Ten Laps of Thought
Mid-morning the gym is used by the local school. I run above the gym, on an elevated track belonging to the YWCA. And as I run, I can peer down below at the kids playing at recess, getting short glimpses as I round a bend in the track and head out along the straightaway. I watch these kids, think about my recesses as a child, think about their dynamics, and ponder what effect their play now will have on the rest of their lives.
The kids are middle-school age, twelve or so, some older, some younger. They’re mostly boys, and I wonder if that’s because of a strange imbalance in the local population – or, more likely, that the kids are given the choice of “going to the gym” for recess or staying at the school. I imagine that over at the school huge numbers of girls – and a few boys – gather and chat, trade trinkets, giggle. So here at the gym are mostly boys, maybe fifty or sixty of them, and less than twenty girls.
I watch the boys in quick glances as I run past above them. They form a veritable American melting pot – black boys, Hispanic boys, Hmong boys, and a couple white ones. They share the same culture of clothing and of game, and so don’t seem to notice the difference in skin tones or facial features. Baggy pants hang off of waists or below waists; some are jeans, some shiny sports pants, some corduroy. Baggy shirts cover their tops – droopy T-shirts or sports shirts bearing numbers or the names of favorite players. All are shod in the necessity of American youth: sneakers. And the boys have separated into a few groups according to no obvious pattern. Today someone brought a football and the majority of them are playing tag football on teams of perhaps twenty aside with no obvious distinction between them. Most of the rest of the boys are playing basketball at the other end of the gym. And a few more loiter here and there, talk to girls, or shoot hoops together in two’s and three’s.
I watch the girls now, the few of them that are here. They stay at the sides of the gym, avoiding the vitality and commotion at the center where the boys play. Many of the girls haven’t even bothered to take off their winter coats. They sit huddled in small groups on the side bleachers, the ones in front turned around to talk with their friends behind. Occasionally they walk in pairs from one end of the gym to the other, sharing secrets, telling rumors.
It disturbs me that the girls aren’t really getting any exercise. And I remember back to my elementary and middle school recesses; it was the same then. In fourth grade, the boys would play what was called “suicide” at my school, but doubtless has many names and many forms throughout the country. The only requisite for this game was a tennis ball and a large wall. And the boys would gather in large groups to throw, catch, and run, trying to be the best at a game that had no end except the screech of the end-of-recess whistle. In fifth grade they would migrate out to the field to play a game that seemed a cross between football, soccer, and rugby. All the while the girls, whatever their grade, would gather close to the school in small groups and gossip, tell secrets, make up imaginary worlds together. We would run around sometimes, play tag, climb on the jungle-gym, swing on the swing, but always in our tight-knit small groups. In seventh grade, many of the boys would go outside and play basketball when the pavement wasn’t covered in snow. The girls always stayed inside at their lunch tables and talked. I remember being frustrated with the gender divide that clearly was unbridgeable. Girls almost never played suicide; when they did, they became outcasts of every girl clique. A friend of mine and I bucked the seventh grade taboo and went outside to play basketball with the boys. Although we both played on (all-girl) teams outside school, the boys playing basketball refused to play with us. We ended up playing (and beating) two side-lined boys.
Whatever the reason, boys tend to form their early friendships through social physical contact. When they’re given free reign, they expend their boundless energy in physical competitive play. Girls, by contrast, tend to form their friendships through social verbal contact. The bonds among girls are necessarily formed through speech. This is, of course, a generality, and there exists a broad spectrum which can see any given child anywhere along it. As I see it, the trouble comes later in life. For by high school, the social scene begins to challenge boys’ verbal social skills and they learn and improve, but girls are never challenged to develop their physical nature. Typically the only official offerings for girls all come in the competitive team sport mold – the model that works so well for boys. By college, girls have pretty much become “sport” girls or “non-sport” girls. I saw this clearly in the walk-ons that came to join my college fencing team. There were the girls who had played some sort of sport (or did dance), and they generally took to the new moves of fencing quite quickly. They were familiar with their own bodies, how much they could run, their own sense of balance and flexibility. Then there were the other girls – perhaps braver, I would say – who were fairly new to all sports. They had a really rough time because they didn’t know their own strengths and limitations, and had never developed muscle memory for anything physical. Most of them dropped out fairly early; it’s hard to be bad at something new, especially if the other beginners seem to be “getting it” faster. I doubt they had much luck at any other sports, either.
Suddenly I see something unusual: a girl sprinting across the end of the gym. She slows a little and looks back at the group behind her. She’s got a big black jacket in her hand. And then the boy, who’s been flirting with the group of girls realizes that his jacket is missing and takes off after her. It’s not even close. He narrows the gap quickly, she relinquishes the jacket, and the two of them return to the group. Not much, I think sadly, but a little exercise, I suppose. And then I see it. Of course! The “girl” games. Four or five girls are bunched together over near the gym wall. Two of them are holding a rope between them, and swinging it around in a circle. A third girl jumps, and jumps, and does a half-turn on the third jump. I remember back: yes, we had jump rope. And double Dutch, and Chinese jump rope, which no one seemed to know how to do. And we had foursquare and hopscotch, and a myriad of clapping games. These games were all active, but also contained the necessary component: we could talk, laugh, and joke together as we played, not to mention the chanting. Who could forget the choruses of “Miss Mary Mack” or “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear” or “Miss Lucy had a Steamboat”?
