Should tackling be banned in school rugby?

Over 70 ‘experts’ (read University Professors and academics) have signed an open letter arguing that full contact rugby should be banned in schools. The main reason they cite is the risk of suffering short term or long term injuries. It has created a huge media backlash from many who are aghast at even the thought of taking the contact out of rugby – ‘who do these over-zealous protective parents and health and safety officials think they are?’

Now for those that know me, they would be surprised to hear that I actually have sympathy with the argument from the ‘experts’. I love rugby. I have played it and coached it at a variety of levels for many years. I have taught 11 year old girls to start playing rugby, 15  year old boys at club level, and 17 year old women at elite level. But I do think there is something intrinsically wrong with the focus on contact skills. For a start, at school, children do not get a say in whether they participate in PE lessons (unless they forge a note from their mum). And unfortunately there is still too much bad PE teaching which involves children being forced to play full contact (if slightly modified) games against one another. There are always going to be some children who hate the experience and do not have the confidence or physical ability to succeed. And for those of us who have played full contact rugby, being tackled or making a tackle when your mind isn’t fully committed is more likely to result in injury. Forcing children to ‘hit’ one another is in my view morally wrong.

Which brings me on to the other problem with rugby, and which stems from recent developments at the elite level. Rugby is now all about the physicality, not the skill. The current six nations is pretty dull primarily because it is dominated by defence and therefore needs ‘battering rams’ (such as Jamie Roberts) to be able to break up defences. We celebrate the ‘big hit’ and ‘smashes’ rather than successful tackles. There’s an excellent blog post here about the way in which the language we use filters down to the way that rugby is often taught at a youth level. And often with little regard to the young players involved.

My other experience with coaching young players is that their core strength is often incredibly poor. They are unable to hold the plank position for more than several seconds. And if they haven’t got core strength, and an equal ability to control their limbs (think of the average gangly 15 year old boy), then they’re not going to be able to control their body sufficiently well in a tackle situation.

Finally, there’s the huge size differential at youth level. Yes, there are differences in size in adult level, but the difference is that at a young level, it is easier for the biggest player to use their size as an advantage without having to develop other skills. So what often happens, is the biggest player is given the ball and gets used to running their way over smaller opposition. Then in a few years they suddenly find they are no longer the biggest player on the pitch but haven’t got other skills to fall back on and they drop out of the sport altogether.

Another criticism has come from those who have argued that this letter is just directed towards rugby and not other contact sports such as boxing and martial arts. Well there are calls to ban boxing but the difference for me is that boxing is a much more controlled environment whereby you are facing one other opponent, in a smaller space and with strict rules about contact. In rugby, you may be running down the pitch and tackled by a multitude of players from all sides.

So what’s my solution? I definitely think that rugby should not be a compulsory part of PE. I think that all children should be learning to develop other rugby related skills of handling and agility. I think tackling is fine if it is taught in a very controlled environment that focuses upon the technical elements and the development of core strength. But full contact rugby is not necessary at school level. It can be brought into the game once children have developed into adults once they have developed mastery of their body. (Bizarrely enough I think that, for these reasons, full contact rugby may be more appropriate for under 10s than for the 10 – 18 year group!)

And despite what rugby aficionados might think, it might actually result in national players that are more skillful and produce more aesthetically pleasing games!

 

Empowerment and Naked Sports Calendars

Naked sports calendars have been around for a while now but I still shift uncomfortably when I see yet another female sports team publishing one. Am I just a prude or do I have good reason for my discomfort?*

Part of it is to do with the fact that feminists fight so hard for women to be seen in a way other than a sexualised object; showing the non-sexualised (strong, graceful, powerful, beautiful) body through sport is one of the ways of challenging this view of women. Sport demonstrates what the body can achieve, not what it looks like.

Producing a naked sports calendar may seem like innocent fun, and there are those that argue that the women photographed in them are strong, confident and assertive, especially if they are already established and elite athletes. There are others who argue that it is no different to the naked calendars of male sports teams. It is a complex issue to unpick but as Charlene Weaver argues well in her article on this subject, the empowerment that women might feel being part of these calendars is based upon smoke and mirrors. Ultimately it “centres on viewers turning strong athletic women into sexual objects” and undermines efforts to recognise the female body as something more than this.

