Ploys for boys

How to reduce bad behaviour and get great results from the boys in your school.
With 20 years’ teaching experience in a wide variety of schools, I’ve frequently encountered staff who despair at the behaviour of boys in their classes. Frankly, I love teaching boys, and perhaps my experiences as a P.E. teacher, often teaching single-sex groups, prepared me well for managing the classroom behaviours of boys. Perhaps being (at the very least) a cheeky student myself, frequently preferring attention-seeking behaviours to concentrating in class, I am able to relate to much of what is seen in classes every day. Or maybe I was just under-stimulated and over-confident. Regardless of the circumstances, I certainly have some successful strategies for teaching boys and am happy to share them. So here are my tips on improving behaviour, engagement and outcomes for boys.Why focus on boys?

At the primary school stage, around 10% fewer boys compared to girls make expected progress. As they move through to secondary school, close to 9% fewer boys achieve five good passes at GCSE. Into Key Stage 5, males are entered for A-levels in much smaller numbers than females (around 60,000 fewer males per year), and even once on a course, males are 5% less likely to achieve A*-C at A Level. There are currently around 9% fewer males in the UK university population.

On top of those facts, when it comes to behaviour and sanctions in schools, the numbers are even more worrying.

Boys are 3 times more likely to be Fixed-Term Excluded than girls. And this starts early, with boys in reception classes being 7 times more likely to be excluded than girls! Even in Y10 (the most common age to be FTE), boys are still more than twice as likely to be excluded as girls in the same cohort. And boys are more than 3 times more likely to be Permanently Excluded.

Angry face

So the system we have is not serving boys as well as it is girls. When faced with such enormous disparities, we as professionals are surely obligated to at least try to redress the balance.

According to the research of Moir & Jessel, (1980) those with the more typically ‘male’ brains show higher levels of aggression and competitiveness. As a result, behaviours may at times become more aggressive and therefore less acceptable in a classroom environment. At this point, can I stress that for the sake of brevity I have assumed the generalities below, but a boy may well have a predominantly ‘female’ brain and vice versa. To get into gender politics and nature vs nurture requires a far lengthier post!

That being said, ‘male’ brains may have;

  • A greater dominance in the right hemisphere
  • A better ability to handle space and shape
  • A desire to know the ‘big picture’
  • Greater impulsiveness
  • Shorter attention spans
  • Love of (or near addiction to) risk
  • Preference for learning through experimentation
  • A more random and impulsive attitude to tasks
  • Capacity for working on one task at a time

Those with the more female brains show;

  • Higher levels of passivity and greater tendency to co operate
  • A greater dominance in the left hemisphere
  • A greater capacity for language and early use of words
  • A more systematic approach to tasks
  • A preference for detail
  • Better longevity on tasks
  • A reduced ability to handle shape and space
  • A capacity to multi task

Boys love status and their social groups have clear hierarchies. I’ve found it successful to give the ‘clowns, stars and rebels’ of my classes responsibilities. These may be simply collecting/distributing equipment, etc, but this seems to acknowledge a need for attention and status and reduces other attention-seeking behaviours.

Many boys love competition. This ties in again to status.  Fill your classes (and room) with competitions.  Here are some ways I introduce competitions;

Top Gun – Top student in the latest test is my ‘Top Gun’ who we defer to on any contentious discussion points until replaced by whoever is top of the next test.

Funniest joke – Create some space for the class clown by allowing time at the start or end of class for volunteers to tell a joke.

Academic league tables – Posting a ‘League Table’ on the wall (complete with images of the top teams/players in the Premier League) to show test results and whether pupils have climbed or fallen down the table is very popular and motivational.

Extreme HW – Set HW tasks that relate to the course but lead in new and surprising directions.  Make it applicable to real life and publish the best efforts on Twitter.

Boys particularly need role models.  Where a student needs extra support or is disengaging from study, giving them a role model who’s interested in their progress can help.  This does not need to be complex but can simply mean arranging for their favourite teacher to check their homework before they submit it or spend 2-3 minutes a day just ‘checking in’ with them. This helps them feel valued and worthwhile, and that they belong in the school community.

