Circus skills in PEThis article is, to a great extent, a response to an article by Jasper Gerard on The Telegraph’s website. If you can’t be bothered to read it, or it’s been taken down since writing this, I hope what follows will still make its point just as well.

Mr Gerard appears disgusted that activities like circus skills, cheerleading, yoga and street dance are replacing competitive sports like rugby in schools. I agree with him to an extent: experience playing competitive sport can be extremely advantageous to children. Besides the obvious health and fitness benefits it teaches perseverance, how to be good winners and losers, stoicism, sportsmanship, leadership and develops many other desirable character traits.

Personally, I am a big fan of competitive sport. I play quite a bit and if we want to maintain our success at events like the Olympics then we need plenty of it in schools. However, it is not the teaching of circus skills and dance that is jeopardising our sporting prowess.

Were it the case that the government were scrapping competitive sports altogether in favour of non-competitive activities, Gerard’s article would have much more bite. The extent to which competitive sport is dwindling in schools is more to do with the sale of sports pitches and lack of teachers. These other activities are coming in to fill the gap left by the lack of facilities and teachers.

My main beef with Gerard’s article is the blatant ignorance of what is involved with activities like circus skills, street dance and cheerleading. He seems to conflate exercise with sport – the two are not the necessarily same thing. Snooker is a sport but you aren’t going to get all that much exercise from playing it. Circus skills are not a sport and, while they might not be as gruelling as a game of rugby (depending on the circus discipline), they do provide a reasonable amount of exercise as well as developing other traits, which we’ll look at later. Cheerleading and street dance can be just as energetic, fat-busting and tough as any competitive sport and yoga has huge health benefits, including aiding injury prevention and recovery.

Gerard also gets confused between PE (physical education) and sport. Sport is obviously an inherent part of physical education but there is a lot more to PE than playing sport. He caricatures PE lessons involving watching YouTube clips of sporting events: “Yep, just watch those excess pounds fall away”, he squeals. However, part of physical education is being able to analyse team tactics and individual performance on the pitch. When I was doing PE over 12 years ago we watched video clips to do just that. Gerard seems ignorant, confused and is scare-mongering.

But I digress; this is an article on a circus-orientated website after all. Much of what I say below will apply to those other activities Gerard berates even if they have a different emphasis on aspects physical education to circus skills, which I’ll now deal with exclusively.

Gerard’s ignorance is again clear when he mocks circus skills as “juggling a ball while wearing a red nose and seal flippers”. Circus skills never have, and never will be like that. I agree with Gerard about the value of competitive sport and think every child should at least do some competitive sport; we all have to do hard, unpleasant things we don’t want to do in our lives and being forced to play rugby on a frozen pitch in February is great practise at dealing with, and enduring, such things.

But not everyone is competitive or built for sport. How demoralising is it for un-athletic children to be force to play games they’re not good at and get beaten every time? We all need to learn how to deal with defeat and disappointment – a quality sport can teach us – but losing incessantly may be doing these children psychological harm and it’s no wonder some kids will do everything possible to get out of such games.

Circus skills are non-competitive; there is no-one to beat but yourself. This can provide a great opportunity for non-competitive kids to get involved, and become passionate about, a physical activity. As for the health, or “flab-busting” qualities of circus skills, even juggling, which could be seen as one of the least active circus skills, will burn quite a few calories. As a person’s juggling develops it will become more strenuous.

But juggling is only a small part of the circus skills world. Poi, staff, hula hoop and diabolo can provide good workouts, especially when a few tricks have been mastered, and aerial, acro-balance and the other gymnastic elements of circus skills develop strength, flexibility and cardio-vascular endurance to an extent that rivals any sport. I know, I’ve trained extensively in both areas – I sweat more, and get just as out of breath, doing gymnastic-type circus activities than I do running around a sports pitch for 90 minutes.

Keeping fit and fighting the flab are only part of a comprehensive physical education and producing Olympic champions is only one of the aims of a national PE curriculum. After all only a small percentage of us ever stand a chance of getting to such a high level. Engagement in physical activities is extremely good for your mental health and well-being. The release of endorphins makes you feel good and achieving something you couldn’t do before is extremely rewarding. For kids from under-privileged backgrounds these small positives can make all the difference in their lives. Circus skills (or yoga/cheerleading etc.) may be the only way to get these things, particularly if the child isn’t competitive.

Circus skills also develop other physical-mental qualities that can be transferred to other areas. The hand-eye co-ordination developed in learning to juggle will improve your ability to catch that cricket ball, for example.

In a country where we are losing sports facilities for children, surely it can only be a good thing for “gardenless, under-exercised children” that we are starting to provide them with physical activities that they can practise in their own homes without the need for a playing field or garden. Without these alternatives to competitive sports those children who aren’t athletic or competitive will dispense with physical activity altogether once they escape school and the sports master. If we can get some of these non-sporty children into activities like circus, yoga or cheerleading we will be making good inroads towards solving the nation’s obesity problem.

If Gerard’s issue is with the lack of sports facilities and the consequences on our country’s future sporting success then he needs to focus his complaints more on government policy and spend less time mocking non-competitive physical activities. If he’s worried about the nation’s waist lines then he should be praising these alternatives, especially in the light of dwindling sports facilities. As long as the policy is not to replace sport with circus skills etc. but to complement competitive sport with the other non-competitive physical activities then I think we’re on to a winner.