Last month a Michigan housewife and mother of three presented some personal and pertinent comments on the conduct of physical fitness programs in the U.S. (SI, Nov. 12). Mrs. Richard J. Ross called for a less competitive attitude in childhood athletics, for more acceptance—and more teams—for the "rejects." "Remove the shame of mediocrity from sports," Mrs. Ross claimed, "and you will have more takers. We make room for the 'average' in every other field, but we can't tolerate mediocrity in athletics." This week Sports Illustrated continues the Fitness Forum with an opposing argument, strongly in favor of competition—in sports and in every other walk of life. Mrs. Don Van Rossen, wife of the University of Oregon swimming coach, a former physical education teacher herself, and also a mother of three (boys aged 6, 8, and 11), challenges the parents to build up" the athletic programs—and their own children.
Dear Mrs. Ross:
I think you are wrong—so very wrong. And to prevent you and others who think like you from sitting back in smug satisfaction, I would like to examine your statements one by one.
First of all, to state that our society makes room for mediocrity in every field but sports is naive. How many frustrated musicians no longer pick up their instruments? How many would-be artists lock themselves up in attics to escape ridicule? How many budding chemists are made to feel like failures when they accidentally cause an explosion in the basement and are forbidden to continue experimenting?
I believe more mediocre people take part in sports than in any other activity. Take a look at the statistics on the number of participants in bowling (30 million), tennis (7.5 million) and swimming (33 million), for example. Any duffer can go out on a tennis court and bat a few balls around and nobody will pay any attention. But just let a mediocre singer start practicing in front of an open window and see what happens.
Of course we can't all be champions. But neither can we all play in the Philharmonic.
Perhaps your criticism of the Little League is justified, to a point. But think of all the children who do benefit by this program. Should we deprive them, too? Wouldn't it be better to think in terms of the many more children, "rejects" like your son, who could also benefit by Little League if more fathers volunteered to coach the onslaught of kids that parents push out of the homes?
No, I do not believe that only the best should be allowed to play. But some children are born blessed with better coordination and athletic ability than others. Shouldn't they be given special attention—the same as the child with more academic ability, the child with more dramatic ability or the child with more musical ability?
The real question is how much of the responsibility for developing the below-average child and the gifted child falls on the school and the community and how much falls on the home. Since we can't push all of the responsibility onto the schools I believe it is mainly up to the parents.
If I feel that the music program offered in the school is insufficient to my child's ability, I see that he gets private lessons. If I am not satisfied with the reading progress my child is making at school, I help him at home. And if I am dissatisfied with the sports program offered in the community and at school, I plant more trees for him to climb, I put an old mattress in the basement where he can "wrestle" and where I can teach him to tumble. And I invite the neighbors' children in to learn and have fun, too.
Your criticism of the physical education profession is "unjust to the point of stupidity"—to quote a phrase from your letter. If a few more letters like yours get national publication there will be even fewer good teachers, because you have slammed the whole profession. It is easy to blame a child's nervous illness on an "overzealous" physical education teacher who is eager only to do his job: to see that all children participate.
To state that a speech or chemistry teacher would be taken to task for "forcing" a child to do over and over, before the entire class, what every other child has had to do, again, shows only naiveté. I can remember getting just as sick at the thought of having to give a speech in front of snickering classmates or sing a solo before a highly critical teacher. But isn't this all part of growing up? Doesn't the ability to overcome these obstacles make the better and stronger person?
The same applies to your statement that "many a girl develops a loathing for sports in the fifth and sixth grades because of an overzealous, bullying teacher." With a little more research on fifth and sixth grade girls, I think you will find the loathing comes, not from a dislike of the sport, but from a dislike of having the curl come out of their hair.
You say, "With so much emphasis on skill, we have made childhood athletics a grim business." Why limit the emphasis on skill just to athletics? Have you ever seen the grim determination of a musician before a national music contest? Or the nervous fidgeting of a contestant before a debate? Isn't this the normal individual's reaction to the demand for skill—in sports or any other activity?
Because some few do not enjoy competing or performing, why make such a sweeping statement? For every average child who doesn't enjoy participating in skilled sports I bet I can find 10 who do.
We now have more people participating in sports than in any other activity—whether it be music, writing or art. Sure, we also like to watch the better players perform a sport for us. But why is it so much worse to watch 50 men play football than it is to sit and listen to 50 men play musical instruments in concert? Is it wrong to read a book instead of writing one? Or to watch a play or gaze at a painting? I imagine more people who watch football go home and participate in some form of sport than concert listeners play instruments, art gazers paint, book readers write or playgoers act. I frankly get as much esthetic enjoyment from watching a beautiful body churn through the water at a swimming meet as I do listening to a Beethoven symphony.
Let's get down to the real reasons why the Europeans are more physically fit than we are. After all, they have their spectator sports, too. As many as 100,000 people turn out for a soccer match. Soccer players and gymnasts are heroes. But, first, they walk or ride bicycles almost every place they go.
Second, the European family, as a whole, takes part in athletics—at Turnvereins or community centers.
Third, and most important, their physical educators are respected members of their society. European parents insist that physical education be an integral part of their children's education from the first grade up.
Don't blame the American athletic program if a child's background in sports is too poor to enable him to make the team. Physical education begins in the first grade where all children start oft' somewhere near equal, and where there is no program for the superior child. If the school program is unsatisfactory I think it is up to us, as parents, to see what we ourselves can do to improve the physical education of our children—instead of looking for scapegoats and undermining what is good in physical education and athletic programs.
Basically, I think we all desire the same thing: a more fit American youth. But let's achieve it by building up the average and the below average. Not by tearing down the superior.
MRS. DON VAN ROSSEN