In Praise of Physically Aggressive Sports (Guest Post)

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I’ll play football today for the first time. One of the women on my soccer team recruited me to play football. Until Sam suggested I write this post, I had not given much thought to my playing “physically aggressive” sports. (She suggested it after I noted that I would love it if she would buy an “Aggressive by Nature, Rugby by Choice” t-shirt for me if she ever found it again on her rugby travels.) When I stopped to think about it, however, I realized that there were all sorts of positive, feminist reasons for my choices of sport. Here are six of them with some commentary that is specific to my own personal experience as a former rugby playing, current soccer and football playing woman.

1. I can be loud; indeed, I am encouraged to be loud.
‘Talking’ on the pitch is a necessity. I am a player who talks constantly on the field of play: who is open, if there is space, when to shoot, the whole vocabulary of positioning and players. I’m confident talking on the field in part because I live and work in a space where my voice is heard, and I would argue that the reverse is just as true.
2. Aggression — in the sense of asserting one’s will, channeling one’s passion, and pursuing one’s aims forcefully — is typically rewarded .
I am on a first name basis with the cliché “work hard, play hard.” I do not want my team sports to be a romp in the park. I have legs that are often bruised (that’s what pantsuits are for, right?) and my osteopath on speed dial. I’m inclined to believe that toughness is a virtue (and I do yoga as often as soccer and football in recognition of this fact about myself).

3. I can take up space.
This is a big one for me, pun intended. I stand a rockin’ 154 cms tall. (That’s almost 5’2” … sounds more impressive in centimetres). I am a physically strong lightweight. I am now accustomed to being one of the smallest, if not the smallest, on any given pitch, and it is now part of my athletic identity that I can take on players who are bigger than me. (Tell me that does not translate into the non-sporting side of my life!) Also, since I might as well be truthful, I like the seeming contradictions of my size and choice of sports. People are genuinely shocked when I reveal I played rugby … unless they know the game, and therefore understand that the position of hooker (typically the smallest player on the field) is rather central to the whole business.

4. I am expected to hold my own and, often, to push back, as a normal part of the game.
I play Masters (+35) recreational soccer and touch football, so contact is not part of either game. But, both sports are physically aggressive, and there is a certain amount of “going toe to toe” in each of them. I like this. I like chasing down opposing players, and I like using my body to defend the ball. I’ve been known to chase down balls that were otherwise lost to possession, just to see if my speed could get me there (although I would never do this if it meant that my team would be compromised in some way). On corner kicks, I am the forward who stands in front of the keeper and does not move. My job is to prevent her from seeing the ball. It is legal for me to be in this position, and she has the option to push me away; I have the ability to get back into a similar position and continue to frustrate her.

5. Failure is an integral part of the game, therefore every game improves my resiliency and ability to bounce back from failures, the big and the small.
You’ll hear my team say “unlucky” frequently. I miss shots. Sometimes the net is wide open and I miss the shot. I flub passes. Sometimes the keeper makes a great save. Sometimes I can’t make the catch. Sometimes I get chased down. Sometimes I juggle the ball in the air and it gets intercepted. And sometimes I score. It’s the same for all of us. We aim for progress, not perfection. Note the active voice: it is a continual process of doing, and doing again, doing, and doing better.

6. I love my girlfriends.
My team sports are filled with other fantastic women who have also made a commitment to their own self-care through exercise and play. They are my role models, confidantes, and teammates. We all get joy from playing. Even if I am running hard for the whole game, getting knocked about, ending up bruised, I still look at the time I spend as self-care just as much as my meditative practice. In fact, when we used to play indoor soccer on Sundays, we’d joke that we went to “Church of Five a Side.” It’s some good therapy, sports.

So, I’ve got my gloves (Youth Medium!), cleats, and jersey ready to go for this afternoon. I’m about as excited as my almost-seven year old is for back to school. I’ll be learning as I go.

Jessica Schagerl is Fit, Feminist, and … well, almost Forty. But what’s a decade among friends? In a week, she’ll also be blogging about the Dirty Girl Run in Buffalo.