That is why it was so good to see the pictures (though not a calendar) produced by Emory University’s women’s rugby team. This to me was a breath of much needed fresh air. It is a brilliant campaign that focuses upon how (in this case) rugby makes women feel about themselves. Not what they look like to others.

Rebecca.

Reference:

Weaver, C. (2012) Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of Women Olympians’ Nude Reflections. Sports, Ethics and Philosophy. 6: 232-250.

* I will admit that I reluctantly took part myself in a naked calendar several years ago. I expressed reservations about it but for a myriad of complex reasons eventually agreed to be photographed. Hypocritcal? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my mind on whether it is a good thing or not.

Should scrums be banned in rugby?

Academics at the University of Bath are currently conducting research into the biomechanical forces inherent in the rugby scrum. The rationale behind this investigation stems from a premise that the welfare of players should take precedence over all else.

The debate over whether the scrum in rugby is a safe and necessary part of the game is a perennial one which seems to polarise opinion as can be seen in the comments on The Guardian’s article on this. You will get veracious advocates maintaining that one of the key values of rugby compared to the majority of other sports is that it provides an avenue for all body shapes and sizes to perform. Others will state that the front row is a highly technical part of the game that requires important mental tenacity and skills that should remain. Yet the critics point to the serious injuries and long term damage that result from the impact of antagonistic forces on the neck and spine. This is reinforced by the announced retirement of England prop, Phil Vickery, who after several neck operations was advised by doctors that if he continued to play he would do himself even more permanent damage.

There are many philosophical questions that arise from this discussion. First, how much should risk and danger be eliminated from our lives? Do we take a paternalistic stance and limit the type of activities that people can freely choose to participate in? Or do we take a libertarian approach and say that if people want to do dangerous things to themselves, even if it might cause them injury or even death, then we should let them do so?

I’m always inclined to take a libertarian approach to these types of things (although there are some issues surrounding the free choice of children and other vulnerable individuals) but the case of the tight-head prop forward is slightly more complicated than the case of the lone base-jumper. This stems around the notion of ‘free choice’. It is given that there are players who relish each and every scrum as the opportunity to dominate their opposing player and provide an effective platform for the rest of the team. However, as every team knows, these types of front row players, and props in particular are hard to come by. Conduct a poll asking players what position they would ideally play and I suspect back-row and centre will come out on top. Prop forward would be at the bottom. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, it is a technical position that requires immense concentration in order to avoid discomfort at best and serious neck injury at worse. When I started playing rugby (at University) I had no idea what the positions meant and found myself put in at prop having had very limited training. My first match against Cambridge University saw me leave the pitch with three broken ribs. As soon as I recovered I moved to fly-half.

The second reason is that because of the bound nature of the position in the scrum, props (and this is certainly the case at lower levels) often don’t get to appreciate the most valued and essential features of the game, that is; running, passing and tackling. By the time a front row player has extracted herself from the scrum, the ball is over the other side of the pitch and then the whistle is blown for another scrum. At the lower echelons of the game where the basic skills are weaker, front row players find themselves going from one scrum to the next with little opportunity to take part in the rest of the game. This might be accepted by the few players who feel their scrummaging skills are about all they can offer to their team but for all other players who want the opportunity to run with the ball, it is not surprising that there is often a dearth of front row forwards.

This returns us to the problem with the notion of  ‘free choice’. If prop forwards are difficult to find and few players openly express a desire to play there, and yet the laws of the game state that a contested scrum is a key part of the game, players may find themselves being reluctantly cajoled into playing there out of a fear of letting their team down.

A few years ago, the Premiership team Clifton was deducted points and relegated for being unable to field a front row. When this is the outcome, it would be unsurprising that players find themselves pressurised to play in these positions. And this is hardly ‘free choice’ is it? Yes, one could take a Sartrean position and say that the player always has a choice (The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre said that if a man held a gun to your head saying ‘Your money or your life’, you still had a free choice!) but we need to recognise that the pressures that players feel from being part of a team mean that they might acquiesce to things that they wouldn’t do if they didn’t feel these social pressures.

So what is the answer to this conundrum then? I would argue that the research conducted by the University of Bath has to be supported by a philosophical investigation into the values and aims of rugby. The results of a biomechanical analysis will offer no insight into what ought to be done. Even if it were concluded that the forces that players were subject to were great enough to cause injury, then it doesn’t provide any advice as to whether this means they should be removed. The inherent risks involved in many things doesn’t mean that they are banned (e.g. alcohol, cigarettes, horse riding, boxing…).