In adulthood, both men and women forget about sport and play. They know they need to be active to be healthy and so they drag themselves half-unwilling to the gym. I know, because I see them here at the YWCA trudging along on the treadmills and step-machines with headphones blaring, trying to forget their torment. But exercise can be fun, and the kids playing on the gym floor in the same building don’t have to be told that. I had my first soccer game in years last week. It was a blast. Fifty minutes of running around went by almost too fast, and since many of us were new to the team, we all met a set of potential new friends. But to play on teams such as mine requires the unspoken knowledge of past sports play. One of the new women on my team is enthusiastic, self-deprecating, and inexperienced. It occurs to me that while the rest of us know, without thinking, the basics of soccer – how to do a legal throw-in, the defensive strategy of clearing to the side, the concept of give-and-go – this eager woman is clueless. This circumstance leads to a common problem in adult sports. Newcomers without experience are stuck: they have no easy way to learn the strategies and peculiarities of a sport. Experienced players are reluctant to seem rude or condescending by suggesting, for example, a newcomer cover the open player on the left. And the newcomer doesn’t have the luxury of the parent-coach who corrects and instructs kids first starting out. They may be embarrassed about their lack-of-knowledge, or simply not know what (or who) to ask to become better players. And so they often become withdrawn, knowing they’re “no good,” volunteering to sit out as subs, and eventually not showing up at all.
I started taking step-aerobics classes at the YWCA. They were free with my membership and I figured they would be a more interesting alternative to constantly running laps during the winter months. Mondays and Fridays are standard step, and Wednesdays is “BoSU,” which is like step aerobics, but uses a squishy dome instead of a solid step. The class size seems to relate directly to the personality of the instructor, but on all three days, the classes are almost exclusively made up of women. Why is this? Is it because of the feminine stereotype affixed to the activity? Is it because “real men” only engage in competitive athletics? But in activities like step aerobics we begin to see solutions. Step aerobics is a social activity, and a non-competitive one. Like jump rope, aerobics challenge the individual to improve, but in a non-threatening way. No one has to learn strategy or rules to participate. And while I felt like a complete greenhorn my first few times, when I stepped with the wrong foot or kicked when everyone else was doing a grapevine my mistakes didn’t cost any of the other women a goal or keep them from hitting their target heart rates.
I went to Brown University, home of the Title IX lawsuit which strove to make Brown – and universities across the country – more sports-friendly to female students. The resulting settlement requires Brown to ensure roughly equal participation and support for male and female athletes at the institution. The major imbalance in numbers (both in terms of the number of female athletes and financial numbers) comes from the fact that Brown has a varsity football program. In order to be competitive, the Brown football team (as with collegiate football teams everywhere), consists of far more players than any other sport and consumes a disproportionate amount of the athletic budget. There is no female equivalent of football. Often field hockey is presented as the female bookend to football, but field hockey simply doesn’t support the number of players as football and so requires less money. What is a university to do? Brown’s solution – to bulk up the women’s teams with extra players to the extent that there weren’t enough facilities or coaches for them all and at the same time squeeze players from the men’s team to the extent that the men’s varsity water polo team was allowed only one player over the minimum needed for a team – was in no one’s best interest. Instead the solution should have addressed the imbalance of the football team. I don’t mean that the football team should have been cut, but rather some athletic activity should have been instantiated that could have created vast numbers of female athletes without their male counterparts feeling slighted. Perhaps a women’s flag football team like they have in the south would fit the bill. (The argument against, currently, is that other colleges don’t have teams, and so there would be no one to play against.) Or even better, perhaps the solution lies in expanding the concept of an athletics department to include activities that are not physically competitive. Brown has no physical education department, and the only physical classes offered at the gym have to be paid for individually, in addition to tuition, and are not for credit. So the only real option for a broke college student without a sporting background is to run laps or sit on an exercise bike, endlessly pedaling. An athletics department that encompasses both varsity play-to-win sports, as well as the likes of aerobics, spinning, and kick boxing, would easily maintain a balanced gender ratio, as well as provide for the physical well-being of many more students.
Of course, adding aerobics to college offerings isn’t the final or only solution to societal sedentariness; it’s only a step. (Pardon the pun.) The main point here is that kids get exercise while having fun, but girls tend do so differently than boys. As they get older, exercise is institutionalized as sports programs at the high school and college level. (High school kids don’t have recess; they have after-school sports.) At these levels, the more competitive girls and boys thrive, but the rest have only gym class, or nothing at all. By college, young men and women often find worthwhile exercise only if they have the prerequisite knowledge and skills built up from their younger years. This problem is only exacerbated in adulthood, when varsity athletes discover that there are few adult clubs or leagues catering to their sport, and they, too, leave the world of fun exercise.
The solutions then are to address these gaps throughout the entire lifetime. From a young age, girls and boys, but especially girls, should be offered fun, social, active activities as a matter of course. While I believe it is good to introduce every child to the idea of friendly competition, there will always be those who shy away from it. There should be alternatives. Dance is an obvious example. Why is it that high schools invariably offer soccer and baseball teams, but not ballet or jazz dance classes? Or perhaps schools can introduce a new type of sport. It can’t take too much imagination to come up with something more sophisticated than jump rope while retaining the exercise benefits and cooperative spirit of the childhood game. In any case, it’s imperative at all levels that the concept of “sports” and of “athletics” be expanded to mean both the varsity-level and club sports, as well as non-competitive, social, physical activities. And at the adult level, as well as at younger ages, there need to be opportunities for complete beginners. Mixed-level leagues are uncomfortable for everyone, and I believe that many adults refuse to even try a new sport because they sense this. There should be teams available for adults that consist exclusively of beginners – and a coach. These coaches can teach the absolute basics that are taken for granted by anyone who played just two years of soccer or little league as a kid. There don’t even have to be games, necessarily. Perhaps beginner adults would be perfectly happy with scrimmages with the coach stopping the action at various times and giving pointers to the players. They’d get more exercise than they would sitting on a stationary bike, anyway. And they’d certainly have more fun.
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©2005 Margaret Kosmala