Do age group medals count?

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Image description: Age group medals

I blogged recently about a fun end of summer race that I did with my daughter complete with age group medals for both of us.

I told people about the medals somewhat sheepishly. They were age group medals and there was a small field of competitors. And I have friends who aren’t convinced, even in a large field of competitors, that age group medals really count.

After all, they also announced the overall best finishers and some people think that those athletes are the only ones that belong on the podium really. They think age group medals are kind of like finishers’ medals. While we here at this blog like races where everyone gets a medal, we know others aren’t so keen.

I think people who ask this question about “really counting” are engaged in in a form of gate keeping. They want to know who are the real athletes and who are the real winners. In their mind it’s only the fastest overall that counts.

But I’m a huge fan of age groups, whether it’s the “kids of steel” in triathlon events or the 80 + group of marathoners like Ed Whitlock.

Here’s a great article from The Independent on the virtues of age groups: Don’t let age hold you back.

“Some of the most competitive age categories are in the 50s and 60s age ranges. Spare a thought though for those in the same age group as Canadian resident Ed Whitlock. At 69, Whitlock ran a marathon in 2:52.47. Yes, believe it or not, you did read that correctly.”

Now 82 and still running, you can read more about Milton, Ontario’s Ed Whitlock here.

Now in an important sense triathlons really are just a race against yourself, or the clock. There’s no strategy involving other people in the way that sail boat racing or road racing involves. I can’t draft while you ride hard, I can’t scheme to drop my opponents on hills (fat chance!) and break aways don’t make any sense.

So why don’t I just compare my time to the last time I did that distance?

As with running, why isn’t it a race against my best 10 km time, for example?

Well, for one thing the conditions might be different. This is the group of people who did this race in this wind, at this temperature, on these hills etc.

But it’s always a snap shot in time. There are people who think regional races don’t count, only international ones. For any race, just about, there’s someone who thinks it’s not the real thing. Maybe only the Olympics and the Tour de France and the Ironman get to count for real.

But like Tracy, I think that misses out on the value of athletic competition. Tracy recently asked Why Participate If I’m Not Going to Win? and came up with a whole host of reasons.

I get that 30 year olds who’ve recently moved from elite open competition to age group events might feel that only the overall winners have really won. But I’ll ask them again when they get to 40 (and 80!)  how they feel about age group medals.

Canadian women’s rugby

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Photo from the blog anthropological fragments

As you know from past posts, I love rugby. My son plays for a local club and this summer and last for the Ontario Junior Blues. You can read about that here: On being a sports parent.

Rugby is the sport I would have played and maybe even been good at if I’d discovered my athletic self earlier in life and if rugby for girls had been an option. Read more about that here: Indoor Soccer, Team Sports, and Childhood Regrets.

And you can also read about why I prefer prom dress rugby to lingerie football, Prom dress rugby and lingerie football: what’s the difference?

So when I got an email asking me to share this promotional video for Canadian women’s rugby, I thought, yes, sure, I’ll post it to the blog.

Here it is. Enjoy!

Why Participate If I’m Not Going to Win?

Finish-LineThere better be reasons to participate if I’m not going to win, or I’d never have a reason to participate (given that my chances of winning are slim!).  I just finished reading a fascinating book called Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run, by Matt Fitzgerald.  It’s about the Ironman rivalry between Dave Scott, the first athlete to really dominate the Ironman triathlon (with six first place finishes), and Mark Allen, the one who (after several tries and much effort), eventually dethroned Dave Scott and went on to garner six titles himself.

The Ironman is that endurance race that originated in Hawaii, in the late seventies, with twelve participants in the first year. It’s a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and then a full marathon.  At its inception, it was just about completing the thing.  But when Dave Scott first took on the challenge in 1980, he wanted to turn it into a race.

Where finishing times in the first two years were over the eleven hour mark, Dave blasted the field, spending the entire race alone and taking first place in 9 hours, 24 minutes, and 33 seconds. The day he finished second to Mark Allen in 1989, he did the course in 8 hours, 10 minutes, and 13 seconds, just 58 seconds behind Allen.

