Thursday, October 7, 2010

PE: basic skills

One of the best ways to enable people to get more physical activity in their lives is through adult sports leagues. And the best way to get people interested in playing sports (rather than watching them on TV) is by equipping people with the skills needed not to suck at them. It's no shock when a guy tries out playing in the local softball league and after a season of popping out to the middle infielders decides that drinking at the bar or staying home and playing video games is more fun.

The key word here is “competence”. We needn't be great at sports; we merely need to be able to fit in and feel like we're contributing (if playing a team sport) or are competitive (if playing a solo sport). That I was able to hang with playing indoor soccer for about a year is testament that you don't need super skills to find a league at your level. But you do need some skills.

Unfortunately, right when we have most need of becoming more physically active—sometime in early adulthood—is right around the age when we've become too old to learn new sports skills with the same effortless ease as we did as children. There's something about mind-body connections that make them much easier to develop with a younger brain than an older one, whether it's riding a bicycle, playing a musical instrument, or making our vocal cords speak a second language. The key, therefore, is to prioritize teaching children a viable set of general sports skills so that they feel comfortable at participating in a wide range of activities later in life.

I think kids can't get enough variety and balance in their educations, and physical education is no exception. However, some sports skills will pay back better than others. Today I'm proposing a list of the skills that I think every able-body child should develop competence in.

  • Throwing and catching a ball

    The unfortunate reality for men whose fathers never played catch with them or at least took them to little league practice is that they're stuck looking like a girl whenever they throw for the rest of their lives! How shameful! Even girls should not look like girls when they throw. And catching should involve putting your body exactly in the path of the thing hurling towards you, not securing your safety first and making a stiff-arm reach for it off to the side.

    A fear of the ball is a perfectly natural, protective instinct, but it gets in the way of about half of the sports that are available in adult leagues. Thankfully, there's an exceptionally easy way to overcome this fear, and that's by spending lots of time in the backyard or park just tossing the ball. Split between Dad and little league, I probably spent over a thousand hours playing catch during my formative years, and the result is a firm mediocrity with throwing and catching that instantly makes me competent in many sports leagues—even sports I've never played. This is a skill that carries over well.

  • Swinging a bat or club

    There's more to swinging than moving the arms; there's a subtle complexity or coordination of the whole body that allows one to generate real power. This power will translate well to the obvious activities like swinging for the fences in rec-league softball or driving for distance in golf as well as the less obvious activities like boxing and the martial arts. Learned early and it's easy; learned late in life and it's not.

  • Running

    It may seem silly that there are people out there who don't know how to run, but I'll assert that most people don't know how to run. This is an observation I've made playing in a variety of sports leagues: most adults cannot move their body to where it needs to be with comfort and ease. There's more to running than moving the legs back and forth quickly, as evidenced by the massive number of people who decide to “do some races” and end up with all sorts of knee, foot, and hip problems.

    Even if we aren't Jamaican sprinters or Kenyan marathoners, each of us should at least be competent at sprinting and at enduring for longer distances. There's hardly a sport that doesn't benefit in some way from at least one of these two skills.

  • Riding a bike

    “Just like riding a bike” really only applies to people who learned how to ride a bike as a kid. The rest are a wobbly folk who never quite develop the same fluid ease.

    This skill is not just my favorite; it's arguably the most important of the lot. Bicycling is not just recreation and fitness; it represents a whole new option for transportation that can dramatically reduce stress and expense in one's life. Not everyone needs to dress up in Lycra and ride in a double pace line on Saturday morning. But we all should be capable of riding a fat-tire bike to the store to pick up milk and bread. Our nation's reality is that most adults are terrified of doing that. Meanwhile, we're waiting for someone to invent an enjoyable, affordable, environmentally responsible vehicle for getting around town. The solution already exists. Teach your kids how to use it.

One could argue for additional skills that I haven't listed: swimming and kicking a ball would be two likely candidates. What are some other skills we should all know?


Lindsey said...

You are so wise in suggesting these skills as an athletic primer. Thanks, Craig. You might appreciate that I have taken my kids for a bike ride around the block twice a week every week we've been homeschooling this fall. I jog behind my 5yo when he gets up to speed (still has training wheels) with the toddler in the stroller, so we do look like a pretty motley crew. But hey--we're getting out there, before 8am twice a week (more than we did last year) and the kids are getting really good on their bikes (poor 5yo hates his training wheels and wants them off yesterday).

PS--Tell Laura I don't sit around stalking you and your blog, I just comment so quickly b/c I have your page on my Blogger follow list and so I see when your new posts pop up. :)

cmbrandenburg said...

Lindsey— Good job! My dad took me on a lot of bike trips when I was about 5 years old. I can't imagine developing the same comfort and ease on the bike if I hadn't done all that riding at such an early age.

I use RSS for reading people's blogs, so I too get notified quickly when there's something new. I struggle to imagine the “old days” of polling a site for updates.