Uncompetitive physical culture

At school, sports tend to mean competition. There’s no accident in this. A fair few activities have their roots in warrior skills – javelin is the most obvious, but all those combinations of running, riding and shooting are pretty suspicious too. Not that we did that at school! Games and tournaments are the traditional solution for keeping your army fit and keen when you haven’t got anyone to fight. Some sports – football being the most obvious here – come out of ritualised contests between villages. The strength, stamina, co-ordination and sometimes teamwork of sport all has military applications

Like many young people, I never got on with sport at school. The focus on competition was a big part of it. There have to be winners and losers, and when you are always, invariably the loser, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep investing effort. Only when out of school PE and able to explore swimming, walking and dancing on my own terms did I become interested in sweaty things I could do with my body.

I have no problem with the competitive stuff being there for people who want it. That’s no different from battles of the bands sessions, short story competitions, produce shows or bardic chairs… sometimes the people who are really good need the chance to test themselves against each other. But only in sport do young people find themselves obliged to do that testing week after week as they grow up. No one would give an English lesson a week over to slam poetry and rap battles.

Physical intelligence has far more going on in it that competition. There is more to building strength, stamina, fitness and skill than being better than someone else. What would happen to physical culture if we approached activity from the angle of health and capability rather than competition? How many young people would be spared from regular and pointless humiliation? How many would become interested in being fit and healthy rather than feeling alienated from physical culture?

But of course governments like team sports, because of the military applications. There’s a popular quote (of dubious origins) that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It’s that kind of thinking that puts competition ahead of health and embodiment.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Uncompetitive physical culture

  • vehemenceandemergence

    When I was a kid/teen I thought regular and pointless humiliation was the whole point of gym class and competitive sports? Why ls would they make us play dodgeball? a game where the weakest or most picked on have the opportunity to be assaulted with heavy objects.

  • #themaskwriter

    i never thought about sports in that kind of way, and you’re right! i never liked team sports very much {besides basketball} because collaboration was always overshadowed by competition. but i do love dancing and yoga and other activies that i can do by myself or with others. (:

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Never liked sports, particularly team sports. Never had team spirit, or school spirit, education was my job and I treated it as such. I never felt my town,or state was special, nor really thought that much about my country.

  • Tracy Kruse

    Now that hard science has proven that humanity is not a competitive people, but rather one that is Cooperative and Sharing it surely changes things! When we begin to approach life in that way, we step into the flow of the Universe and everything is easier, more accessible and as a group, we can accomplish so much more. Divide and conquer meant that if the controllers divided us, then they could control more easily! Perhaps in the next few generations, people will begin to put down the scorecard on so many levels and change the rules of the game we have been playing.

  • lornasmithers

    This really got to me when I worked with horses. At beginner’s level (and yes, we’re already talking levels!) a lot of people ride for fun. But even at riding schools people are encouraged to take part in shows and win competitions. You either work at a riding school or a competition yard (or a hunt yard!) and so much of it is about competition. To be respected as an instructor you need to have a good competition record too. And going out competing is costly – the right horse, transport, competition fees… Broke me in the end!

    I’m currently enjoying cycling and jogging/running at my own pace. A part of me does like having goals such as trying to run a half marathon and to speed up a bit to 10 minute miles (my brother’s a marathon runner and does 7 1/2 minute miles – really into competing!) but enjoying being in the landscape and keeping healthy and keeping my anxiety levels down is the main thing.

  • caelesti

    Fortunately there are some that are reclaiming physical activity from the exclusive domain of toxic masculinity. A lot of this is due to feminists, particularly ones of different shapes, sizes and abilities. In my area we have a group called Geek Physique, they have various geek-themed physical activities, like archery, belly-dancing, yoga LARPing, and Klingon battle. It’s about having fun not competition (unless its of a friendly sort!)

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