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!

 

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Open Letter to Tracey Couch on GB Football Team for Rio 2016

Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, in order to highlight how important it was to ensure a GB women’s football team was sent to the Rio Olympics:

Dear Ms Crouch MP,

On the back of the tremendous performances by the England women’s football team in the World Cup, could I urge you as Secretary for State for Sport, to lobby the Home Nations football governing bodies to work together to enter a GB team for the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics is unsurpassed in the way that it promotes women’s sport on the same level as men’s and therefore effort needs to be made to ensure that women have the opportunity to play on this stage. Both England women and men have qualified for the rugby 7s but have agreements in place with other Home nation governing bodies to send a GB team to represent the country in Rio. Everything should be done to ensure this is the same for football. I cannot understand what reasons could possibly take priority over the opportunity for a women’s football team to play in the largest global sporting event.

Please could you let me know what you are currently doing, or plan to do, in order to make this opportunity a reality.

Yours sincerely,

Emily Ryall

I’ve just received a written response back and it’s very sad and disappointing. Effectively it looks like it’s not going to happen:

“The home nations are rightly proud of their history and the independent statuses they enjoy in world football, and there remains genuine concern that FIFA could see the coming together of a unified British team in this instance as a reason for them to question the validity of having separate national teams in future world competitions.”

Ultimately the blame is placed on FIFA for not providing sufficient assurance that the integrity of the home nations team will remain if they come together to form a GB team for Rio.

The sad consequence is that the best women footballers in GB will not be able to represent their country at the biggest global sport event for women. These are not the highly paid men that care little about putting on a national shirt, these are women that have fought (and continue to fight) to be respected as athletes and are denied the opportunity to showcase their achievements at the highest level.

I will continue to push Tracey Crouch to advocate for a GB women’s football team and encourage you to do the same.

What Do We Have To Do To Get Women’s Sport Right?

When I first went to primary school (back in the early 80s) the playground was segregated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections that were divided by a low brick wall. Whilst most of the girls were content with chatting and making daisy chains, I was desperate to play football with the boys who were on the other side of that wall. Probably spurred on by my mum, I went to see the headmistress to ask if I could play football with the boys. As a result I was given special dispensation and was allowed on both sides of the playground. I don’t remember how this made me feel at the time – I think I just felt special that I could go with either the boys or the girls, but the question is why the school thought it was appropriate to segregate the playground in the first place. When we moved house a couple of years later and I went to a different primary school, again I had to get special agreement to play football with the boys in the after-school club rather than go to the girls netball practice.

As a child, you don’t understand the politics and theory that influences these decisions – you just want to follow your interests and friends. I was lucky enough to have a mother that was vocal and believed in equality of the sexes (she actually got the sack from her first job for complaining that she wasn’t getting paid as much as a male colleague doing exactly the same work) and this gave me the confidence to think that there was no reason why I should be playing football or joining the Scouts (we lost the battle on the Scout front as they wouldn’t let me join). I was one of the lucky ones that managed to succeed in sport and I am still happy and confident to play with men in whatever sport I can. I accept my physical limitations and whilst I might get frustrated I’m not stronger or faster than I am, I don’t put them down to being a ‘girl’. I know that I’m not going to beat Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint but neither are 99.99% of men either.

As the excellent report by the House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport committee has identified, there are no easy answers to getting more women and girls involved in sport. There are many complex and inter-locking reasons for the differences between men’s and women’s sport and their participation rates, ranging from cultural history and stereotypes, the way that girls and boys are brought up with different expectations, the fact that those that tend to teach girls PE are the few women that have succeeded in the system (and therefore are happy to continue it), the fact that power in politics, media and business has traditionally been in the hands of men… the list of reasons goes on and on.

As such, there are never going to be quick fix solutions and we shouldn’t imagine that one solution will fit everyone. There is a suggestion that PE in schools should be sex segregated but that will not be conducive to all girls; those that have excellent physical literacy are developed further by, and embrace, competing with boys. Equally, offering more ‘feminine’ sports may simply perpetuate the traditional sex stereotypes. The root of the problem is much deeper and will take time to address.

Yet, there are some really good suggestions in the report, most notably, ensuring that there is more communication and co-operation between various Governmental departments, and more recording of data on the way that money is spent on facilities and clubs and the affect that has on participation rates. There also needs to be much more time provided on ensuring physical literacy at the pre-school and infant stage of education – and this also requires training primary school teachers to address many of their traditional stereotypes about boys and girls.