Peer mentoring schemes where older boys (possibly from the 6th form) support the study or homework for a younger student work really well.

Student-led action teams can be effective, creating small groups who compete to see who can improve their grades or test scores the most over a given time period.  

Leadership Roles – Make the students who need attention and want to be the ‘star of the show’ group leaders, responsible for getting the best work from other group members or feeding back information from research.  The pressure of responsibility often channels their energy positively when they know their need for an audience will be satisfied during the lesson.

Develop a ‘club’ ethos.  Boys want to belong to something.  I like to develop small routines that are unique to that group and catchphrases that become an ‘in joke’ with that class. Validate them by reminding them that this is how WE do things because they are THE best class and WE will be successful together: classic team sports psychology giving the group a clear collective identity and purpose.

EWAP (or WIIFM?).  Some of the toughest students to motivate are those who can’t see the link between what you’re asking them to do and their future dreams and aspirations. In my experience, boys are more likely to question the point of work rather than passively follow instructions, so ensure that lessons and tasks are planned with deliberate aims and outcomes (Everything With A Purpose) and ensure that these are clearly communicated to the students (What’s In It For Me?).

Boys often respond well to ‘real-life’ situations and like to see the ‘big picture’ with tasks.  Rather than teaching sports injuries through paper tasks, I might set up a crime scene in the classroom and ask students to successfully triage the ‘victims’.

Relationships are everything.  The most ‘challenging’ boys in your class (and if you take issue with that term, check out  Tom Starkey’s brilliant piece on ‘challenging’ schools’) will probably have already faced numerous disapproving looks, stern words and detentions during the week to undermine their positive intentions. To balance this, they need to be made to feel valued and respected in school and this takes time and effort to develop.

To this end;

Have a sense of humour.  That doesn’t mean trying to become the entertainer in the classroom, but if they are genuinely trying to be funny, laugh along with them rather than setting a counter-productive sanction. Appreciate their culture. You don’t need to act cool but show an interest in the things they’re passionate about and avoid being dismissive of their interests.

Trust them. And find opportunities show that you trust them. Boys respond really well to being treated with that level of respect.

Get them talking. Sometimes it can be difficult to do so, but almost everyone will speak when you find the right topic, and once they start communicating properly with you, the quality of their work is likely to improve.

Be willing to appear to compromise. I often use haggling tactics in discussing sanctions with students, giving the appearance that they’re getting off very lightly because really they should be getting X, Y, Z when I’m prepared to settle for U, V and W (although I only ever really felt it deserved U, V and W in the first place).

Give structure and routines. Small things like ways to move around the classroom (or outdoor space), routines with equipment and resources, standard formats for doing the register (I like to ask a question and each child responds with their answer when I call their name) can work well.

Believe in them.  Never, ever, ever, ever, ever diverge publicly from believing that every single one of them will get a minimum of a grade 5. Not once. And don’t allow them to express any doubts without that being challenged.

Final Tips

  • Don’t lose perspective and make a mountain out of a molehill, or lose your self-control
  • Don’t be afraid to be fair but firm
  • Include opportunities for movement and practical tasks at regular intervals
  • Know your sport (or at least fake it!)
  • Finally, don’t ‘show them up’ (and bear in mind that showy praise from females sometimes does this)

If you have any strategies to add to this list, please share them in the comments section.

All aboard the money train: is Sanchez worth the money?

The average railway worker in the UK earns £37,500 a year.  It’s not easy work, often working under pressure of time through the night.

Manchester United Football Club was formed in 1878 under the name ‘Newton Heath LYR Football Club, the L.Y.R. standing for Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.  Like many football clubs, they were formed by companies who were willing to allow their employees time off from work to compete in football matches representing the company.  ‘Professionals’ were the fortunate employees who were able to play football and be paid to offset the time taken off work.



At modern-day Manchester United, Paul Pogba currently earns over £41k a day.

With the rise of spectatorism, gate receipts grew and it became possible for clubs to pay for full-time players. From these beginnings, modern football grew, with the additions of sponsorship, media rights deals, t.v coverage and ever-increasing commercialisation.  Football means money. And in recent times, this is has not been lost on an increasing wave of wealthy foreign ‘investors’ keen to make money out of the enormous financial juggernaut that is the English Premier League.

It would take the average railway worker nearly 8 years to earn what Pogba makes in a week and about ten generations of railway workers working for 40 years each to earn Pogba’s annual salary without even counting the sponsorships, media rights and so on.  Although he’s the highest-paid player at United, Pogba barely scrapes by compared the game’s top three players: Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are all reportedly on almost twice as much.  This is a level of wealth far beyond compensating a player for not being able to work on match days, and is repulsive to some.  But don’t these players earn it?

How do we square the idea of playing football for a living, a game that millions of people play every week as a hobby, with the ludicrous salaries of modern football?


This week, Alexis Sanchez has decided that he just can’t get by on £130,000 a week, with manager Arsene Wenger admitting to the media today that, “It looks like Sánchez will not extend his contract,” before adding rather tellingly that, “These guys want to win trophies and they want to make money as well.”  Clearly, either two F.A. Cups and a Community Shield plus his salary have not been enough to satiate Sanchez or his agent has bent his ear.

It seems clear from Wenger’s comments that Sanchez wants to board the next express to Manchester Piccadilly and has set his sights on a club that can afford the salary he feels he deserves. Whilst Manchester City showed plenty of interest in Sanchez last summer that interest seems to have cooled now it emerges that Manchester United are perhaps keen to derail the City deal and are willing to enter a salary war to secure the player.  The fact that United already have numerous players earning more than the Chilean’s current deal at Arsenal gives credence to reports that they may be willing to offer Sanchez a deal worth nearly double his current wage at Arsenal.

The fact is, football is BIG business, with an almost insatiable global market funded by enormous deals for television rights, kit sponsorships, corporate tie-ins and merchandising coupled with the ever-rising gate receipts paid from the pockets of the ‘proper fans’.  And with the earning power of clubs comes the desire to recruit the finest players to ensure continued success and market dominance, to protect ‘the brand’ and to ensure debts are paid off for foreign owners who leverage those brands to their own financial benefit.

But it is the players who generate this wealth, and therefore, should we blame those same players for wanting an admittedly sizeable cut from the proceeds?  I do not blame any player for wanting to take the fast track to higher earnings in a short career.  To paint the typical professional footballer as greedy would be to ignore the entertainment they provide, the commitment required to reach such standards of skill and fitness and to overlook the quiet charitable work the vast majority of them do.

However, I do blame players for allowing agents to turn their heads and persuade them to leave a club for a better deal.  I blame them for allowing agents huge percentages of transfer deals which reward disloyalty.  A player is completely entitled to ask for a pay rise, but should they hold the clubs that have given them so much to ransom in the knowledge that top players could derail the ability of a club to remain financially stable?  It’s a fine line between the rights of a player to chose an employer and the expectation that a player should see out a contract they signed with a club.

I would prefer to see the players made rich than see that money lining the coffers of club owners, but perhaps there could be a cap on the percentage an agent is allowed to take, which might reduce the desire for agents to agitate a player towards an exit.

Common Goal is a scheme aiming to unite the world of footballers behind a shared commitment to give back. The idea is simple. Players pledge a minimum of 1% of their wages to a collective fund which is allocated to football charities that create the greatest impact worldwide.

Perhaps if Sanchez does end up with a big-money move from Arsenal to Manchester United then allowing Juan Mata the opportunity to persuade him to pledge some of his salary to Common Goal might be just the ticket. Perhaps there is light at the end of this tunnel.

The Ashes – Don’t believe the hype


As the Boxing Day test mumbled its way to an inevitable draw, appropriately concluding test cricket for 2017 with Steve Smith unbeaten at the MCG crease, I was forced to reflect on the media coverage of this match and the series in general.

As an avid sportsman and sports fan, I look forward to these significant meetings and, trust me, as an Australian living in the U.K., the Ashes are about as significant as it gets.  Heading into work or meeting friends after an Ashes test inevitably involves all the usual dissection of key moments of the most recent match and, with bragging rights at stake until the next series,  I appreciate every time ‘Under the Southern Cross’ is sung!

