Illusion and Provocation in Traditional Sports

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Illusion and Provocation in Traditional Sports

Illusion and Provocation in Traditional Sports

-Finding the educational sense of traditional popular sports

Gianfranco Staccioli (University of Florence, Italy)


A game does not take place without a context. The emotions, the values, the expectations that accompany the game depend on the group, the environment, the time, the space, the historical period and the culture of a people. Global sports respond, as we know, to the needs of a global culture. These needs and this tendency cannot be stopped. No game lives in the abstract; it always lives in relation to the context in which it takes place. There is a deep relationship between games and society, between the specific forms of games and cultural values, which explains why certain games have prevailed in given historical periods and not in others.1 All games are something more than a mere game. That is, all games refer, whether consciously or not, to other dimensions, touch on layers which may or may not be obvious and activate fantasies and emotions which are not necessarily manageable.

Key words: traditional popular sports, culture, play
Education and Sports

Let us start with a simple consideration: a learning experience is effective when the persons who are learning feel they have changed. When is it that one has changed? When one perceives different ways of being, of feeling, of evaluating and of attributing value to life. Only when an educational project – such as teaching traditional popular sports in schools – has change as a prime objective, are its effects likely to be consolidated, wide-spread and permanent. The strength of any educational action, of its incisive metabolic2 quality, depends on numerous factors (personal, structural, social, philosophical and so on) and each formative experience is complex. At first it might seem simplistic to analyse the formative influence of traditional popular sports in terms of various fundamental elements common to education and sports. However, this analysis helps our initial question: in which circumstances do traditional sports lead to a positive change in people?

To Domiate Illusions

The dimension of sports is a dimension of illusion. The ancient Romans used the term in-ludere to mean various things: to tease, to pretend, to play a game. And, in fact, there is some affinity between joining in a game and pretending (illudersi). Children’s play belongs to the realm of make-believe; the games of adults seem to be a little less so (or so adults often believe). Children at play are in a state between reality and the imaginary: they use their playful actions as transitional time/space and as places of internal/external mediations3. Adult players pretend to themselves (in-ludent) that they are not ‘being played’ by their game and that they are able to control the elements which come into play. They, pretend, for example, that the sphere of playing is separate from everyday behaviour, from family, ethical and social values. They believe that they put into their game only a part of themselves (the part connected not only to moments of freedom from work but also to the more friendly, positive traits of their personality). They believe that they will find physical well-being (though physical effort does not always mean physical fitness/equilibrium); they believe that they will find richer relationships (but the relationships created in sports are principally those of competition); they believe they will better their relationship with Nature (and often find a standardised environment, where even the grass on the field is unnatural); they believe they will develop their own strategic and cognitive capacities (while usually what is involved is a standardised rather than an original action).

We do not here wish to carry out a critical analysis of institutional sports. If we have mentioned some ‘illusions’ regarding sports with mass following, it is because we wish to understand if these same illusions, or others, are also present in traditional games. Inevitably, every illusion hides unawareness4, which tends to deviate the player from the educational metabolic mentioned above as the formative point of reference. On the basis of these considerations, we shall be better able to discern some ‘provocative behavioural patterns’ connected to traditional games, to the manner in which the games are still played and to their popularity. These ‘provocations’ will then help us discern the didactic methods best suited to this type of proposal.

Each game is a complex object. The complexity of the game is determined by the interaction of three equally complex factors: the individual who is playing, the game in itself and the context in which the game is being played. Each of these factors may or may not bring about a formative action, that is, a change in the player (and, as a result, in the context).

Individual (person)

Structure (text) Culture (context)

The Individual Who Plays

When somebody starts a game (and he must decide to do so) he finds himself, whether consciously or not, managing specific personal needs (emotional, transitional, physical, concerning self-affirmation or escape, etc). As the saying goes: “It is the player who determines the game”. No one game is the same as another precisely because each time there is diversity due to the people who are playing. Even the same game repeated by the same people will be different each time, for people change, have different sensations, expectations or mental states. The strength of any game, and of playing in general, lies in its unpredictability and uniqueness. The players do not finish a game. On the contrary, for the player (and for the spectators) the game continues well after the match. It is discussed, thought about, and examined from different points of view. The player takes part in the game for more time than that of the mere playing. He maintains an ‘infinite’5 link with the match and with himself. The person who plays experiences a dimension of infinite time with which he tries to keep in touch.

