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A Damaging Obsession With the Real Game

By Neil Griffiths
A Damaging Obsession With the Real Game

Having spent a lifetime enjoying the gift of movement and involvement in a wide variety of physical endeavors, I have often reflected on the value of those opportunities. As a five-year-old I can vividly remember parading around the playground inviting people to join the line in response to the chant, “Join on whose playing.” I also well remember that the line would continue to grow, to the point that the bell would sound for the end of recess without us even having started the game. Nevertheless, there was a great sense of achievement in the knowledge that the line had grown to such great proportions. So much so that we were helpless to repeat this seemingly fruitless undertaking on a daily basis.
As a teenager, again I found myself in situations that were full of the joy of anticipation. Of note was our regular Saturday afternoon neighborhood kick-around. Though here, the invitation to join the line was replaced by a more direct knock on the door of friends you wanted to join you. It was apparent that the more people who accepted the request, the happier the growing crowd became. Though in reality, the increasing numbers did nothing to improve the game experience itself, perhaps we were simply being driven by the false assumption that we needed to have 11 players on each side in order to play the real game? As so often happens in life, we spend so many years as children wanting to do what adults do, only to realize that as adults we spend much of our time trying to do what we should have done as children.
From a sporting perspective, in education we often find ourselves entrenched in the vision that we need to aspire to the “real game,” or the full game, that our students can only be aptly tested through involvement in a big game setting. However, in reality, the modified games used as stepping-stones almost exclusively provide a more enjoyable and fruitful experience for the learner than the real thing.
Currently, tennis balls are marketed with the label that 50 percent pressure is targeted at 9- to 10-year-old children. The reality, though, is that any adult playing tennis with those balls is probably going to experience a far more enjoyable outing on the court. The balls are lighter, they don’t break the strings on your racket, they do not bounce so high that you cannot play the next shot, and they travel more slowly. They are without question better able to provide a more enjoyable sporting experience for the masses. However, if we try to suggest at the tennis club that the club championship should use this equipment, we will likely be laughed at, because that’s not how you play tennis.
Why are we so uncomfortable with modified games? For decades we have seen modifications to high-contact sports that pose like against like. Why are we not expanding that concept and promoting modified/categorized games in their own right? Numerous sports, including basketball and volleyball, are largely height-dependent confrontations at all levels of play. Why then don’t we make the heights the focus of the different levels? Should we not have professional and amateur leagues for those volleyball and basketball players who belong to the sub 160cm, 170cm, 180cm, 190cm, and above 200cm categories? What makes a game of basketball played by those over 200cm better than one played by those under 180cm? In the absence of this, do we send the message to young learners that sport and exercise are really not for all? Currently we allow masses of money to be spent on the most unusual physical specimens, and then hold them in weirdly high esteem, even though they are now way too big for our traditional games. What this says to our physical education students is that sizism is alive and kicking.
As educators, we have the opportunity in schools to take the emphasis away from natural attributes and instead focus on the growth mind-set so well described by Dr. Carol Dweck. However, in putting an emphasis on those natural attributes in our team games, we are not practicing what we preach. If we want to inspire a multitude of students, then we need a massive restructuring of the fixed mindset we see so prevalent in sport.
Neil Griffiths teaches Secondary Physical Education at Canadian International School in Singapore.

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