Growing up in Melbourne and playing cricket in every available moment when a bat and a tennis ball were all that were needed to get a game going, cricket was my first sporting love.  Those bleak years of the 1980s, responding to England victories with childish taunts to the pommie players (“David Gower never has a shower!”), probably fuelled my desperation for baggy green brilliance in a way that was mirrored in the tough, desperate cricket of Allan Border and his teams through the following decade.

However, even a fan as ardent as I am has to stand back and wonder at the media circus surrounding this latest tour of Australia.  Surely, with the rich heritage of Ashes cricket, the action on the pitch should be more than enough.  I feel as drunk as a centrally-contracted England player trying to follow the dizzying latest ‘stories’ of off-field indiscretions and antics. Do we, the viewing public, really need to be shunted from one bar to the next along with the touring squad? Is the richly-varied ebb and flow of a test match, with its myriad subplots of individual battles, aspiring debutants and under-siege veterans, broken hearts and broken records not enough in its own right?

I feel that it’s about time the sport took centre stage.  Look, if a player is under investigation by the police, it’s probably appropriate that this is reported and that the player in question is suspended from the great privilege of representing their country in a sporting contest (as would happen in virtually every other profession).

However, maybe it’s naive to even speculate, but if we as spectators have one wish for 2018, perhaps it should be that we’re all able to concentrate on and marvel at the sporting talents and tribulations on display a little more than we have over recent months. As such, my New Year’s resolution, starting with next week’s 5th test at the S.C.G., is to skip the ‘clickbait’ of off-field stories and refocus on the purity of sport in all its glory.

After all, who cares whether David Gower takes a shower?  It’s all about whether Steve Smith can make another hundred.

Fans sold short by cheating players

Cameron Bancroft

Whilst I haven’t time today for extended writing, I feel compelled to comment on the Cameron Bancroft ball-tampering incident in the ongoing 3rd test between South Africa and Australia.

Regardless of the fact that it seems to have made no difference to South Africa’s continuing dominance in this match, that ball-tampering is probably at the milder end of the scale when it comes to cheating, I am disgusted by what seems to have been clear cheating from the Australians.

Bancroft and Australia have betrayed their fans’ support. It is not about whether there is an advantage gained, but whether it is within the rules or spirit of the game. And it is palpably neither.

It’s hard to believe Bancroft has acted alone, as a recent addition to the team playing in just his 8th test and yet to register a century, Bancroft’s place in the team is far from assured, so it is completely unrealistic to imagine he has ‘gone rogue’ and decided to tamper with the ball without this being dictated by senior players or the management.

Additionally, this was clearly pre-meditated given that it required some (as yet unidentified) foreign object in his pocket, and he was aware of the illegality of his actions as evidenced by his attempted misdirection when called over for questioning by umpires Long and Illingworth.

I feel betrayed by this act.

Any national team in any sport is a representative side. They are representing their country, not simply playing for themselves. And they do so with the emotional and financial backing for their national behind them. At the risk of piggy-backing on another recent social media campaign – “Not in my name!”.

I do not wish to be represented by a team who view the laws of the game as an inconvenient barrier to their (clearly more important) win-loss record. Beyond the Laws, the spirit of the game is abused most by those who reap the greatest rewards at the pinnacle of the sport. As such, with this incident fresh in my mind, it is harder to be a passionate supporter, ardently following every match. At some level this will have an impact on those elite players.

Maybe fewer shirts will be bought, fewer subscriptions to TV packages bought, more seats left empty at matches. And as a result, the salaries of these top players will be impacted. But few will see the link between today’s actions and that future.

This time around, Bancroft will carry the can, and doing so may well assure him of a few extra chances in the Baggy Green before being dropped. But I hope the ICC find a way to sanction the team management, who surely were in on this if not the instigators.

As competitive a character as I am, I would rather a team representing my nation lost than that I had to consider every win as a possible result of cheating.

S’no fun for headteachers

Snow days always seem to divide public opinion, but the decision to close a school is not an easy one for a school to take.  It’s a situation where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, as there will always be those parents who are unhappy with the decision.

Schools do not wish to close their doors unnecessarily. Firstly, teachers want to be teaching and not losing time, especially in the run-up to public examinations in a few months’ time. Days off school mean valuable lessons lost, planning time wasted, and puts pressure on completing assessments and content for all groups in the reduced time allotted.

But when faced with a forecast of potentially dangerous weather, schools need to weigh up the benefits of remaining open against the more cautious approach of closure. Schools are responsible for the safety and welfare of students and staff on their site, so if there is snow or ice on the ground this needs to be cleared to allow safe access. No school has the spare funds to be able to pay for costly legal suits and, in the light of budget cuts, site staff are often thin on the ground.

Additionally, schools need to try to ensure it is possible for both staff and students to complete their journeys to and from the school safely. In most primary schools, the majority of students live reasonably close by and journeys in snow are therefore a little simpler. In most secondaries there are many students reliant on bus services for their journeys. If those bus companies decide it’s not safe to run their fleet on the roads, this could potentially leave hundreds of students stranded in the cold. And in most schools, the staff travel further than the children to get to school. If many staff are unable to get in to school, this can lead to chaos, with the need to collapse classes at short notice and make do with the staffing available. 20180302_1313551841287092.jpg

Once a decision is taken to close a school, of course this passes the difficulty of arranging transport and childcare on to parents and for this reason, wherever possible, it’s helpful to give parents some notice. They may well be stuck in traffic themselves with frequent accidents on the roads when snow arrives.


Sitting at home today, looking out at the arctic tundra outside my window, I am delighted that my headteacher took the brave decision to close the school yesterday. I wish for her that all she needed to do was weigh up the safety of her staff and students and not balance this against the fear of a social media backlash from disgruntled parents, half of whom complaining that the school had been kept open for the morning despite forecasts, the other half that it had been closed at all. Whilst I understand the difficulties parents face when schools close unexpectedly (and I do have a child myself!) I would rather the knowledge that no member of our school community was forced to take to the roads today and risk their safety for the sake of 6 lessons’ learning. Being a headteacher carries enough pressure without having to face trial by Facebook over tough decisions taken in rapidly changing situations.

We will find a way to catch up on the work lost, but at least we will all be back in school on Monday, safe and sound.

Practical behaviour management

Every teacher in every school has experienced that student or class that just won’t respond as they would wish. These situations can be particularly testing early in one’s career, but equally can be frustrating when established in a school and expecting a more positive approach from students.

Following my recent (and very popular) post on improving behaviour management for boys in the classroom, ‘Ploys for boys’, here are my top 10 (+1) Practical Strategies for Behaviour Management.

  1. Wasted Time Stopwatch Stopwatch

With classes who have refused to stop talking when I want them to, I have used a stopwatch (usually on my watch but on the board would work) and simply accumulated all the time I’m waiting for them to respond to requests to listen quietly. At the end of the lesson I let the class know how long they owe me and they all get detention for that length of time. Usually works well if the lesson precedes break or lunch. Has the negative of impacting on all students but they quickly encourage each other to be quiet!

2. The Bell of Silence
Instead of using your voice to get attention, train the class to be immediately quiet when they hear the bell. A gentle ringing is more pleasant than a raised voice and helps to calm the class. A bike bell works well, and a colleague of mine uses an empty glass beaker to good effect.


3. I’ll ask 3 times3

I still use this one all the time… I ask for quiet in a raised voice, then a moderate voice, then a quiet voice, almost at a whisper. Anyone still talking at that point gets their name on the board and needs to make up time with me. This works really well in stopping the battle for supremacy of voices.

4. Catch them doing something good
If the very first interaction I have with a usually disruptive students is one which involves me praising them, it is amazing to see how often that totally changes the direction of the lesson. It’s simple: before your lesson, note down (either mentally or on a post-it) the names of a couple of students who you anticipate are likely to cause issues/arrive in a disruptive manner and be sure to initially ignore anything negative and ensure that your first comment to each of them identifies a specific thing that they’ve done well for you. ‘Well done for being so quick to sit down and get your equipment out Charlie’ or ‘thank you, Ben, for being so helpful and offering to hand out the books’ might be all it takes. In cases where you know you will struggle to find anything good to say, give the student a specific role at the start of the lesson that you can immediately praise him/her for so that you get off on this positive footing. Used consistently over time, this works really well to initiate a kind of ‘ripple effect’ whereby other students then want to aim to please and seek praise for you.

5. Condition your class to be self-starters
Routines are very important for setting the tone of a lesson. It may be that your routine is highly controlled, such as lining up outside in silence, entering, getting books & equipment out and silently writing out the title and date. Alternatively, it might be that the routine is that every lesson starts with students testing each other on previous learning displayed on the board or discussing a ‘thunk’. Either way, ensuring students know what’s expected of them at the start and end of a lesson makes a huge difference to the working atmosphere.

6. Maintain your Dignity
To effectively deliver sanctions the message needs to be simple, clear and non-negotiable; in practice it is easy to get caught up in a lengthy argument or confrontation. Focus on moving in, delivering your sanction as discreetly as possible and then moving out quickly. Choose a phrase that you will withdraw on ‘I need to see you working as well as you were in yesterday’s written task, thank you for listening’ or ‘I will come back and give you feedback on your work in five minutes’.
Avoid waiting around for the student to change their behaviour immediately; they may need some time and space to make a better choice. Engage another student in a positive conversation or move across the room to answer a question and only check back once the dust has settled. No one likes receiving sanctions and the longer the interaction the more chance of a defensive reaction or escalation. Get in, deliver the message and get out with dignity; quickly, efficiently and without lingering.

7. Countdown
A good technique for getting the attention of the whole class is to use a ‘countdown’ from 5 or 10 to allow students the time to finish their conversations (or work) and listen to the next instruction. Explain to the class that you are using countdown to give them fair warning that they need to listen and that it is far more polite than calling for immediate silence. Embellish your countdown with clear instructions so that students know what is expected and be prepared to modify it for different groups:
‘Five, all in a circle sat round me…

Three, superb, Danny, first one ready…
Two, quickly, arms and legs crossed…
One, all eyes on me…
Half, no talking…
Zero, thank you.’

8. Closed requests
Prefacing requests with ‘Thank you’ has a marked effect on how the request is received.
‘Thanks for making a quick start’ or ‘Thank you for dropping your gum in the bin’.
The trust in the student that this statement implies, combined with the clarity of the expectation, often results in immediate action without protest.
A similar technique can be applied to requests for students to make deadlines or attend meetings that they would rather ignore.
‘When you come to see me today get as close to 3.30 as you can so we can resolve this quickly and both get home in good time’. As opposed to, ‘Don’t be late for your detention.’
You are assuming a positive response which making it awkward for the student to respond negatively.

9. Proactively developing relationships with students
This is not about trying to be ‘cool’.
Choose your opportunities to build a relationship with a student carefully. Open up casual conversation when the student appears relaxed and unguarded. Try to show an interest in them and their life. You may choose to wait until you find a situation that is not pressured or time limited. Aim for little and often rather than launching into a lengthy and involved conversation.
Remember, your intervention may be unwelcome at first. Your aim is to gently persuade the student that you are committed to building trust. Be prepared for some approaches to be rejected.
Give your time freely and expect nothing in return.
10. How low can you go?
It is often said that getting down to students’ eye level is important when delivering praise or sanctions to students. This can often be interpreted as leaning over a student rather than standing above them or sitting down next to them. I prefer the student to be looking down at me; crouching down lower than eye level is not weak but assertive and confident physical language.

When you are delivering sanctions there is less chance of a defensive/aggressive reaction, and when praising, you create a more private space in the room.Crouch

+ Finally…

“Chase me”: What to do with secondary behaviours
Secondary behaviours are those that occur during your intervention or as you leave a conversation with a student. They are ‘chase me’ behaviours designed to push your buttons and gain a furious response. Typically, when you Exit a pupil, the secondary behaviours are the chair being thrown back, or door being slammed, or the need to have the last word. They may try to divert the conversation away from the original behaviour or encourage an adrenalin fuelled confrontation in the corridor. Don’t allow the student to take control of your behaviour. Resist the temptation to address the secondary behaviours in the moment. Instead record them and deal with them later on.
The fact that they have left the room means that they has followed your instructions; the dramatic trail of disruption can be dealt with when they are calm. Your calm and considered response will be closely observed by the rest of the class and they will be impressed by your confidence even in those emotionally fuelled moments.