Yoruba youth (Nigeria) play a traditional game called The Lion of the Yoruba or Boma, Boma6. The game has various phases: at the beginning there is a rhythmic dialogue in which the lion asks different pairs to carry out certain actions; then there is a sort of hide-and-seek and, lastly, once the game has concluded as we would say, there is a discussion amongst the players. In this last phase the group of players must establish which ‘mother’ best-defended her ‘cubs’, and ‘she’ will be the next lion. It is common to think that a game is over when someone has either won or lost. In this case, however, the rules of the game force the players to stop, to make a collective evaluation and to take a collective decision. In this game there is an interesting ‘personal’ element: the uncertainty of the outcome.

In The Lion of the Yoruba the players do not know who the winner is until the final decision has been taken. The game delays its conclusion in order to give the players the possibility to reflect on events. Thus, the winner(s) might be he who saved himself by reaching home ground first, or the player who lets himself be ‘eaten’ by the lion so as to save his young or even the most astute pair of players who find the best and most secret hiding places. In this game nothing is obvious or certain, not even who wins or loses. On the contrary, defining the rules for winning is part of the game itself. Even in institutionalised sports there is uncertainty (a match is interesting precisely because we do not know how it will finish) but, in many traditional games, ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ is not based on a measurable performance (speed in time/space, etc) but on a careful evaluation carried out by the players themselves. It is as if at the end of a cycling race the cyclists were to meet up, without worrying about the order of their arrival, and decide who had achieved the highest merits.

In a game like The Lion of the Yoruba the principle of the certainty of uncertainty pervades every single moment of the game. Anything can happen, nothing is given for certain. From finite the game becomes infinite and it is the players who themselves construct the game. In the final evaluation the individual is considered as a whole rather than on the basis of some specific performance. The winner is not he who arrived first or ran more; instead, the rules of the game imply a consideration of the motor action in its wholeness, an organic unity of the mind, of feelings, of relationships and of social behaviour. “The participants in a finite game play within well-defined boundaries; the participants in an infinite game play with the boundaries”7. These are rules which do not take into account the classic division between physical and mental activity, between fitness and emotion, between final result and on-going play. They are, in reality, game actions that refer to an idea of the unity of experience, an idea only recently taken up in disciplines related to physical education. Maintaining an infinite link between the players and their game means experiencing the game not only as a race or a confrontation between people or groups but rather as a an awareness of one’s own global action. In brief, these are games which incorporate both mind and body, a principle which our culture is still seeking.

At the same time this kind of game means placing in the foreground the person who plays rather than the game produced by that person. It means giving space to narration, to the personalised tale, to the elaboration of sensations and emotions. The teaching of traditional games also means going slowly (not running), giving adequate time and space to the individual, to the groups and to the dynamics which permeate them (thus rendering pertinent that fond Constructivist principle: “Attention must not be on the product but on the process”). Competition and a slow pace can go hand in hand.

The first important message we can deduct from these considerations is that we must render traditional sports infinite. The more that game actions conform to the players by rendering them participants, inventors, capable of reflecting on their own playing, on the relative values of victory and defeat, on the complexity of their own physical acts, the more traditional games offer a useful, new model, highly unlike the one put forward by institutionalised sports. A re-appropriation of the game on the part of the players leads to several consequences: the rules must be the players’ instead of being dictated by clubs and federations; the game is for the players themselves rather than for those who watch it. In other words, in a popular sport the modality of playing does not have as its point of reference a mass sport and does not try to model itself on the latter. Indeed, we are dealing with another realm of play, at least for the player. It is an illusion to think that the standardisation of rules, the drawing up of rigid norms and championships on a national level are the strong points of traditional sports. On the contrary, they render the game finite and adapt it to the ‘winning’ model in which sports clubs and associations (and the spectators) are of greater importance than the players themselves.

The Rules of the Game

A game is not only ‘of’ the player. One plays in order to be part of a regulated body and to confront others within it. As a result the rules of the game have the power to model the behaviour of an individual. The probable effects of competitive games are not the same as those produced by co-operative games: playing ‘one against all’ is not the same as playing ‘group against group’.

