Only Children vs. School Sports

A lot of the literature I’ve come across, old and new, suggests that only children are/were rather hopeless at team sports, largely on the basis that by not experiencing ‘rough and tumble’ with other children and fair, consistent rules at home before they started school, they were ‘unclubbable’, timid, and resisted games that they didn’t have a higher-than-average chance of winning.  My preliminary research using autobiographies shows that while some only children did have this experience, a substantial number reported that they enjoyed school sports, or otherwise had mixed experiences of them.  Additionally, some sibling children had negative experiences of school sports that echoed those expected of only children.

A quick word of caution: these opinions are quite male-heavy.  I read a lot more only boys’ autobiographies than only girls’ due to availability (my oral histories are more balanced), and only boys were more likely to have opinions on school sports because they were more likely to go to school, let alone a school that forced them to do sports.  Even allowing for the difference in numbers between my only-child group and non-only-child group, only children said a lot more about school sports than sibling children, and I’m not sure how to account for this - maybe they were more likely to have an opinion, or want to counter/confirm the ideas about only children?  Perhaps, when they had negative experiences of school sports, they found them more significant or traumatic?  I’m not sure.

Ten only boys (and six sibling boys, one sibling girl, and no only girls!) were positive about school sports in their autobiographies.  To take a couple of examples, industrialist Bob Haslam, born in 1923, preferred sports to schoolwork, and spent most afternoons at secondary school swimming or playing games, captaining a few teams, ‘a source of great pride to my parents’.[1]  Writer and campaigner Robert Aickman, born in 1914, praised his dame school for not having organised games, but that does not mean he had a negative opinion of all such activities - rather, the children made up their own games, and by the sound of things, he was sufficiently able to join in and make plenty of friends in the process.[2]

Admittedly, examples of only children who had negative experiences of school sports were relatively numerous: 14 only boys and three only girls, alongside two non-only boys and two non-only girls.  Some only children hated it because of a lack of ability, which I can’t really see being related to being an only child (despite what E. W. Bohannon might have to say on the matter).  Others, though, fitted the ‘only child’ stereotype all too well.  Poet Norman Nicholson, born in 1914, for example, was not only lacking in ability, but remarked that:

'To be taunted and yelled at and kicked and thumped and to be quite unable either to run away or to appeal to anyone for justice seemed to me to epitomise all the unfairness in the world.' > >

Nicholson was often physically sick at the thought of impending Friday afternoon games and eventually got out of them by inventing excuses and playing truant.[3]  Not that an aversion to games meant an aversion to sports altogether - geologist Edward Greenly, born in 1861, disliked school sports but liked ‘romantic’ out-of-school pursuits such as climbing and rowing.[4]

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that these experiences were limited to only children.  Classics lecturer Jane Mitchell, who born in 1934 and had an older half-brother, wrote that ‘I was always something of a rabbit in any activity involving manual skill or physical agility.  I was self-conscious about this, and felt rather an outsider among my class-mates.’[5]

The theme of liking some sports but not others continues in the case of those who reported mixed experiences of sports at school.  Seventeen only boys, two only girls, two sibling boys and no sibling girls wrote about such feelings.  Aviator Sir Alan Cobham, born in 1894, was among those who liked some sports but not others, though in his case, there was no favouring of non-contact sports over contact sports - he reported enjoying, but not being good at cricket and football, but being especially good at wrestling.[6]  Art historian Michael Levey, born in 1927, fitted the stereotype better; he wrote:

'Team games were ordeals for me.  But I did not mind the comparative solitariness of cross-country running, and took positive pleasure from playing squash'.[7] > >

Some only children lacked ability, but not enthusiasm, again suggesting a mixed experience based on problems unrelated to their onliness but alleviated by their wanting to join in, despite psychologists’ criticisms of their team spirit.  Actress Margaret Rutherford, born in 1892, mused that:

'I was never really good at games.  It wasn't that I didn't try.  I used to put my chin down and charge down the hill clutching my hockey stick.  The effect may not have been spectacular but my intent was honest.'[8] > >

Similarly, journalist Ian Trethowan, born in 1922, wrote:

'Cricket was my devouring passion, but sadly I had very little aptitude for it.  I realised afterwards that my schoolfellows were remarkably tolerant in pandering to my fantasies.' > >

He was better at ‘rugger’, but banned from playing after he swore audibly on falling over during a match.[9]

Other only children had mixed experiences of sport because they had health problems that prevented them from playing as much as they would have liked.  Again, having read their autobiographies, it is difficult to see any connection between their being only children and having bad health.  So, for example, poltician Sir George Leveson Gower, born in 1858 had to give up playing football at Eton because he outgrew his strength, and educationalist Lord John Wolfenden, born in 1906, had to give up rugby after a knee injury.[10]

My overall argument in my thesis is that there was no typical ‘only child’ experience; rather, only children had a range of experiences depending upon the circumstances of their upbringings and their individual personalities.  In the same way, a child with siblings might have experiences more in-fitting with the only child stereotype.  This post has demonstrated this by showing that not all only children hated school sports, and when they were negative or ambivalent towards them, it was for reasons not necessarily linked to being an only child.

[1] Bob Haslam, An Industrial Cocktail, (London, 2003), pp. 19-20.
[2] Robert Aickman, The Attempted Rescue, (London, 1966), p. 112.
[3] Norman Nicholson, Wednesday Early Closing, (London, 1975), p. 162.
[4] Edward Greenly, A Hand Through Time: Memories - Romantic and Geological; Studies in the Arts and Religion; and the Grounds of Confidence in Immortality, Vol. 1, (London, 1938), p. 46.
[5] Jane Mitchell, ‘Lecturer in Classics, University of Reading, in Ronald Goldman (ed.), Breakthrough: Autobiographical Accounts of Some Socially Disadvantaged Children, _(London, 1974), p. 126.
[6] Sir Alan Cobham, _A Time To Fly
, (London, 1978), p. 8.
[7] Michael Levey, The Chapel Is On Fire: Recollections of Growing Up, (London, 2001), p. 19.
[8] Margaret Rutherford, An Autobiography as told to Gwen Robyns, _(London, 1972), p. 12.
[9] Ian Trethowan, _Split Screen
, (London, 1984), p. 7.
[10] Sir George Leveson Gower, Years of Content, 1858-1886, (London, 1940), p. 41; Lord John Wolfenden, Turning Points, (London, 1976), p. 22.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK