Bigger role for sports education: Taking lessons from a coach's unusual success
In college, he studied sports education with a special aptitude for basketball. He hoped that one day he could become a capable basketball coach for school children.
His hopes were dashed when he graduated from Wuhan Sports University in 2010 and went to work at a primary school in the suburbs of Guangzhou City in south China's Guangdong Province: The dilapidated school was too poor to afford a basketball court or relevant equipment.
Worse yet, most parents and students at that time believed sports were only secondary in school education – inferior to such "major" subjects like maths, physics, chemistry and languages.
So, at the very beginning of his career as a sports teacher, he faced a double whammy: a lack of funds for his favorite basketball education, and an utter disregard for sports itself.
A third blow came soon, when local education authorities in Guangzhou's Huadu District, where the primary school is located, decided in 2012 to promote rope skipping as a main sport on campus. As a result, all local sports teachers would have to pass a rope-skipping test. That was a tall order for the young teacher, who was 1.84 meters in height and heavily built. He was a good basketball player, but not even an eligible candidate for rope skipping.
He failed twice, and barely passed the rope-skipping test with a third trial. In other words, he scored the lowest among local sports teachers. When he finally decided to forget about basketball and focus on jumping rope instead, those who were familiar with him jeered: "If you can succeed, pigs will climb up trees!"
Seemed like a premature end to his career?
Reshaping students' life
Fast forward to 2015.
The first World Inter-School Rope Skipping Championships held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, saw a group of Chinese teenage students plucking most of the gold medals. Their coach was none other than Lai Xuanzhi, the once-befuddled graduate from Wuhan Sports University who had surprisingly demonstrated his ability as an able rope-skipping coach despite prevailing doubts.
In only three years – from 2012 to 2015 – Lai redefined himself and reshaped the life of many teenagers who used to suffer an inferiority complex at school due to their impoverished family background and poor exam grades. The Dubai success reinforced Lai's belief that sports – sports education for that matter – can change one's fate.
Read the excerpts of a report from Britain's Sky News in 2015:
An 11-year-old boy has smashed the world skipping record – managing 110 skips in 30 seconds.
Cen Xiaolin also broke a second record, with 548 skips in three minutes, at the first World Inter-School Rope Skipping Championships in Dubai...
At that time, Cen was still a student at Qixing Primary School in Guangzhou, where Lai taught rope skipping. In later media interviews, Lai and his students insisted they had never expected to win gold medals at world championships. During those three years of hard training, they had just one thought and hope: Sports can reshape a child's future.
In July this year, Cen and his fellow player – already members of China's national rope-skipping team – broke the world record in a male Double Dutch Speed Relay at the 2023 World Jump Rope Championships held in the United States – in Colorado Springs.
To Lai, achieving good results in competitions may mean a lot, but is not everything. It has been his staunch belief that sports can fundamentally broaden a child's view and encourage him or her to achieve higher results in many aspects of life.
Indeed, quite a few students, whose parents are migrant workers making a living in Guangzhou, had never thought of going to universities – a dream that would require stamina in academic studies. They had thought they would discontinue their education after graduation from primary school or, at best, high school.
But Lai felt relieved when many students began brimming with confidence and building their stamina in academic studies through strenuous sports training. What made him happiest, he said, was seeing an increasing number of otherwise introverted and self-doubting students becoming more confident, more outward-looking and more communicative.
In particular, a pleasant surprise came from a girl named Zhang Maoxue. Lai recalled in a recent interview with Guangming Daily that Zhang used to feel inferior to others, but rope skipping gave her new-found confidence.
"She and I had been training together for more than one year, but she didn't say even a word to me," Lai recalled. "However, after winning several gold medals in a national competition in 2014, she surprisingly ran toward me and put all her medals around my neck, saying, 'I'm so glad, teacher!'"
The "sudden" change in the young girl's character moved Lai to tears. In an interview with Yangcheng Evening News, Lai said the girl's belated greetings – a sign of sports' positive effect on a child's character – helped him make up his mind to stay at Qixing Primary School despite various challenges.
"Not just the girl, but many other students who used to be withdrawn and timorous have become more confident and open-minded," he noted. "They have also begun to achieve better results in the school's academic studies."
What shall we learn from Lai?
On September 5, less than a week before China's annual Teachers' Day, Huang Jinlai, a senior writer in Guangzhou, published an article summarizing what people can learn from Lai. Here are the nuts and bolts of what the writer proposed:
1. Lai's strenuous pursuit of sportsmanship despite limited resources;
2. Lai's staunch belief that "sports can reshape a person."
3. Lai's love for and devotion to his pupils.
Indeed, Lai has led by example in training for 365 days a year. He overcame his own shortcomings by studying hundreds of videos of professional rope-skipping performances. He came to school at 5am almost every day for an hour's training before his students arrived around 6am for collective drills.
Moreover, through exercises and experiments, Lai even invented a half-squat posture to help students jump ever faster.
To Huang's suggestions, I would venture to add one more: Let sports play a bigger role in school education.
This should be a more important lesson we can learn from Lai's unexpected and unusual success. For too long, too many schools have focused too much on academic studies as if these studies alone suffice to make students succeed in life.
Academic studies matter, but are far from enough in shaping a student's overall character. Tapping into students' athletic capacity may well help them rediscover their otherwise hidden or neglected strength – strength that one may not be able to cultivate through mere textbook learning.