The differing structures of games have been well analysed by Pierre Parlebas.8 The structures of interaction that are common in games influence the immediate and/or successive behaviour of the player, they determine a transfer of behavioural learning. Numerous studies have shown, for example, how the regular use of co-operative (new) games in schools weakens aggressive relationships within the class group. In such situations it is not so much the individual who has imposed change on himself as the games which have brought about a change in behaviour.9

Even space has a modelling effect. Playing in the streets is not like playing in a stadium. Traditional sports still maintain non-standardised areas of play, close either to Nature or to the surrounding environment. Many games are played outside the stadium. Popular traditional games, on the whole, have many different and varied structural forms in comparison to more widespread mass sports. For example, we may recall one of the numerous Italian itinerant games, “Rouletta”, which is played in Val d’Aosta. In this game each player throws his bowling ball in a different manner and his throw must be imitated by the other players. Other popular traditional games still played in many Italian regions are “Ruzzola” and “Ruzzolone”.

A player in action is permeated by numerous as if’ situations. Some are linked to a role (“I am behaving as a defence”), others to the character in the game (“I throw the object as a peasant in the past”). In mass sports the ‘as if’ relating to characters has become abstract, if not completely lost. It does, however, remain in some traditional games, especially those tied to folklore or to shows as, for example, the historical pageant of Florentine Medieval football or the human chess game in Marostica). In many traditional adult games this was, however, not the case. We have to examine traditional children’s games in order to find, appreciate and recover the hidden make-believe aspects of playing.

The practical consequences of the influence of game structures on the players are evident: he who plays must be able to experiment different structures, structures which bring into play differing relational mechanisms, which evoke different emotions in the player and which enable him to experiment diversified roles, making him feel like an actor in many parts and like a character in many comedies. An enrichment, a transformation, an educational metabolic action is possible when, in the game, one finds different characters who ‘excite’ our personality, when one can personify different roles and the various ‘egos’ which are part of us. And, it is also necessary that the players try out different structures and characters, each of which has its own specific link to space, time and to the role played in the game.

By offering pupils different forms/structures of games, we avoid the danger of local ethnocentricity often found in traditional games. One is not playing ‘the’ game but ‘a’ game, one does not experience ‘the’ best cultural modality but ‘a’ modality among many possible. In other words, if there is a difference between traditional games and ‘official’ sports, this lies in the variety of the structures that they contain. It follows that the greater the number of the game varieties with which a player can confront himself and ‘de-centre’ himself, the greater the formative enrichment. This last consideration seems to negate one of the main characteristics of traditional popular sports: its tie with the context, with the history and with the culture of a specific place, i.e., re-proposing the same game, which is part of a specific game tradition. But let us look more closely.

Bringing Culture into Play

A game does not take place without a context. The emotions, the values, the expectations that accompany the game depend on the group, the environment, the time, the space, the historical period and the culture of a people. A modern football match would not impress spectators of tachtli; instead, they would probably note the banality of a game that only allows the ball to be passed by foot or by head since tachtli players can also pass it with their hips, thighs and back.10 Global sports respond, as we know, to the needs of a global culture (we do not mean this statement to be a judgement). These needs and this tendency cannot be stopped.

No game lives in the abstract; it always lives in relation to the context in which it takes place. There is a deep relationship between games and society, between the specific forms of games and cultural values, which explains why certain games have prevailed in given historical periods and not in others.11 All games are something more than a mere game. That is, all games refer, whether consciously or not, to other dimensions, touch on layers which may or may not be obvious and activate fantasies and emotions which are not necessarily manageable. Every game is a deep game. The sport most representative of our culture today is football (or soccer), complete with its related lotteries and market, and this phenomenon has repeatedly been studied on psychological, social, economic and political levels.12 It is a game which “produces in the imagination a dimension of Western experience that in our daily routine is usually hidden from sight… Football as a ritual is not only a mirror of society or its escape valve, but also an interpretation of society. The game of football is a ‘story’ through which society narrates itself, thus contributing to society’s own recognition of itself.”13 In this case the game interweaves playing and context, transforming into ritual the models of the society in which it is played. Hence, the game becomes a deep game, a game full of meaning.14 An activity of this type is transformed into an important cultural moment because it enables those who participate in the ‘rite’ to recognise themselves, to be with others and to participate in an identical model of collective thought. Generally, a deep game implies a number of themes which are present in daily experience (victory, defeat, revenge, strength, courage, hostility, etc.) and “orders them in a sequential structure of actions with a high level of formal elaboration, from which a particular concept of human life emerges. Thus, going to a football match is for a young Westerner a kind of sentimental and moral education”.15 In the same way all traditional sports and games are linked to a specific context and to relational, economic and ethical models. These too were deep games.