I hope that if we get parents, teachers and the media to buy in to the fact that skill and literacy in sport is primarily dependent on practice and not sex chromosomes then things will get better for women in sport at the grass-roots level and at the elite. Australia, Canada and the US have all developed cultures whereby it is ‘cool’ for girls to be playing sport, and there’s no reason why we can’t too. But it has to mean we must do what we can to start to address the problem at all levels.

#BeAGameChanger – Pushing women’s sport forward

Last night I attended an event organised and hosted by the Women’s Sport Trust. In the room were an invited audience of 350 women and men who have an interest in women’s sport, encompassing figures such as broadcaster Clare Balding, coach Judy Murray (who both made incredibly impassioned off-the-cuff speeches) as well a wealth of Olympic and Paralympic medallists and international and ex-international athletes. This was in addition to business leaders and journalists – all who want to raise the profile of women in sport (you might justly ask why I was there!).

The evening was positive and inspirational and centred around a Q & A session with four current England captains (Katy Mclean – rugby, Steph Houghton – football, Charlotte Edwards – cricket, Pamela Cookey – netball) led by broadcaster Alice Arnold and followed by comments by a range of other leading figures. And looking at the buzz it created, it met its goal easily – with the #BeAGameChanger hashtag trending on Twitter.

Things aren’t great for women in sport from the school playing field upwards but they are better than they were even five years ago and what the Women’s Sport Trust showed was that there is a continuing impetus for change. They are doing exactly the right thing in trying to get the all important business leaders and journalists on board. When women’s sport is regularly covered and reported in the media and money is invested by the corporate world, society will be affected and culture will change. Young girls will no longer feel it is socially unacceptable to kick a ball around with their friends in the park or relish the thought of competing for victory. It is this culture that really needs to change and that will only happen if the wider media start reporting women’s sport as being as normal as men’s sport. There is a long, long way to go on this but the wheels do seem to be gradually moving.

There does seem to be a new feminist movement at the moment, whether from women in science and technology, women in philosophy, women in politics or women in sport. But equally and sadly there does seem to also be a reaction to this empowerment as can be seen in the worrying popularity of the misogynistic online PUA (pick-up artist) doctrine which has been linked to the recent shooting in California by Elliot Rodger, and the horrific abuse and trolling women have received on social media. Yet perhaps the fact that these voices are being increasingly marginalised indicates that culture is continuing to change; that wider society does (reluctantly in some cases) realise it needs to do more to provide opportunities for women to develop and showcase their talents. Events such as the one organised last night are signs that many see the status quo as not good enough and are willing to do their bit to keep pushing forward.

On a personal note, I have always been reluctant to get actively involved in women’s issues because I have been reluctant to define myself as a woman. I have always wanted to be defined by what I do and as such I sometime bury my head in the sand about the barriers women face. Last night reinforced to me however, that until the day where women are on a par with men at all levels of society I have a duty to do what I can to push women and girls forward and influence others to give them opportunities to be the best they can in every sphere of life. So all credit to the Women’s Sport Trust for organising #BeAGameChanger and even more credit to them for getting a sceptic like me to leave with my head buzzing with ideas and a renewed passion in my heart.

If you want to find out more about what you can do to help the Women’s Sport Trust then go here: http://www.womenssporttrust.com/bingo

Why Helen Grant’s MP comments were misjudged

Sport minister, Helen Grant MP, has just given an interview to The Telegraph newspaper stating that women should be given more opportunities to participate in feminine sports, such as cheerleading. The article goes on to quote that it enables “those participating [to] look absolutely radiant and very feminine”. And the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation have released a statement agreeing with her.

The problem is however, that it perpetuates gender stereotypes that suggest female = feminine and male = masculine. And it is these stereotypes that have held women in sport back for so long and led to years of people (mainly men) suggesting that sport is bad for women. Indeed, it is only in the last couple of weeks that we saw comments made by Russia’s ski jumping coach, Alexander Arefyev, who said that women should not be participating in ski-jump because “Women have another purpose – to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.”

So however well intentioned Ms Grant’s comments were – and I do not disagree with the fact that everyone (male and female) should have an opportunity to participate in a range of sports and exercise activities – unfortunately they were completely misguided. The headlines that have been drawn focus upon the notion that women and girls should (as a moral imperative) be emphasising their femininity through participation in particular ‘feminine’ sports.

What we really need to be doing (and this has been a focus in Parliament recently) is trying to dispel the gender stereotypes that begin at birth and are enforced throughout childhood. We need to stop ourselves saying to girls in particular ‘that’s not for girls’ or ‘that’s not very ladylike’ in the way that we expect them to behave where we have no issue with ‘boys being boys’ and playing roughly or getting muddy. This is what will help to change attitudes for girls participating in sport and exercise, so that when they get to secondary school they don’t feel that sports which leave them hot and sweaty aren’t for them.

