Start of year address: From Rio to Norwich

As spoken by the Head Master to the school during the first assembly of the Michaelmas Term

You might have a reasonable expectation that your Chaplain knows the Bible. Yet I am always impressed at the richness of the text and how Reverend Child manages to find just the right passage with which we start or end the term. Today’s is a corker for the start of a school year; just listen to the key messages again:

  • We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.

  • Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up.

  • Accept one another.

Any one of these is enough to base an address around, with the strong message about kindness to and tolerance of others. How appropriate as we reoccupy this magnificent building for the school to remind you of our loving, compassionate ethos.

Another challenge on this day is to reconnect you with school life after a couple of months away from such routines or to introduce you to the Norwich School way of doing things. I know you will be keen to catch up with old friends, make new friends, swap holiday stories, and perhaps exchange views on what has been going on in the world. That might not extend to a refectory chat about Teresa May’s performance at her first G20 summit this week (that can wait until the opening Politics or CV lesson), but I suspect it might stretch to the Olympics, something which reached 3.7 billion of the planet’s 7.4 billion population. It is also a boon for Head Masters looking for start-of-term assembly topics and I should like to focus on that now.

What was your favourite Rio moment? Bolt’s treble treble, Mo’s double double, the women’s hockey team’s gold, showjumper Nick Skelton’s tears on the podium, the height reached by Simone Biles on those flik-flaks, the Brownlee gold-silver or Neymar’s winning penalty?  You do not need to be a sport aficionado to enjoy the Olympics; indeed, I can comfortably say that I am no nearer to understanding what you get points for in taekwondo or why the keirin bike race requires a moped. For sporting expertise is only part of the equation with the Olympics. There is the collective patriotism of the table, with the record 67 medals won by Team GB placing them second overall.  And for each of those medals there is a story, where often unfamiliar personalities are suddenly thrust upon us as fully formed role models, revealing extraordinary skill built up over at least 4 years of eye-catching commitment.

Yet perhaps most compelling is the human drama of the fine margins between success and disappointment; not literally heart-breaking in a Jamie Redknapp style pundit’s exaggeration, but nonetheless intense and moving. For every golden cyclist such as Laura Trott there was a Lutalu Mohammed, who lost the gold medal in the last second, yes literally the last second, of his taekwondo bout; for every gymnastic Max Whitlock there was an Adam Gemili, who lost the bronze in the 200m despite having exactly the same time as the person who beat him.

Even here, there is solace in outstanding performance on the global stage under extreme pressure. In these Games which were obviously so successful for Team GB as a whole, I could not help but notice those who did not perform as well as they wished: Tom Daly, who won the qualifying 10m diving round only to finish last in the semi-final; Joe Choong, who started the last leg of the modern pentathlon in silver medal position but fell badly out of contention under the glare of international focus; even the Dutch women’s hockey team in their final against GB. Daly referred to his body being out of sync with his mind.

It is obvious that for some athletes at Rio, the pressure of the occasion tipped over from being a positive motivating force to an inhibiting pressure. It was also striking how many members of Team GB in their post-event interviews thanked their support staff for the assistance they received in the build-up to the Games to enable them to peak appropriately.

Now I do not seek to draw too close a comparison between Olympic sport and Norwich School, yet there can be no doubt that the handling of pressure and the harnessing of a situation to your advantage are live issues for each of you as you navigate 21st century life. This may be in sport, but also in other co-curricular activities such as drama or music. It has an academic connotation because assessments and tests are part of school life. It may even have resonance for you in your friendship groups, such is the ubiquity of social media. There is an intensity to modern living for the adolescent generation which needs address and, for our part as a school, I am obviously keen to make sure that we are as supportive as possible to you so that you can cope well with the situations you face; you might say that we are the backroom staff to you, the athletes.

As we set about this new school year, the phrase I invite you to consider in order to get on the right side of this good pressure/bad pressure divide is high challenge, low threat, the title of an educational book by Mary Myatt. So what does it mean? It means creating a culture at Norwich School which encourages you to challenge yourselves without threat of negative consequences; to stretch yourselves because you know support is there if something goes wrong. It means making Cathedral Close an environment which gives you such a feeling of safety that you are willing to extend yourself beyond what would be comfortable for an individual on their own.

It certainly seems as if this was at the heart of the culture that Team GB managed to create successfully in Rio and which we hope the Paralympic team will now emulate. Take the British cycling headquarters in Manchester which produced a culture resulting in every member of the Rio team coming home with a medal: high challenge, low threat. Time and time again, meticulous preparation and a supportive collective structure combined with high individual skill and a positive reaction to competition to produce outstanding performances. Let us hope that we can mirror such a culture here this year, both as individuals and a community. How do we set about that?  Let’s start by following today’s reading: “Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up”. You never know; we might soon be producing more Olympian ONs to follow in Emma Pooley’s footsteps.

 Welcome to Michaelmas 2016; I hope that you have a good term.