Mrs. Richard J. Ross, Michigan housewife and mother, made a personal plea for less emphasis on competition and more opportunity for the "rejects" in the nation's fitness and athletic programs (SI, Nov. 12). In answer, Mrs. Don Van Rossen, Oregon mother and former physical education teacher, gave firm support to competition and challenged parents to "buildup" the less gifted child (SI, Dec. 17). Now Bud Wilkinson, Special Consultant to the President on Youth Fitness, presents his views on the "overprotected, underdeveloped child."
To the Editor
I read the letters from Mrs. Ross and Mrs. Van Rossen with interest—and puzzlement. First, I fail to understand why a letter critical of Little League baseball and competitive sports should be addressed to me in my capacity as Special Consultant to the President on Youth Fitness. Second, I do not believe a discussion of such programs can properly be called a "Fitness Forum."
Obviously, I am in favor of competitive sports. I have been associated with them most of my life, and I am aware of both their good points and their limitations. Athletic competition is the end result, not the starting point, of fitness.
In a sense, competitive sports are to the physically gifted what honors courses and advanced study are to the intellectually gifted. I believe they are justified on these grounds. However, they can contribute but little to a solution of the physical fitness problem. Their nature—and the nature of the facilities required—limits participation to a select few. In addition, many people have no desire to participate, and some sports do not significantly develop physical fitness.
The overall effect is to make varsity athletics. Little League baseball, and other programs of this type irrelevant to the problem presumably under discussion.
Our concern is the physical fitness of all people, and not just those with an aptitude or liking for sports. Try as we may to eliminate the necessity for physical activity from our lives, we still are physical beings. Our intellects and emotions are subtly affected by our physical condition, and we must achieve at least a minimum level of physical fitness to function efficiently in any area.
Although Mrs. Ross apparently misunderstands the programs recommended by the Council on Youth Fitness, she makes the best possible case for them. One of our basic points is that every school should identify its physically underdeveloped students and then work with them to develop their strength, stamina, and agility.
The weak, awkward, or timid child is not expected to "make the team," or to compete against physically superior students. He is encouraged to improve his own performance, and to try to achieve the minimum standards of fitness established in tests involving thousands of children.
Certainly, one of the major problems in promoting physical fitness is that the best programs and enthusiastic public support usually are reserved for those who need them least—the varsity athletes. But the solution does not lie in destroying these programs. We must establish similarly well-supported and well-administered physical activity programs for the other 90% or 95% of our boys and girls.
In recommending physical fitness programs to the nation's schools, we have consistently emphasized the need for 100% participation. Contrary to what Mrs. Ross implies, we seek out what we call "the overprotected and underdeveloped child," not the physically gifted. The fact is, the youngster who can play varsity sports does not need our help. With few exceptions, he already is amply developed and sufficiently motivated.
I can understand a youngster's disappointment at not getting to play for the varsity. However, this is no reason to lower our standards. We rightfully insist on excellence in spectator sports, as we do in other things offered for public acceptance, and we offer less demanding activities for the less gifted. This is true in every area of life.
We have been heartened by the manner in which the public, the schools, and the students have accepted our program. It proves again that Americans, when confronted with opportunity and challenge, will respond vigorously and enthusiastically.
We can be as physically fit as any people in the world, if we maintain a proper balance between competitive sports for the few and participant programs for the many. An excellent example is La Sierra High School in Carmichael, California. The youngsters participate in programs tailored to their individual needs, and the boy who improves and excels in physical education is as highly regarded as the star fullback.
Last fall, 991 La Sierra boys took our standard physical screening test. Only 35 failed. Of these, 31 were freshmen and transfer students. In most schools, fewer than three out of four students pass this test, but most of the La Sierra boys sailed through it with ridiculous ease. Obviously, the majority of these boys cannot play for the varsity, but this has not kept them from being extremely fit.
With a proper understanding of our problem and good physical fitness programs, I believe the children in every school in the land can do as well as those in La Sierra. Some, of course, will always do better than others, but even the least gifted can develop the strength, stamina, and energy which will allow them to lead more productive and creative lives.
We are grateful to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for focusing attention on the physical fitness problem, and we hope this discussion has served to clarify the nature of our programs and objectives.