Reading this book, you get into the mindset that winning is everything.  It’s not enough to complete the gruelling race. It’s not enough even to complete it well. It’s all about winning, breaking records, pushing as hard as you can so you can beat the other guy.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the book and I got caught up in the drama.  I felt badly for those poor dudes who, behind these two, had to settle for battling it out for third or fourth place in the Iron Man race in Hawaii.  It was all very macho.

Not that women can’t or shouldn’t compete, of course. I’ve blogged about the competitive feminist here.  But, as I mentioned earlier this summer in this post, I’m a big fan of medals for everyone.

One topic that came up in Fitzgerald’s book and that I’ve heard in other circles as well (such as marathons), is whether the people who are aiming just to finish cheapen the race.  It is, after all, a race. The rules of the game say that if you’re racing you’re supposed to be trying to finish as fast as you can and, while you’re at it, trying to beat the other competitors.

Sam pointed out quite some time ago that she thinks of her earlier self as her only real competition. See her post about that.

She also shared how she felt when a very competitive team trounced her team in the recreational soccer league she plays for in her post “It’s Just a Game.”  The issue was that the team also played in a competitive league. They used the recreational league as practice.

Is there something wrong, unsportsmanlike (is there a gender neutral word for that?), with a team that is high-fiving, going for every goal they can, in a recreational league where they are clearly out-classing the other team?  Should a competitive team even be allowed to play in a rec league? Sam thinks yes to the first, no to the second question.

In events like triathlons and marathons and so forth there are often two classes of competitors — the professionals or elite athletes and the “age group” competitors.  But regardless of whether you’re pro or amateur, surely there is a place for people in the race who are not the ones who are going to win? Even Mark Allen didn’t win until his sixth attempt, for goodness sake!

So it doesn’t seem fair to say that the mere presence of those who don’t place cheapens an event.  What people claim, rather, is that people who are not even trying to win but are just trying to finish somehow take away from the overall achievement of those who finish well.

In the early days of the Ironman, it was routine to spend a fair bit of time walking through the marathon.  Remember, it began as a challenge to see if it could even be done, not to see how fast it could be done.  In the first Ironman competition in 1978, only one person finished the marathon in under 4 hours. The rest who finished took between 4 and 8.5 hours.

One of Dave Scott’s reasons for not retiring earlier and for continuing to go back to the Ironman was that he didn’t want his legacy to be of the man who dominated “back in the day” when it wasn’t competitive. As an aside, his second place finishing time of 8:10:13 against Mark Allen in 1989 has only ever been beaten five times since.

Since marathons have attracted wide participation, the average finishing time is longer than it has ever been.  Is that a bad thing?  I don’t see why it should be.  At the elite level, we can still see people testing the limits of what the human body can do, breaking records, etc.  And at the level of the everyday athlete, we’ve got more people testing the limits of what their body can do, pursuing personal bests, extending their endurance from 5K to 10K to half marathon to marathon.  Sounds all good to me.

I want to be a moderate here, and say that it’s possible to be super-impressed with the winners while also appreciating the effort of the finishers.  I was totally humbled in my mid-summer triathlon that became a duathlon  because so many women in the 60-65 age group beat my time by 20 minutes.  It gives me something to aim for (if I can shave 2 minutes a year off of my time…), people to be impressed by, but didn’t in the least take away from my sense that I’d accomplished something just by completing the task set out for me that morning (especially since it wasn’t what I signed up for!).

So why participate if not to win?   I can think of a few reasons:

1. It’s tons of fun.

2. It’s a training goal for participants at all levels.  I wouldn’t make it out for runs and swims and bike rides nearly as often if I didn’t have the next triathlon on my calendar.

3. There is something about race day that brings out the best performer in people even if they aren’t going to win or place. I know that I’ve amazed myself each time I’ve raced.

4. It’s empowering.

5. Lots of events raise money for worthy charities. So you can pursue your fitness goals and support good causes at the same time.  And there are lots to choose from. The Run for the Cure is not the only charity race even if they’re one of the loudest!