All of the ideas above have been tried and tested by myself and colleagues. Please share with anyone you feel may benefit from some new ideas or reminders of old forgotten strategies!

Credit: Some ideas adapted from Paul Dix, ‘How to manage behaviour in the classroom’, The Guardian, 9/2/2010.

Courting Controversy: There’s No Place for Homophobia in Sport.

Margaret Court in her prime was a force of nature, an ‘Aussie Amazonian’, blessed with a powerful physique which had been trained to near perfection, enabling her to play an aggressive, attacking game which dominated her opponents. She struck the ball like she was on a single-handed (backhand) mission to deflate every single tennis ball ever manufactured. You can imagine the chair umpire wanting to call, “new balls, please,” at the end of virtually every point.  The International Tennis Hall of Fame describes her game as ‘an assault’.


And by god, was she successful!  Margaret Court was to tennis what Donald Bradman was to cricket. Court won more Grand Slam titles (64) than anyone else in the history of the game, in a reign that dominated world tennis between 1960 and 1975.  Only Martina Navratilova (with 59) gets within 25 of her total.  To put that into context in the modern era, Roger Federer currently has 19.  And although Roger’s have all been in singles, Margaret Court won 24 Grand Slam singles titles and holds the record there as well.  Court won the ‘Box Set’ of all 12 possible Grand Slam titles as an amateur, then came out of retirement to repeat the feat as a professional. On the tennis courts, Margaret Court had all the aces.

Duly, the plaudits followed.  Court has been awarded an M.B.E., made an Officer of the Order of Australia; she’s been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, had postage stamps made with her likeness, and in 2003, one of Australia’s premier tennis courts was named after her.

And now things get interesting.  Because although Margaret Court played tennis like some sort of demi-god, it is her religious views and outspoken opinions which really must call into question the validity of continued reverence for her.  In a radio interview in 2017, Court claimed that a “gay lobby” was trying to “get [into] the minds of children” through Australia’s Safe Schools anti-bullying program.

Speaking about campaigns to allow same-sex marriage, Court suggested,

“Everybody knows that it is wrong but they’re after our young ones, that’s what they are after”.

And her views are not simply the ramblings of an elderly woman entering senility, although perhaps it would be kind to paint it that way.  In her role as a Pentecostal minister, Court has regularly and vociferously spoken out against homosexuality and she has a platform to do so, with television and radio appearances linked to her ministry work. She even wrote an open letter to Qantas criticising their support of same-sex marriage threatening to boycott the airline.


Now, everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course, and the issue of same-sex marriage has proved to be a divisive one in many nations over recent years.  My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that marriage celebrates love between two people, and their sexual orientation makes no difference whatsoever to their ability to love each other (or to argue over who has to do the dishes). The spread of bigotry and encouragement of a strange sort of homophobic paranoia serves nobody.

Let me be absolutely clear: what she accomplished on the tennis courts was incredible and will stand in the annals of the sport for all time.  However, I believe that we need to hold our sporting heroes to a higher standard. I want the legends of sport to be people for our young people to look up to and aspire to emulate, both on and off of the sporting arena.

And finally, some members of the ATP Tour have started to say the same thing. Laura Robson this week supported Billie Jean King’s consistent calls for renaming the court, stating,

“It’s a tough one because she obviously achieved so much but, if someone is being asked to play on that court and they don’t maybe feel comfortable, or people in the crowd feel a little awkward about sitting on there, then people need to have more of a think about it and decide what is best.”

Given that the current ATP Tour Code of Conduct runs to 46 pages specifically detailing the many ways current players can bring the game into disrepute, speaking out against a Grand Slam host requires some pretty strong feelings.  And if the current players are held to a high standard of conduct, shouldn’t that also be applied to the legends of the game?

Generations of players will grow up dreaming of playing in the Australian Open. I want them to be able to feel confident and comfortable with that ambition, without it being tainted by the name that graces a court.  For that reason, I believe that the Margaret Court Arena should be renamed.