If we wish to propose traditional sportive games to the youth of today, if we propose that they learn and play them, then we must be aware of the depth of these games. Of which models are they carriers? Which ethical, relational or social messages do they express? It is not just a question of revisiting history, of helping young people to learn about lost traditions or of idealising the past. We believe that the ‘as if’ present in these games allows one to experience events which today are improbable (cutting a tree with an axe or crossing a stream with a board) and, more significantly, to experience the deeper meaning of these events. And the deeper meaning of these events has repeatedly been highlighted: localisation, the link with the neighbourhood, belonging to a group, the right to maintain one’s own specific characteristics and diversity, and so on. Today, these aspects can be stated in more up-dated terms: welcoming different customs and ideas, understanding that all values, even in sport, are cultural and relative, giving citizenship to small groups and upholding the personal and group context in which the game is carried out. A deep traditional sportive game is a game which renders meaningful its origins and its social and cultural implications.

Trinumest Perfectum

So far we have discussed the three aspects of games - the person who plays, the rules of the game and the cultural context – aspects which intersect and which determine a game situation which is always difficult to understand and to manage. Yet, as we have tried to say, in order to construct a triangular project of formative change it is necessary to bear in mind the specific elements which characterise these three aspects. A traditional game may offer a meaningful methodological and educational model if it brings with it significant values, however different to those of mass sports.

Since 1985 the Italian school curriculum has included an activity called gioco-sport (game-sports). Originally, this new curriculum was an attempt to free juvenile sports activities from mass sports and to separate it from ‘mini-sports’ (a gateway to institutionalised sports). The educational value of ‘game-sports’ did not lie in the activities in themselves but in the values that they (as deep games) contain.16 However, in reality, motor activities in Italy still pursue the ‘strong’ cultural model linked to better known sports, even if recently there has been an increase of interest in athletics. The ‘downfall’ of the ministerial proposal was caused by various factors, last but not least, incomprehension concerning the educational objectives of that proposal. The ministry was unable to ‘explain’ the ‘reasons’ behind the idea of ‘gioco-sport’ which would have launched an enormous cultural challenge. With few exceptions, the ‘gioco-sport’ project has been transformed and now adheres to the rules of official sports, with their championships and trophies.

One of the dangers to avoid when playing traditional popular sports in schools is precisely that of adapting to the rules of institutionalised sports, which have a separate statute and different formative objectives. (Although mass sports must be taken into consideration, they should not become the only models of reference.) Traditional games must not pretend to be like other sports. They are different and it is necessary to insist on their difference. Guy Jaouen has more than once stressed the authenticity of traditional games: “In order to play this role the Committees and Federations of Modern Sports need know that they do not have to copy the other Federations of Modern Sports. In so doing they would lose their soul, for their current attraction lies in their difference and if the games lost this difference, they would risk no longer being of public interest.”17

One of the other things missing in Italian game-sports has been a lack of conviction of their difference and, thus, an inability to communicate with awareness that they bear strong, meaningful values. We know that it is not easy to implement a coherent project in a school, a project which links practice to a specific idea of coexistence, to a different relationship to time and space and to a model of personalised growth. Yet, such a project would avoid an even more unwelcome outcome, that of transforming game-sports into something else. Traditional, popular sports are neither preparatory nor parallel to mass sports. They are a different way of playing, which is interlocutory and communicative because it represents different values and thus offers it own perspective of cultural meaning.

Research into the sense of traditional games and coherency in practising them may avoid their being side-lined and excluded. A recent study on the drop-out rate of young people from mass sports18 shows that an even greater number will stop when there is no motivation, that is, when youngsters no longer feel the activity to be part of their self-fulfilment. Self-fulfilment is linked to strong ideas of meaning, which young people identify in sports situations:

  • In which they must feel that success is the purpose of the game, and not that the game is based on the binary of victory/defeat (in other words, where the competitive spirit of the game is secondary to the fact that the game must be played for its own sake).

  • In which there is the possibility of discussing the match (so-called ‘corridor learning’).

  • In which the instructor is a teacher and a friend (there is mutual respect).

  • In which the game has a personal and social value which can change them and make society better.

In this need to belong expressed by young people (as in the case of mass sports) and, at the same time, to experience a context which has personal and social value, we find an affinity to those same values which we call ‘meaning in traditional games’. The following table lists some of these values:
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