-defining moments has to align just right (and with a dose of luck) to produce a top level player. Very, very few reach it there. There, the elite make it look easy. They have the range of skills, from swimming, shooting, blocking, defending, turning, reading the play and more. Yet their expertise is beyond the mere technical ability. They seem to live and breathe their game. Youngsters and others try to copy, emulate, inspired by them, only to discover theirs is not a bag of skills to master but their own path or rather their own web of moments that can’t be simply copied, cloned or somehow reproduced to the same effect.

If you have been in the teaching game over the past few years, you will have noticed the intensification of attempts to define ‘good teaching’, see what skills and attributes it’s made of and then come up with a formula to follow in (re)producing it in both the new graduates and practicing teachers. Frameworks, standards, instrumental measurements are attempts to reduce the irreducible, contextual act of (good) teaching that is far, far more complex than any Olympic final in water polo or any sport for that matter. Teachers are increasingly expected to be a competent, expert even presenter, negotiator, mediator, public speaker, manager, counsellor, coach, mentor, technician, organiser, nurse, researcher, statistician and more. And while the range of skills and abilities demanded is expanding for both elite athletes and teachers, the latter win hands down.

Toughness (ability to absorb energy and deform without fracturing)

The elite water polo players are a tough bunch. They may not carry the bruises of various football codes, crashes on the roads or falls of equipment but they certainly know what ‘cracking under pressure’ means in a physical and mental sense. I for one had to play (no, win!) a game where my entire next year’s salary and that of my coach and teammates depended on it (we won…just). Elite athletes see on TV and the ones you don’t are under immense pressure to perform. Deform without fracturing. And they can only do that for a few years.  

Speaking of deforming and fracturing, the figures for teachers’ careers are starting to look scarily more like the short-lived careers of elite athletes. Not because they ‘get old and slow’ and lose the athletic edge but simply because they get bruised and drained by the emotional highs and lows, the expectations, shaped largely by societal expectations but (soon) internalised as their own, incessant demands on their mental and physical capacities and more. The statistics are scary. In Australia, not unlike in USA, UK and similar environments, close to half of the teaching graduates leave the profession within the first five years. The tough survive.  

So finally, which one is more difficult: toughest sport in the world or teaching? I have to disappoint you here – there is no clear winner. The point of this exercise was not to actually have a clear winner (good for you if you have decided for one or the other though). They are fundamentally different in their purpose: performance, winning and beating the rest versus learning and building capacity in others. There are too many variables to come near any commonly agreed upon decision. The point of the exercise was however to appreciate the many similarities they share. If you are going to pick the finer points and argue technicalities – you’ve missed the point of this exercise.

To finish off this little exploration, I would like to ask you to do the following few things:

Appreciate the effort of not just the athletes you see on TV but of all those who bust their guts every day in their chosen sport. You will never see the vast, vast majority of them but that does not diminish their endeavour. Most don’t do it for the fame and money because, contrary to popular belief, there rarely is a lot of fame and money in sport.

Appreciate the effort of your child’s teachers, many of whom are akin to the elite athletes you cheer for on screen. Except they want your child to do the winning, not themselves. That would be their biggest reward. Fame and money? Please, don’t.

Do not pity neither athletes nor teachers in their difficulties. We do this by choice. Acknowledge, respect but do not pity us. We love what we do, as impossible as that may sound sometimes even to ourselves in the doldrums of struggle. 

Finally, whether it’s some player who missed that final shot or a teacher who somehow did not spot the beautiful talent of your child – the last thing they wanted to do is to do that deliberately. Understand before you blame.

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