by Muriel Reddy

Lessons from sport to the classroom

Leaders and men of character are not always born. They’re grown from their experiences, forged in the crucible of crushing disappointments. The boys who made up the Brighton Grammar School teams that competed in the APS First XVIII endured the pain of defeat in two consecutive finals, in 2012 and 2013. They were beaten but not bowed. They demonstrated the power of commitment and courage when they finally won the coveted title in 2014 and then proved that was no fluke by successfully defending the title this year.

To their coach, legendary footy player and coach Robert Shaw, the teams’ narrative on their long path to triumph was even more valuable than victory itself. It built character. “It incorporated elements of adversity, persistence and the development of resilience against disappointment,” he explains. “These are great lessons that can be taken not just into the classroom but also into life.”


“These are great lessons that can be taken not just into the classroom but also into life.”

Robert Shaw, Coach

Taking the lessons from high performance sports training into the classrooms is an initiative fast gaining currency within the larger school framework. An increasing number of schools are recognising the potential academic gains to students who embrace the qualities demanded in high-level sports, such as personal goal setting, dedication and application. The whole concept resonates particularly well with boys who relate easily to the physical and mental demands of sports.

“There’s a whole lot of transferable skills like time management, goal setting, problem solving and managing competing demands in life,” explains Bernadette Sierakowski, the career and education coordinator for the Athlete Career and Education Program (ACE). This body was established by the Victorian Institute of Sports and then embraced nationally to support athletes with career, educational and professional development services. It has in its ranks some 100 athletes who are still going to school.


“It is the pursuit of greatness that can help to define the boys”, Bernadette Sierakowski

Robert Shaw, who has competed at the elite level in sports both as a player and as a coach, describes his football program at Brighton Grammar School as “the seventh subject”. He’s convinced the boys’ work on the field can both complement and enhance their work in the classroom. “Both sport and study call for the same characteristics – good behavior, punctuality, standards, preparation, personal discipline, organisation and attention to detail,” he explains. “You cannot be one boy in the classroom and then come out and be a different boy on the field.”

He argues that the values that underpin a great team, that sense of togetherness and loyalty to one another, can be carried into the classroom to cultivate sound academic outcomes. And in a sentiment that is echoed by Sierakowski, he insists that winning is not the Holy Grail; often it is the pursuit of greatness that can help to define the boys.

Sierakowski says that the elite athletes at the VIS are constantly reminded to take of their minds as well as their bodies. “Dr Frank Pyke, our first CEO, was an academic and he felt it was very important to look after both instruments. He was very forward thinking in that. Our approach differs quite a bit from other nations that have an ‘all or nothing’ approach, and consequently other areas of the athletes’ lives are often compromised. They might bring home more medals but our motto – success in sport and life – encapsulates our belief that we are integrated human beings. If you sacrifice one aspect of your life now, it will have ramifications later on.”

Sport has much to teach boys, physically, emotionally and psychologically. Richard Bartlett, a rowing coach for more than 25 years, sees it as a marvellous metaphor for life. “It has to be about more than just winning,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for boys to learn about themselves and about selflessness. There’s organisation and structure that comes with any sport and each boy will have certain expectations placed on him. Structure is very important to boys and they respond well to it.

“Rowers understand the power of being in the boat and what can be achieved when eight boys work together and have a shared vision. “ While many parents have concerns about the time demands that rowing places on their sons, Bartlett says the boys have consistently scored well in their ATAR. “There is such a discipline in rowing that it allows them to push themselves harder in the classroom.”

“There is such a discipline in rowing that it allows them to push themselves harder in the classroom.” Dick Bartlett, Rowing Coach

“There is such a discipline in rowing that it allows them to push themselves harder in the classroom.” Richard Bartlett, Rowing Coach

That lesson certainly resonated with Ray Swann, once coached by Bartlett and now head of senior school at BGS. He has harnessed the special values of teamwork learnt in sport and invested them into an innovative program within the learning environment at the school. The Syndicate Program comprises small study groups where boys elect to work with certain of their peers, either in teaching or learning roles, and work as a team towards a common goal. “It builds a strong sense of unity, a sense that the boys have each other and other resources,” explains Swann. “They understand that they will do better if each boys plays his role; each boy has to do the best he can for the greater good of the boys. It’s teamwork at its best.”

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School, Melbourne. 

Muriel Reddy is an author and journalist This article is about


  • What makes an effective teacher?

    By Muriel Reddy

  • image description

    Mindfulness: a new movement in education

    By Muriel Reddy

  • image description

    The Making of Men

    By Muriel Reddy