Yes there should be a range of activities for both girls and boys that enable them to enjoy physical activity, but focusing upon ‘femininity’ just seeks to preserve the same old stereotypes.

How Nelson Mandela Used Sporting Patriotism for Good

In Tännsjö and Tamburrini’s excellent edited collection, ‘Values in Sport’, Paul Gomberg and Nick Dixon debate whether patriotism in sport is a good thing. Whilst Dixon argues that a ‘moderate patriotism’ can be morally defended, Gomberg presents a vehement argument against it. For Gomberg, patriotism is morally equivalent to jingoism and any patriotic attitude can be used for nationalistic purposes: “..moderate patriotism, even as cultivated in sports, gives way in these situations to the most barbaric, fascist attacks on others, all in the service of the capitalist ruling groups who initiate this process.” (p98)

However, when Nelson Mandela chose to wear a Springbok shirt at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995 he showed how patriotism can be a force for peace rather than war. Mandela wanted South Africa to be for all South Africans, and in a climate of uncertainty where many white South Africans were fearful of the future and retribution for the past, this simple patriotic gesture helped allay fears and heal rifts.

Mandela and Pienaar 1995 RWC

Mandela showed how patriotic identity in sport can be morally acceptable. And Gomberg is wrong in his argument that “being moderately patriotic is like being a little bit pregnant” (p87) – this analogy is just incorrect. Being patriotic is not the same as being jingoistic, rather it is about holding and forming an identity. Mandela wore the Springbok shirt not to show a hatred of other nations but rather to show that there is a common humanity between us all and he could identify as much with the white South African Francois Pienaar as he could with those that had been oppressed by racism in all corners of the globe.

References:

Dixon, N. (2000) ‘A Justification of Moderate Patriotism in Sport’

Gomberg, P. (2000) ‘Patriotism in Sport and War’

Both in:

Tännsjöm T. and Tamburrini, C. (2000) Values in Sport. London: Routledge.

Philosophical Sports Films

As part of my contribution to Cesar Torres’ ‘Companion to the Philosophy of Sport’ (due out next year) I wanted to include a list of films that covered philosophical issues in sport. I use a few for a module I teach called ‘Sport, Meaning and Value’ as films and documentaries provide a real wealth of resource for discussion. I quickly discovered that there were far too many to include in a book chapter so decided to collate a list of as many as I could find, put it online, and provide an electronic link to the list.

So here’s the list: Sports films relating to philosophical issues

Many thanks to all my friends and colleagues that have provided suggestions to this list, particularly to members of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, and the British Philosophy of Sport Association.

Some of the films I would not rate at all but obviously other people do (otherwise they wouldn’t have suggested them to me) so I’ve included them anyway.

Nevertheless, here’s my top 5 and why:

  1. Dogtown and the Z Boys (2001) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0275309/ – There’s always been something about skateboarding that has fascinated me. The idea that within urbanisation there can be freedom and creativity. I’ve spent many an hour just watching skateboarders, either just hanging around at the South Bank in London, or in competitions on huge vert ramps. This film shows the history and development of skateboarding as well as the (often troubled) lives of some of the more famous names in the sport. It also highlights the relationship between technology, sporting performance, and creativity.
  2. Step Into Liquid (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0308508/ – There are many good surfing films (and many that are more beautifully shot) but this is probably my favourite as it is so wide-ranging in the types of surfing that it covers, from the big (and I mean BIG) wave surfing, to children mucking about in the water. Coming from a surfing county (Cornwall) I grew up in the water so have first hand of the beauty, but also sheer power of the wave. Surfing really does have something to say about the sublime.
  3. Man on Wire (2008) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1155592/ – Technically this isn’t a sports film at all but I like to include it because it’s a very powerful and emotional demonstration of the human spirit and physical endeavour. You see this in the fact that those that took part are still brought to tears by the memories 35 years later. It is all the more poignant because it is set around the building of the Twin Towers in New York.
  4. Rollerball (1975) http://www.imdb.co.uk/title/tt0073631/ – Although many aspects of this film got the future (today) completely wrong, there is also a lot that does resonate with today’s world, particularly the power of multi-national corporations. There is also something to be said in the way that the commercialisation of sports feeds the base desires of the masses and that athletes are merely pawns in the entertainment world to be used and disposed of at will.
  5. This Sporting Life (1963) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057578/ – This is a dark and slow film that highlights the absurdity and mundanity of life (don’t expect any Hollywood special effects or fast action). It slightly plays on the stereotype of northern English life but it does demonstrate the relationship between sport, meaning and life more generally.