The past, present and future of sport at Grammar

Headmaster Dr Richard Malpass explores the integral role which sport has played in

the development of Grammar boys over the years and into the future.


I suspect that many who read this article will be variously aware that Grammar is well on the way to developing a significant new Sports Centre at Weigall. This Sports Centre is being designed to ensure that the School can fully support the needs of our current and future boys in their sporting and physical development, not only in the immediate years but also across the decades ahead.

Sport for young people has changed markedly since the purchase of Weigall in 1908. Whilst Weigall was established primarily to support rugby and cricket, many new sports have become central to Australian children. Our proposed development offers a solution to the lack of aquatic and court-based facilities in our inner Sydney location, as well as providing facilities for a wide range of indoor sports such as fencing and taekwondo which enjoy very few dedicated spaces in the city.

I’ve discussed the Weigall Sports Centre plans with current families and Old Sydneians for the last five years in a variety of contexts. Many applaud the School’s investment in this aspect of our current and future boys’ education, as well as the aspiration that such a facility can be available to the local community including nearby local public schools.

Still, a few may wonder why an academically-focused Sydney Grammar School would choose to make such a substantial investment in a sports development. To anyone in doubt, it should firstly be noted that sport has historically been a vital component of a Grammar education.

In 1937, Headmaster Dettmann, a strong advocate of the character-building role of sport, observed that “games can help boys to learn to concentrate with joy on the job in hand, to realise the other fellow has rights and merits of his own, to take hard knocks with a grateful grin as well as give them without malice or ill-will or loss of temper”.

In my own conception of a richly rounded education, sport is an essential participant in the aspirational triumvirate in which academia is supported and inspired by a dedicated music and arts culture joined to a genuine and dynamic engagement with sport.

Our academic programme is very strong, and that strength is derived in part from the outstandingly dedicated masters who are animated experts in their fields, and in part from the momentum of young men who are alive to the subtle aestheticism of music, drama and the arts, alongside the dynamism of our sporting programme in which boys can be healthy, vibrant, competitive, and resilient. In their sporting pursuits, boys can learn to win humbly and, conversely, develop a humble resilience in the face of informative defeat.

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Still, we are hardly reinventing wheels in situating sporting pursuits as essential to the development of healthy and well-rounded young people.

From the earliest periods in the classical world the ancient Greeks (and the Romans in their footsteps) placed the physicality of athletic and sporting competition alongside rhetoric and music and poetry as integral components of arētē, the “valorous virtue” of a free man, first as an aristocratic ideal, but then more broadly as an ideal underpinning the place of the active citizen in collective life. Greek and Roman theorists of education like Plato (Laws 794d ff.) and Aristotle (Politics 1337a ff.) considered a balanced approach to athletic and sporting competition to be essential to collective human flourishing. An educated Greek should by necessity be trained towards an ideal harmony between body and mind through, among other things, engaging in athletic contests.

In medieval times, Thomas Aquinas also advocated for the need to cultivate body and soul to flourish as human beings.

Similarly, in early modernity, sport was recognised as a conduit to cultivating human excellence, where figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for the need to exercise and develop body and mind harmoniously. Such a motivation, presumably derived at least in part from renewed focus on the educational theories of classical writers, underpinned the renewed role of athletic and sporting competition in Victorian England especially, where sports began to be integrated into education and community life under newly formulated rules of fair play—educational activities that could build young people’s physical prowess but also help them to develop self-control and a character animated by discipline and fair play.

Let us take this insight further and consider the significance of such a sense of play for our youngest Grammar boys.

The notion of ‘risky play’ in the Infants context is most informative in our assessment of the role of sport and play in educational development, and I’m grateful to Elliott Balkin (P-2 PDHPE Teacher) and Leigh Higgins (Preschool Form Master) from our St Ives Preparatory School for their contributions here.

Learning through ‘risky play’

Strengthening learning through risky and natural play is a core component of the learning model at St Ives. Children are naturally drawn to risky play. Often it involves thrilling, exciting and physically challenging activities like jumping, balancing, and climbing. For young children, risky play is an opportunity to test theories, practise skills, problem-solve and trial boundaries.

In a world of risk assessments, regulatory requirements and the evergrowing litigious nature of society, children’s risky play has sometimes been sacrificed in the name of perceived ‘safety’.

Grammar boys are courageous and brave by nature. As educators we use courage to act on new possibilities, provide opportunities for learning, exploration, growth and development. It’s comfortable learning about riding a bike. But, getting on the seat for the first time takes courage.

Risky play, in the form of moderate to vigorous physical activity, particularly with natural materials, has been linked with improvements in socialisation, problemsolving, focus, self-regulation, creativity and self-confidence, reduced stress, and fewer injuries. Precarious moments can provide the building blocks to develop neural pathways for sensory development, gross motor function and strengthen core life skills.

Positive risk-taking, particularly within the context of outdoor physical play, is vital for fostering children’s optimal health, wellbeing, and development. When we provide opportunities for play outdoors in a variety of settings, whether that be at home, school, in nature and the community, we are telling the boys that we trust them, that they are capable. If they fall, or get a bump or a scratch, we know they are building resilience, learning for next time and developing into healthy boys with a growth mindset.

So indeed it is at College Street. The fundamentals of ‘risky play’, articulated as “thrilling, exciting and physically challenging activities … an opportunity to test theories, practise skills, problem-solve and trial boundaries”, broadly and rather beautifully underpin the value of sport in a Grammar education, regardless of the level of competition.

The possibility of making a substantial and much needed contribution to the sporting landscape of Grammar and our community is an exciting one.