Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Killer Instinct" at the Age of 8


In sports, you can never run out of manifestations of hegemonic masculinity. The article by Rick Reilly, an ESPN columnist, brings our attention to a recent example in pee wee football: a masterpiece, as a matter of fact.

Reilly reports about a coach in a pee wee football league who wrote in an e-mail to his 8 and 9 year-old players that he demanded “an aggressive or killer instinct” and a commitment at the summer session conditioning and practices as the team needed to “ramp it up.” 

The complete e-mail is worth reading and so is Reilly’s commentary on the situation. He places this instance in the larger cultural context of sports -- more specifically football -- pointing out that players at all levels (apparently now pee wee too) are pushed to exhaustion, injuries and health risks.

We see this mentality in pro sports; we see it on the college level. (If only I had a publication on my CV for every time I heard that I didn’t have the “killer instinct!”)

But when we see this ideology forced upon kids, where the emphasis should undoubtedly and unquestionably be on participation rather than performance, we really need to worry. How do kids interpret this system of values? Do they even understand what it means to “whole heartedly commit” to a team? 

More importantly, what happens if they don’t “get it?” I dare assume that there are punitive consequences to disobedience (whether this disobedience is intentional or unintentional, that hardly matters). And the punitive consequence will take a form of being yelled at by the coach, extra workouts (e.g.: push-ups) or being benched. 

All for something arbitrary. The kid didn’t pay attention. Or the kid laughed too much at practice. Or talked to a friend. Or found it more interesting to toss the ball in the air rather than to a teammate.

That’s if the kid stays. If the parent pulls the kid out of the activity, just as some of the parents did in this instance, then we can only hope that there will be another, different opportunity for the child to stay physically active and to experience the positive attributes of sports. At least some of these parents saved their children from months of potential abuse. 

Hardly is there a better time to think about “commitment” in sports than during the Olympics when we hear stories about athletes who go through training camps and leave home in a hope for a later professional success. Not uncommon at all.

About 10 or 15 years ago, kids similar to those who were asked to toughen up for tackle football were taught to desire winning, to “go for the Gold.” In the past week, we’ve been hearing about those few who made it, and then we even got disappointed when they finished 4th (see Christine Brennan’s article here). 

The question of when sports “should” become about performance rather than participation would, I’m certain, stir up a lively conversation among scholars, journalists, athletes, sports workers and fans alike. So would the question of is “killer instinct” even necessary in sports. 

But the time (if ever) is not and must not be when the kids are 8. If an instance such as the one illustrated by Reilly occurs, perhaps it’s not the kids who should quit the team, but the coach. 

-- Dunja Antunovic

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