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Dawn Duran has posted a series of articles on the place of physical education in childrens’ education. In THIS post, she discusses the most commonly attributed benefit of team sports which proponents use in arguing for their placement in children’s lives, namely: character. Among the virtues listed we find the following things potentially available for children in sports:

-the mastering of motor skills

-camaraderie and fellowship

-teamwork

-communication skills

-leadership skills

-fortitude/emotional strength

-perseverance and endurance

-learning that rules must be followed

-taking ownership of mistakes (and stop making excuses). Learning to process failure.

-learning to remain teachable (humility)

-learning to obey authority

None of the above characteristics are innately found in sports, or automatically received from them. (We’ve all known amazing athletes who appear to have the opposite of all the afore mentioned character traits. Athletic skill and character skill can be taught together, but are not synonymous. Indeed, not only can athletes miss developing these qualities, they can develop additional bad qualities, depending on the situation and their attendance thereof.) Nonetheless, there is opportunity for character cultivation that is uniquely embodied in sports in ways not available in classrooms with paper and ink.

Mrs.Duran concedes to the difficulty today of finding a relevant sports program in which one can learn these things, pointing out that one often is faced with a choice between a highly competitive (and expensive) league which occupies all time and attention, and the “everyone’s a winner” joke found in some city leagues. Building on these obstacles to be found in the transmission of character through sports, we might consider how the commodification of sports has lead to angling the ends of our involvement in ways we had not previously planned. Not only are sports big business, but their currency often extends beyond cash-value into the realm of ethics and other culture building  realities. At the time in which these reflections are being typed, Rhonda Rousey is assisting (or perhaps, being used) in the re-interpretation of femininity in a modern world where the term feminine is becoming increasingly obscure.

Other issues worth reflecting on surrounding team sports and character might include an inquisition into why, among those who advocate team sports for children, so few involve themselves in team sports. Do we really believe team sports are character building? Perhaps we believe we’ve “already learned it all” by the time we are adults. Or perhaps we believe it is “too late” once we are adults. Or, along the same lines, perhaps we think team sports are a unique opportunity for training character that is distinctly childish? Are the lessons of character simply not precious enough to make time for in the long-list of to-do’s which adults/parents have? One certainly shouldn’t entertain any sloppy notion of not involving one’s self in team sports because one’s body is “too beat up”. There are team sports available for geriatrics- that is to say, there are team games to be found which are conducive to every state of physical health. (Besides, isn’t another benefit of team sports supposed to be found in how they get you into shape?)

Additional fruitful inquiries could be made concerning conflicting motives for training sports today, as well as “how” we train sports, and how these things can become obstacles to character development in athletes, or even be the result of an impoverished economy of character in a sports environment. Today, despite immense breakthroughs in science, technology, the gear used in sports, and thoughtful amendments to rulebooks, the injury rates continue to climb- especially for children. Wanting your child to develop physical health and a virtuous character are one thing, but perhaps the competitive training now necessary to make collegiate teams is not worth the lifetime-handicaps which often come with the glory of success. And motivations aside, perhaps our simple, modern understanding of training practices is itself handicapped by modern man’s belief that by reducing and isolating a thing, one can best understand/control/perfect it. There is good neuroscience research now that says individual skills are better learned within the totality of complex circumstances, rather than through repetitive, isolated cycles. When parents tell their sons to throw the football 1,000 times a day, 6 days a week, do they really expect their rotator cuffs to hold up?

It is interesting to note that team sports have only taken their prominent position in American society within the last century. Sometime around the 20’s, the (non-competitive) gymnastics-based education of the previous century was wiped away, and in its stead came all the competitive sports. Today, high school children avoid “P.E.” class if at all possible, as such non-competitive endeavors are seen as meaninglessly arduous tasks which ungifted dorks must engage in for a short duration in order to pass high school.

Some of the “golden age” of P.E. is being reclaimed and expanded on by so-called “movement” experts and enthusiasts such as Ido Portal, MovNat, and Kelly Starrett, but can we perhaps stop the pendulem swing now, and see where both competitive team (and individual) sports and non-competitive individual (and team?) sports have their strenghths and weaknesses? It is all well and good to recognize that the overspecializiation found in competitive sports today is largely reponsible for the maiming of our citizens, and the narrowing and even blinding of our view and experience of a physical life. Still, this doesn’t mean that we can simply drop the practice altogether. Individual sports, (as communicated in part in Dawn Duran’s article), competitive or otherwise, cannot provide some of the embodied lessons of virtue which exist in communal activity. Teamwork is an obvious one from this list, but we can even see that things such as our emotional fortitude are further challenged by the public arena in ways which private failure are more gracious.

Do we then simply need to amend our team sports, and forget what non-competitive and/or individual sports have to offer? Hardly, as they too offer uniquely embodied experiences which are not readily available in other contexts. An either/or discussion here is about as useful as a discussion over which food group one should commit his self to. Instead, a balanced approach is to be more heartily recommended. As to the specifics of proportion, we find here another potential inquiry could and should be made. What are the “food groups” of physical activity? What should be located at the tiny-top of the pyramid? What gets the broad base-position? Is this pyramid entirely universal, or should it adapt in part to the individual, much like we are learning in regards to the food-pyramid paradigm?