harry potter

Quidditch as Self-Directed Sports Education

April 30, 2020

My daughter, who currently goes by the name Hermione Granger, has brought Harry Potter fandom to a fever pitch in our house. While reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to her, I was struck by how foreign many of the underlying concepts of quidditch at Hogwarts felt to me. If you haven’t engaged with Potter before, quidditch is the only team sport available at wizard boarding school, and it seems to combine rugby with soccer, and a little hide-and-seek, all the while played on broomsticks.

The actual rules of the game aren’t what struck me as most odd, though; instead it was the way quidditch as an extra-curricular activity was structured by the administration at Hogwarts. I’d love to know how much of this is standard European behavior or maybe how much is J.K. Rowling’s fantasy. In any case, if you compare it to the standard Friday Night Lights-style artifice around American high school football or any other team sport, from little league on, you’ll notice one key absence: adult intervention. There are almost no teachers, and absolutely no parents, involved in quidditch.

There’s simply Madame Hooch, the impartial quidditch referee and one-time broomstick lesson instructor. The fact that Madame Hooch collects a paycheck at all is pretty mind-boggling, unless we imagine that she’s also working in the Hogwarts registrars office during the other 99% of her time. Apart from the referee, every other position of authority is granted to a student.

The team captains, though selected by a teacher, are students themselves. There is no coach in quidditch- the team captain runs the try-outs, selects the team members, and schedules and runs the practices. The captain is responsible for creating the plays and strategies for each upcoming match. We can imagine a character like Oliver Wood sitting in his dorm watching 35mm projections of Slytherin practices and scrawling into a folio with an energetic feather.

Even the announcer at the quidditch games is a student, only ever interrupted by Professor McGonagall when he succumbs to bouts of cursing, and hardly even then. The students play an entire tournament and not once does a single parent show up with a camcorder and a pizza party.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, it takes a serial murderer camped directly outside of Hogwarts for months to provoke the school into providing any adult supervision (for a game played fifty feet above the ground, flying on broomsticks). It comes in the form of one-dimensional Madame Hooch, who sits court-side and sleeps her way through the practices.

Compare that to a typical American extra-curricular, where it is an adult coach who builds the team, schedules the practices, assigns positions, plans the plays, and so on. Drive by a community park on a Thursday evening and you’ll see more adults than kids, camped out with umbrellas, lawn chairs, and coolers of Capri-Suns. The coach is typically joined by more than one assistant coach, and as a rule there’s at least one irate parent who’s job apparently is coaching (yelling) from the sidelines.

So what keeps Harry Potter showing up to Quidditch practice six nights a week, if not adult intervention? How on earth does the entire structure not fall apart, with the kids spending their evenings on the wizarding version of TikTok or up in their rooms playing with their gobstones? Apparently it’s all those things we typically want our kids to learn: love of the game, high personal standards, camaraderie, and self-motivation.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for The Sandlot-era sports, and sure Harry Potter is fiction, but the idea the children are given some autonomy, that they’re forced to deal with conflict resolution on their own terms, is not new. This is the basis of self-directed education: kids flourish when given freedom, autonomy, and responsibility. If you create a culture where kids are constantly told what to do- all you’re teaching them is how to wait to be told what to do. On the other hand, if left to their own devices, they’ll find reasons- internal motivation- to push themselves. Some will even step up to become leaders.