We don’t play dodgeball in PE (and it’s not why you think)

A dodgeball

Gamble Montessori, as a new school, established a varsity football program relatively recently. Then we came in second in our first 3 football games. But this hot Saturday in early September, we had a good feeling. We had 24 young men on the team, which meant that though many of our best players would spend the balmy afternoon playing offense AND defense, we would have the chance to do some substituting. Having this few students always put us at a disadvantage against our opponents from bigger schools, but today we were playing a rival from a nearby program, a K-12 school from CPS: Oyler High School. They had just about the same number of players, which meant they would be as tired as us in the 4th quarter. So instead of watching a 4th quarter lead evaporate, as it had in 2 of our first 3 losses, there was a chance that we could build a lead and then win a war of attrition under the hot autumn sun.

Our Gamble Gators team did not have a lot of amenities. The coaches and players themselves carried much of the equipment onto the field, much of which had been borrowed or donated to the program: a parent-purchased kicking tee, two water coolers borrowed from the school’s camping supplies, and 6 Gatorade squirt bottles donated by a vending company rounded out our sideline possessions. At least today we were wearing matching uniforms in the school colors of green, purple, and black. This was a step up from the pre-season, when the local newspaper ran pictures from summer practice with our players in borrowed uniforms of brown and white, the word “BEARS” emblazoned across the front of each pictured jersey. A couple of fathers who had volunteered to help with the team, perhaps discouraged by our slow start, had other plans develop for this Saturday afternoon, and I soon realized that we had no waterboy on the sideline. So I volunteered for the job.

Not the Bears.

It is a unique  and humorous experience – observing the look on a player’s face when he realizes the waterboy who just arrived in the huddle is his principal.

In addition to having the authority to direct the young men to take a drink they might otherwise refuse, being waterboy meant I was present on the field in a unique way. I had access I did not usually get – even as the principal of the school – access that is unique to the sport. Only the coaches and players themselves were closer to the action. This was how I got to see Jordan Sheffeld up close. Jordan was an exceptional athlete. A strong lineman with unusual agility, he could keep his balance well when blocking and tackling. On most teams, the quarterback was the onfield leader, but our young program had a freshman in that position, and so Jordan, who played offense and defense on most downs, was a team captain. He was the one who calmed down players in the huddle, and he could adjust the players based on the call that came in from the sidelines. This was part, but not all, of how he won the game for us that day.

Long story short, the game went just as described above. We got out to an early lead. A strong defensive stand in the middle of the final quarter meant we could run out the clock and seal our first ever program win.

Coach West (right) moments after a Gatorade shower celebrating the Gamble Gators first football win.

I spoke to him Monday after the game. “Jordan, you were remarkable.”

“Thanks, Mr. Jose.”

“But do you know what you did?”

“Well, we won. So, I guess that was what I was thinking you were talking about.” He gave me a quizzical look and paused digging in his locker. “What are YOU talking about?”

“Well, you know that guy who lined up across from you?” He said he did, and supplied his uniform number and, to my surprise, his name. He explained that they had played basketball and football together growing up. I continued, “Well, you dominated him.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” he grinned at being recognized. In fact, on several plays he recorded what is called in football a “pancake.” It is a descriptive phrase for how the guy you blocked looked after the block: flat on his back, like a pancake.

“But it wasn’t just knocking him down. It was that after each play, you picked him back up. And then, on the next snap, you knocked him down. One time when I ran out there, I swear you told him, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get me next time.’”

“Um, yeah, I remember telling him that.” He smiled at the subtle taunt. “I told him some other stuff too.”

“But then you picked him up again. You know what you did?” I waited till he looked me in the eye. “He didn’t put up much of a fight in the 4th quarter, did he? It’s because you broke his spirit. With good sportsmanship, and a dominant physical performance, you defeated his desire to beat you.

“I would say that you provided about the most Montessori performance one could ask for – you did your job perfectly, for the whole game, and you picked up your opponent after each play, then went out to beat him again.”

Montessori education is occasionally parodied as the refuge of pampered upper middle class children who clamor for participation medals after lacing their shoes. These imagined Montessori children become weak-kneed in the face of competition, and they blanch at the prospect of hard work.

In fact, the Montessori athlete is much like any other. Reveling in a sense of personal growth and self-development, Montessori athletes understand that practice is an important part of successful performance, and they embrace challenges in team and individual situations. They are not magical thinkers who only find satisfaction in winning, and thus seek out ways to be seen as winning without effort. Instead, they are hard workers who understand that competition with others is an important part of the athletic equation. In fact, it is often through competition with others that some of us can discover the inner drive to be our best selves. They seek out tests of their strength and speed and acumen. They challenge the clock, and set personal goals for weight lifted or the accuracy of a throw, or the excellence of an intended outcome.