6. Finishing is something to feel good about. Look, when I started running, I couldn’t keep going for 2 minutes without needing a walk break. Now I can sustain over 20 minutes of running and I need just a minute or two of recovery walking before I can start up again.  On race day, I can even do better than that.

7.  It’s exciting to try new things. I never thought I’d get excited about triathlon. I just signed up on a lark at Sam’s urging.  But now I love it!  I love training for it and I am over-the-moon excited for September 15. Fingers crossed that the swim won’t get cancelled.

A good reminder going into autumn

It’s from Lifehacker’s list of Ten Sentences that Can Change Your Life. I think this one is right for just about any athletic pursuit. Thanks Rachel for noting that.

For the other nine see, http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/sentences-that-can-change-your-life.html.

How about you? When it comes to sports do you push yourself or do you prefer doing something that feels good when you’re doing it?

Switching gears at the start of the school year

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Image description: red maple leaf

It’s September very soon and back to school. As a university professor this means I move from a summer time focus on research, writing, conferences, and PhD student supervision to a term time focus on teaching, university committees, department talks, and in October especially, more conferences.

And no, we don’t get summers off. Please don’t ever ask professors what we do with our summers. We get four weeks paid vacation and this summer I only managed to take a few days of that. Sigh.

Why do tenured academics work so hard in the summer when, from a certain perspective, we don’t have to? It’s our entrepreneurial work culture, I think, and I’ve blogged about that over at Pea Soup.

But back to September when the university term busyness begins. It’s not that I work more during term time, though I do because the demands of graduate supervision and research and writing continue as well, but the striking difference is who controls my time.

On my summer schedule I write into the night if I feel like it and take the next morning off to go run on the trails with dogs, or ride my bike with friends. I schedule meetings with my doctoral students off campus in nearby coffee shops. It’s still work, and there’s lots of it, but it’s more or less on my terms. It’s a very privileged life and I’m thankful.

But classroom teaching occurs when it best fits the needs of students and my department. Committee meetings are scheduled around my teaching hours. And at the start of the year it feels like there’s barely time to breath, let alone prepare classes and finish writing commitments.

I’m not complaining. I love my job and think that being a professor is one of the best jobs in the world.

What I want to talk about today is how physical activity fits into the picture.

First, I need to note that I’m incredibly lucky to have some very active colleagues. I work in a department of road cyclists, tennis players, runners, climbers, martial artists etc. I like riding my bike with colleagues at lunch hour. Some of us have even run together. And we’re a department that has also gone camping together. There’s photographic evidence here! This is nice because I don’t worry that here in the life of the mind that my focus on the body and movement will be judged.

Second, like Tracy I thrive on routine. I make lists, I have schedules, and I plan my week carefully to include lots of physical activity of all different sorts. This fall it’s Aikido, rowing, CrossFit, riding, and indoor soccer with some hiking and dog-jogging thrown in for good measure. I might even start taking running seriously again when it gets colder and see if I can get faster without injury. You can read about my plans for the year here: Sam takes stock and sets goals one year to go.

Third, for me flexibility is key. Unlike Tracy I don’t usually plan on doing less. Intellectually, I see the virtues but I’m a key person in a really busy active family. I live with a partner, three kids, two dogs, my parents and more. And I’ve got a really BIG job and BIG athletic commitments. Things come up, all the time. I can’t always hold my physical activities against the needs of others. I schedule lots and go in knowing I’ll miss a couple of things a week. And that’s okay with me. I move on to the next thing. I know some people find it immobilizing to miss activities and start feeling demoralized. Tracy writes about that as the downside of routines which generally we both love. But it works for me. I like being busy and I can go with the flow.

See you out there!

Goals for Girls: A Story of Women with Balls

goals for girlsWe’ve recently heard of a new film making its way around the festival circuit: Goals for Girls: A Story of Women with Balls. It’s a documentary about women’s and girls’ soccer in Argentina by filmmakers Ginger Gentile and Gabriel Balanovsky of San Telmo productions. The website’s tagline says: “In Buenos Aires most infamous slum, rules are being broken: girls are daring to play soccer.”