So the answer to this is to decide what it is that is fundamentally important to the game of rugby. What makes it a worthwhile and valuable sport and social activity? And do we wish to eliminate risk or manage it in other ways (e.g. better training for players, coaches and referees)? These are the questions that will really provide an answer to the place of the scrum in rugby.

N.B. There is a new book coming out in December on Ethical Issues in Sports Coaching, of which I have co-authored a chapter on Coaching Dangerous Sports.

The ‘sweet tension of uncertainty’ #wrwc

There has been much discussion in the philosophy of sport about what makes a ‘good game’ and the conclusion seems to be best expressed by Sigmund Loland who uses the phrase ‘the sweet tension of uncertainty of outcome’ (p149, Fair Play in Sport).

Essentially, this means that ‘good games’ are those in which the result is always in doubt; the higher the level of doubt, the greater the anticipation of a ‘good game’. It perhaps is also a psychological reason why we (as non-partisan observers) root for the ‘underdog’; we want to convince ourselves that we will see a game where we simply don’t know what will happen. At the very least, it makes life more interesting.

And so on day 2 of the Women’s Rugby World Cup, I’m once again hoping that there really is the ‘sweet tension of uncertainty of outcome’; I don’t want New Zealand to walk over Australia, and I’d like to see Kazakhstan shake England up a bit. It’ll take just one match going against the odds to put the question of doubt in everyone’s minds about all the other matches; the whole tournament will take on a different perspective.

And when nothing is certain, the tension will taste all the sweeter.

5 ways to follow the Women’s Rugby World Cup

  1. Watch the matches live at the venues: All the pool matches are at the Surrey Sports Park. The semi-finals and the finals are at the Twickenham Stoop. Match tickets can be bought here.
  2. Watch the matches live on television and the internet: Thirteen matches are being shown on Sky Sports. For those of you that don’t have access to Sky Sports or are abroad you can watch the games here.
  3. Get the latest news and results from the official IRB website.
  4. Read the articles on ScrumQueens website: this has by far the most in-depth coverage of the tournament.
  5. Search for #wrwc on Twitter: this way you can keep up with all the comments, thoughts and general banter made by the masses.

Why I am excited about the Women’s Rugby World Cup

The women’s rugby world cup will start on Friday and I can’t wait. The anticipation I feel is almost too much to bear. Why? It’s not because I’m particularly patriotic and look forward to lauding England’s superiority in a post-colonial world, as I’m secretly hoping for an upset in the pool stages – maybe Sweden or Kazakhstan will pull off the surprise of the tournament. It’s not that I am desperate to watch some high quality rugby, although for the sake of the game itself I hope the games are compelling on account of the skill level. It’s not even because it is out of term time and I need something to occupy my attention; if only that were true. The reason I am counting down the days, hours and minutes is that I’ve become involved in the women’s rugby world cup narrative.

What I mean by this is that I’ve been following the ‘tweets’, watching the youtube videos, reading the articles on various websites and news outlets, and I’ve found myself starting to care about the characters and the developing story-lines. I’ve become emotionally engaged in it because the characters have been unfolding and it has started to mean something to me; I want to know what happens next.

This is where the media play a hugely important role in women’s sport. Too often the excuse for not reporting women’s sport (perhaps tennis and athletics excepting) is that no-one is interested. The trouble is, that people don’t get interested in things unless they know about them and become involved in the background stories and narratives. As I’ve commented elsewhere, this is where the BBC (in it’s capacity as a public service) has a moral obligation. They need to recognise that engagement only begins after exposure. (Actually, the BBC know this full well otherwise they would never ‘trailer’ anything – how often have you seen the trailer for BBC online news on the television?!)

The reason that so many non-football fans watch the men’s world cup, or that we end up watching some obscure Olympic sport is wholly down to subtle (or non so subtle) manipulation and exposure via television, radio and the web for months beforehand. Once the mainstream media start to do this with women’s sport, then the interest and enthusiasm generated will snowball.

This is what has happened to me and my thirst for the women’s rugby world cup over the last few months in this new age of social media. I’ve become engaged, involved and I want more…