The untested or unchallenged student athlete might believe wrongly that she is the best at an activity merely because she feels an intense sense of freedom within the activity itself. The Montessori child has moved beyond defining her performance solely on the basis of how it feels in the moment or solely on the basis of whether the work produces a victory. I think we all, at some point as children, believed we were the fastest runners in the world. Our children call us over, breathless, to watch them run across the yard at what seems to us to be an entirely ordinary child’s speed, then they insist to us that they are practically flying, and look to us for confirmation. What can we say? “Yes, indeed, that WAS very fast!” And our parents relate that we, too, repeated this ritual in our youth. So only when our children line up next to our neighbors’ children and see that one or two of them are far faster, do they begin to understand that running fast is a gift and a blessing, but running faster requires preparation and skill.

An athlete lines up a free throw.

Most sports confer this concept adequately, but some sports do it better than others. For instance, runners in cross country and track, while they run against each other and there is a winner in the sport, are also always running against their own best times and the conditions of the track. Additionally, a runner can compete against published record times and a personal best time; in a sense, any runner can “compete” against the very best runners in their city, county, state, or the world, by reviewing posted times. In these sports, as students enter any competition with any number of opponents, there are two goals ever in mind, both require individual improvement: beat the fastest person, achieve my fastest personal time.

Some team sports develop this duality better than others.

Football exemplifies a team sport with many factors that complicate individual improvement. In this most recent season, 2016, our football team found itself on both sides of lopsided games. We won an important rivalry by 35 points early in the season. Five weeks later we lost by nearly 40 points. Had we gotten weaker? Slower? Less skilled? Had we truly regressed the comparative equivalent of 80 points? While the competition on the field offered each player the chance to practice his skills and improve himself in each game, the physical size and number of players on one football team can serve to mask the personal growth or regression. The tremendous advantage of size is compounded over the course of four quarters, in some cases making it less about personal improvement and more about personal safety. In each lopsided game, the smaller team found itself physically outmatched, and unable to improve in their skills. A taller basketball team starts with an advantage that is not unsurmountable, but which noticeably impacts the game at each end of the court on every possession.

Gamble teachers play a game at our summer retreat.

It is important to note that the fields and courts used by our athletics teams are not the place where MOST of our students experience athletics at school. We require EVERY student to take physical education. In these physical education classes, our goal should be to encourage every child to understand what it means to be fit, and to seek out ways to, among other things, recognize “the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.”[1] Part of this is teaching students the rules and spirit of different sports. And, of course, that should be done in a way that promotes health, safety, and a sense of community. One uncontroversial adjustment made at most (if not all) schools is teaching flag football or “touch” football (where one or two hands on an opponent with the ball ends the play). Of course we make adjustments to make that sport safer. In other sports we make minor variations to increase participation as well, such as creating balanced teams and modifying rules to increase enjoyment among students who are less athletic. (Unfortunately, these sometimes are categorized as “girls’ rules” in some places, which sends distressing messages to our most athletic girls and our least athletic boys.)

We SHOULD make adjustments to these sports to make them more inclusive in physical education class. We should support and encourage our students to think about how to make the adjustments to create more inclusive but still cooperative games that they play on the playground and in the neighborhood. Cooperative game guru Karl Rohnke, author of Silver Bullets, a collection of cooperative games, provides a rationale for adjusting games on the fly: what is the point of a game if it is only fun for a few? Another pair of games enthusiasts, Adam Fletcher and Kari Kunst, introduce their article with a quote that suggests the existence of two kinds of games, the finite one, with fixed rules and a winner and loser, and the infinite one, which features changing rules and an intent to never end.[2]

Now, about dodgeball.

When I directed my physical education teacher to stop playing dodgeball in class, some of my students were vocally upset. Others were supportive. I was confident that I had taken an important stand for what is good about athletics, and what can be bad about it. My decision was not based on stories of injuries and lawsuits. I was aware of some of them, like the Bronx school where an ill-advised indoor recess dodgeball game resulted in painful and expensive broken orthodontia from a soccer ball that struck a student who had opted out of the game. I had heard myriad stories about broken bones and bloody noses, but at the time I was not aware of state-wide bans in summer camps in New Hampshire and New York. My decision was not even, or at least not entirely, driven by the regular appearance of students in my office who had been wounded physically during dodgeball, or who had been wounded emotionally by the prospect of having things thrown at them by more athletic and more aggressive students.

No, it was primarily that dodgeball differs significantly from traditional team sports. Unlike basketball or soccer, there is little opportunity for actual strategy or running designed plays. Unlike individual sports, there is no measure for judging whether you have improved or even mastered a skill. In short, there seemed no argument for it. There were better ways to practice throwing for accuracy, and running, and even dodging. Kick ball for instance offered a chance to do these things, with the opportunity for respite at the next base, or the chance to score a run and assist the team. Meanwhile, in dodge ball, instead of providing ongoing support and contributing to the group’s success, your team is slowly whittled away.  The acceptable athletics strategy of attacking another team’s weakness means, in dodgeball, that the least athletic student starts the game being targeted by one or more of the best athletes on the other side of the line, each throwing balls in his or her direction. This player then spends the bulk of the game, perhaps dazed by being struck with a ball to the head or face, sitting on the sidelines, ostensibly rooting for their team.