The opening seconds of the trailer tell us that “In Argentina anyone can play football [soccer]. Unless you are a woman.”  The film reveals prevalent and common attitudes about the inferiority of women’s soccer, interviewing people and asking the if they’ve ever watched it and what they think about it.

The main storyline, however, is about women and girls who defy the rules and play anyway.  Just claiming space on the field is a political statement for these girls, sometimes requiring them to lie down on the field until the boys will move aside so that the girls can practice and play.

On their website, the filmmakers say:

Already, Goals for Girls has begun to change the lives of its protagonists, and  it can help change the lives of girls around the world. There are almost no documentaries about female soccer, and few documentaries are aimed at motivating young people to affect positive change. Goals for Girls is the Hoop Dreams of female soccer, but instead of focusing on financial dreams it will show how sport can help girls overcome incredible odds, teaching the value of responsibility and teamwork. Our documentary does not portray young women as victims, but as active participants to change the world around them, one match at a time.

The filmmakers are attempting to raise funds so that 1000 girls (including those in the film) and their families who would not otherwise be able to afford it can attend a screening of the film in a theatre. Many of these girls have never seen a film in a theatre before, and the filmmakers are committed to making that possible for them.

I recently had a chance to correspond with Ginger Gentile about the film’s reception in Argentina and the initiative to get the girls to the movies.  Here is what she said:

Tracy: What neighborhoods will you be focusing on and who will be invited to see the film (how do you plan to select the girls)?

Ginger:  Our first priority is to get all the girls who play on teams that appear in the movie and who come from low income levels to see it (we interview some middle class teams, and they can get to the cinema on their own). The team that is the center of the film had about 20 girls on it when we filmed them, now there are more than 60! so if each girl brings a few family members, we are almost at 200. After that we will focus on other teams from the same neighborhood, the Villa 31 shantytown, and then other shantytowns in Buenos Aires. It is very important that each girl brings at least one family member so her experience can be validated in her community. With 1000 tickets we can cover most young female players from low-income areas in Buenos Aires. If we go beyond that we will be able to focus on players from outside of Buenos Aires as well.

Tracy: You said many have never been to a theatre — what do you think it will mean to them to see a film like this on the big screen?

Ginger: I think that every day these girls are exposed to two types of degrading images: one of women as sexy and passive and the other of slum dwellers being thieves and criminals. Getting them to see girls like them being active, playing as a team and being comfortable with their bodies–no matter what people say–will be very powerful. And sharing this film with their families will mean that a debate will take place in their homes regarding who does chores, use of free time , etc.

Tracy: What kind of reception has the film received so far — it’s clearly an uphill battle for women’s soccer to gain respect in a country that loves football as much as Argentina does?

Ginger: Reception in Argentina has been positive–a lot of press and also the film was selected for Good Pitch Buenos Aires 2013. Good Pitch is an event that brings together documentaries with supporters from the public and private sector to see how they can work together to use films as part of larger campaigns. It is a film that gets people´s attention. Mujeres con pelotas is a word play which like in english can mean ball, testicals and courage. As people are so passionate about football two things happen: some women come up to us and tell us their stories about fighting to play and others tell us that they are surprised that there is such a thing as women´s football.

Tracy: And of course, what can people do who are interested in helping the cause?

Ginger: If people want to help us take 1000 girls to the movies to see Goals for Girls they can donate via our crowdfunding campaign on idea.me until september 14th

http://idea.me/projects/9276/girl-footballers-to-the-movies

There are some great prizes as well. 

We would love to get connected with female soccer players and coaches from the US and Europe who want to participate in the diffusion campaign.

They can also contact us if they want to show the film in a festival or school or university.

our facebook page Goalsforgirlsthemovie will be getting more active in the coming months and is a great place to stay updated.

As we are independent filmmakers, any help is much appreciated.

The trailer makes me really want to see the film!  Please help spread the word. Meanwhile, here’s the trailer.