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FortKnightley: In memory of John Cockett

Felsted’s Director of Sport Blog ‘FortKnightley’ looks at sporting issues that are relevant today and will leave you all with something to think about. Follow on Twitter @dirfelstedsport

In memory of John Cockett 1927 - 2020 (Cambridge cricket and hockey blue, Olympian, Housemaster and Mathematics teacher)

“He who can does; he who cannot, teaches”

George Bernard Shaw’s quote “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches” from Maxims for Revolutionists has been re-quoted many times and in many ways used to denigrate teachers. It is often a phrase that has indeed applied to sports teaching and coaching with the concept that the PE teacher or coach is in such a role as they failed to make the grade at the very sport or disciplines they are teaching. 

Turning the clock back this very notion, if true, could be argued suited those who were teaching and those who were being taught. We were living the amateur ideal where the principles of muscular christianity and athleticism still epitomised the perfect pupil. These pupils were being taught by individuals who had a devotion for sport, but also a strong if not stronger affiliation to the academic rigours of school life.

The teacher had a solid background in several areas and the pupil with a limited opportunity to pursue a career in sport didn’t really require the ‘finishing school’ of coaching. If this phrase was ‘untrue’ or ‘unfair’ then look no further than Felsted schoolmaster John Cockett, who nigh on 40 years dovetailed the pastoral, teaching and sporting expertise required to produce an elite sportsman or two. Not all were so fortunate as the teacher was required to balance their pastoral, academic and sporting prowess and if that lack of specialisation means the teacher of this time was guilty of teaching and not doing, it still worked for most.  

As John openly admitted, it was actually his partnership with the great Essex cricketer, Gordon Barker that enabled the pupils to take the next step, so it is fair to say that the retired professional did start to exist in some schools as purely a coach starting the escalation of the ‘pro’ as common practice. Cricket arguably led the way with many other traditional public school sports still adhering to the amateur or should that be shamateur ethos.  

As time progressed, the opportunities and riches sport started to offer led to those being coached craving the expertise of those who had experienced the professional game over those who were dovetailing the responsibilities of the traditional teacher. This then started to challenge the notion in sport that ‘he who can does; he who cannot, teaches’ with many pupils now benefiting from the teaching and coaching of experts in a specific field. However, the transition from sports field to school field needs managing and ex players need a period of upskilling in the softer skills that are ingrained in those trained in the profession. At its best you had the opportunity for these individuals to learn from each other and work in partnerships to get the balance of delivering a high level coaching session, while understanding the young athletes and possibly non athletes standing in front of you. 

So with the amount of John Cocketts decreasing in number and the changing face of sport, those who can, were now teaching and the professional in schools was about to go to the next level with the wide range of sports all craving those expertise for their pupils. Plus, with the ever decreasing life span of a professional sportsman and women, the ability to find the expertise required was becoming easier. The opportunity to make a living through the media is afforded to some high profile retirees, but most are left to forge a different path.

The independent sector certainly for the right individual is an excellent next pathway. However, schools need to be aware that for many, coming from a profession where they were at the top of their field, to an academic institution where in many of the skills they are at the bottom of the field, needs careful managing, as the concern about the wellbeing of ex-professionals is now well documented.

There are many schools now, and Felsted is one, that each sport has an ex-elite player or current elite player (depending on the sport) heading up the programme for that sport. There are several who have dived straight into the machinations of being a Director of Sport. They are part of the school furniture and not just a 3/4 afternoons a week ‘professional’. This brings all the daily routine that a school requires and hopefully gives the incumbent a better grasp of the pupils they are coaching and as a result the sessions and programme become more productive and meaningful. They should now have time for ALL the pupils in that sport and potentially a few more in another sport. 

It is key that the support mechanisms are in place as for a parent to see a programme led by an expert can only be inspiring, but they will still require the support and expertise of the many teachers who devote time and no little knowledge to the sport they coach. These former professional sportsmen and women also hold sway with academies and the sporting pathway for a pupil can be more easily realised. Delivered well as a team you can have a system that really does have those who CAN teach.  

Charlie Knightley
Director of Sport