It is widely accepted that there are good and bad kinds of competition. I believe that dodgeball is inherently structured to emphasize the potential negative aspects of competitive games. It defies modification. Even as a fifth grader, I recognized the irony in the rule added by my PE teacher, who announced that if you got hit in the face you were not out. He meant to encourage us to throw balls at our classmates’ bodies, but the practical application was that moments after you got hit in the face, your teacher announced that you were still a viable target, and a dazed and embarrassed target at that.

In immediate response to the ban, students posted a petition in the hallway outside the gym. Thoughtfully, they included a few caveats for how they would conduct themselves when they played the game in the future. For instance, they suggested that students who were uncomfortable could just opt out. I spoke with the petitioners. I remember vividly our discussion, which focused on this “opt out” clause. Students could choose not to play without penalty. During the conversation, it was acknowledged by several people that it did not make sense to play a game where, by the act of playing it, several students would feel targeted and would instead choose to sit on the sidelines. That concept certainly violated our core value of community, for what is the value of a game if not everyone can enjoy it? If at the outset of the game, we knew that some students would be permitted to not participate? The very act of choosing to play dodgeball would then become exclusionary. One of the students who had signed the petition had privately expressed a concern about the nature of the game to me. I realized that in the conversation, I had to be careful not to expose that she had, in a sense, taken both sides of the argument. She never revealed to her friends her opposition, but, speaking as a signatory of the petition, she provided valuable arguments against dodgeball. She said to the group that the argument about including everyone was a valid point she had not considered.

After a few weeks, the petition was taken down.

Recently, I was approached by a coach who wanted to run a dodgeball tournament as a fundraiser for our program. He approached me as if he had been sent on a fool’s errand. “I heard you’re probably going to say ‘no’ to this request, but I was wondering if we could have a dodgeball tournament?”

“People sign up? Their own choice?”

“Yeah, they pay to enter,” he explained. “We have a small prize for the winner.”

I thought for a second. I considered how this request was different than in physical education class. A group of individuals will self-select to enter this tournament as a group, understanding the rules. Each would opt in because of the cause, or an interest in the game and playing with friends. They will have chosen to take the risk, and would not see it as anything other than fun if they themselves got hit and eliminated from gameplay.

“Sure. Sounds like fun.” My reservation was not about dodgeball the activity, but was instead about requiring children in physical education class to play a game that held so much potential for bad outcomes.

The Gators boys basketball team pauses for a picture following their first ever tournament game.

So, how can we work to make sure all of our students get to participate in our physical education games, and the games we play on field experiences or as community-building activities?

 

Ask yourself these questions, in this order:

  1. Does this include everyone?
  2. Is everyone getting an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the team / group?
  3. Does it promote physical activity and teach specific skills? Are the roles defined?
  4. Is it fun? (Variations of this question: when someone is “out”, is it fair and clear?
  5. How can I change it so the answers above are all “yes”? (OR At what point in the game can I ask students to change it so the answers above are all “yes”?)

When we teach students to compete in this way, instead of watering down their skills or teaching them that competition is without value, we call out their highest instincts for achievement.

One Monday night last school year, the Gamble varsity volleyball team beat Riverview East in The Swamp (as we call our home field. We are, after all, Gators).  The final point of the 3-game sweep was a smash by Carrie that brought the raucous crowd to their feet.  It was exciting!  However, the best moment of the match for me came 7 points earlier.

On that point, a Gamble player struck the ball, and it landed on the opponent’s line for a point, according to all who saw it.  The volunteer line judge, a Gamble student, flapped his flag indecisively.  Riverview questioned the call and one referee went over to question the linesman, who indicated that he had moved the flag because he was unsure what to do when the ball hit the line.  The referee called out “Gamble point.” However, our girls were already shouting to the head referee, “We will play the point over.”  Just like that, they gave away a point.  And 7 points later, they won anyway.

Having a faith in playing the game the right way, and responding appropriately to confusion over a call, demonstrates the kind of character we are attempting to instill in each of our students.  Applying it during a crucial game against our oldest rival takes respect for self and respect for the game. And it does not cheapen our performance or weaken our skills.

 

[1] National Standards for K-12 Physical Education Copyright 2013, SHAPE America –Society of Health and Physical Educators, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191, www.shapeamerica.org.

[2] “Why Play Games When There is Work to Do?”, Fletcher, A., Freechild Newsletter, accessed via the internet at http://campsource.pbworks.com/f/CooperativeGames.pdf 2017.1.15