I’d rather join the crowd in a stadium packed to the (Patrick) Rafters than step foot on Margaret’s court.


The drowning of Mason Crane

Mason Crane has dreamed of this moment all his life. The moment when he stops being a spectator and takes on the role of participant in the gladiatorial world of test match cricket.  As he stands at his mark and prepares to bowl his first delivery, an expectant hush descends over the S.C.G.

Crane is the tenth genuine spin bowler to play test cricket for England in the 21st century.  Of those, three could be deemed a success (Swann, Panesar and Moeen Ali).  Of the other seven, none of them played more than Adil Rashid’s 10 tests, and none even get close to Rashid’s 38 wickets. In fact, Tredwell, Dawson, Patel, Ansari, Batty, Borthwick and Crane have a total of 39 between them.

England aren’t alone in this with Australia ‘experimenting’ with the likes of O’Keefe, Krejza, Agar, Maxwell, Doherty, Holland, White, Beer, Casson, Hogg and McGain in trying to fill the post-Warne vacuum.  It’s taken four years for Ashton Agar to even return to the Australia squad after his test debut in an away Ashes series at almost the exact same age as Crane is now.

So spin bowling is a difficult craft and establishing yourself as a spinner in test cricket takes resilience from the players and wisdom from selectors and team captains. And spinners tend to  continue to improve with experience.  The blossoming of Graeme Swann for England and Nathan Lyon for Australia in their later twenties have demonstrated the value of patience for test spinners.

Famously, Shane Warne’s first match figures were 1/150 against India at this same venue.  After just half an innings of test cricket, Crane has figures of 1/135 after 39 overs. His captain has shown faith in continuing to bowl him, but his pitch map looks like a sheet of paper after my 3-year old has been let loose with a fresh set of stickers, and he’s been unable to stem the flow of runs from the Aussie batsman.  However, the Australian selectors stuck with Warne and he bowled a spell of 5.1 overs, 3/11 in his third test against Sri Lanka before bowling Australia to a win in front of his home crowd at the MCG with 7/52 in the fourth innings against the West Indies in his fifth.

Edit: Since writing, Crane finished the 1st innings with 1/193, the most expensive England debut ever and 5th from all nations. 

Hopefully, the selectors will show the same faith in Mason Crane.

I like to take my son swimming some weekends.  We live right near a couple of pools, but I drive 20 minutes in the car to take him to a pool that has a kids’ pool next to the adult version.  The deepest it gets is about a metre and the water’s a lot warmer (hopefully intentionally rather than due to the undoubted urine content).   I want him to build confidence, develop his skills and have positive experiences to fall back on when we make the step up to swimming out of his depth.

In the Premier League, young players struggle to get appearances, but there is a widespread acknowledgement of the need to ease players in gradually.  A promising player will almost invariably debut in a home game, often against inferior opposition and in a lesser competition than the all-important league matches.  If they do well, they’ll get gradually more challenging assignments.

The Ashes is the ultimate competition in cricket.  Australia are almost always a powerful side at home and playing a debutant spinner in that environment against the likes of Steve Smith and David Warner isn’t like throwing them in at the deep end so much as dropping them from a helicopter into the shark-infested surf of Jefferies Bay.

Whilst talking about the struggling Moeen Ali last week, Graeme Swann recalled his strategy for rebuilding confidence by watching old footage of his best bowling spells.  Having those previous experiences can help a player who is finding it tough, as long as they have plenty of past successes already to draw on.

Jefferies bay
Jefferies Bay, South Africa

Mason Crane may take more wickets this match.  He is undoubtedly a talented cricketer and good ‘leggies’ are hard to find.  He may even end up improving his figures to the point of respectability.  But Mason Crane is 20 years old.  Mason Crane has played in 29 First Class matches in his lifetime. He should have been given the opportunity to develop his game, grow in experience, make his test debut in familiar conditions and against opponents less likely to crush his confidence as they crush his long-hops into the boundary ropes.

Mason Crane may in future be England’s greatest spinner.  But right now, he’s just been thrown in at the deep end.