On the Nature of Sports at S.V.S. and the Limitations of Language in Describing S.V.S. to the World

This article originally appeared in the Sudbury Valley School NEWSLETTER, and it has since been published in The Sudbury Valley School Experience, 1992, Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA.

Have you ever noticed the uniqueness of the way that sports are played at S.V.S.?

The experience is a beautiful one which brings out most of the noble characteristics which a person can possess. It also illustrates a point about language and the S.V.S. experience that is worth thinking about; for, although we give our activities at the school the same names as activities that take place elsewhere (for instance, “soccer games” or “history class”), what is actually happening during those activities at school is so fundamentally different from what happens elsewhere that the name becomes misleading. This is why it seems impossible, at times, to explain the school to people who haven’t actually seen it.

To describe the school, we must explain what actually happens, mentally and physically, step by step, because people have no direct experience that is the same as ours. At best, their idealistic, utopian ideas may resemble our day to day experiences at school. People can be reached by showing them how their ideals of freedom and responsibility, of democracy and fair justice, translate into day to day actions. We know that people in other schools have no direct experience of these things. What we forget is that, even after school, most people don’t have a direct experience of true democracy, fair justice, freedom, and responsibility in the full sense that we know them at S.V.S., just as people in other countries have no idea of what day to day life is like in the U.S.A. through reading the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Which brings me to how utterly incomplete and misleading terms like “soccer game” and “history class” are in describing those activities at S.V.S. I will take soccer as an example.

In other schools soccer is a game where all players on a team are of a similar age, sex, and, if the school is big enough, ability. It is played at designated times selected by the school. It is highly competitive both as regards an individual’s performance on the team and the performance of team against team. There is a lot of peer pressure and one’s status and sense of worth is highly dependent on physical performance. The fact that people manage to have some fun in spite of all these negative aspects says a lot about the deep human satisfaction that arises out of physical exertion and play.

This is what usually happens in other schools. The players arrive at the designated time wearing their uniforms. They are told by their coach how to improve their performances (not how to have more fun). They go to their designated positions. A team will always have more players than are allowed on the field so the people who don’t perform as well as others will not be allowed to spend as much time playing. They play the game. “They ‘work’ the game” might be a more appropriate phrase, because traditional, organized amateur sport is almost as regimented as professional sports.

People who are paid $200,000 a year to beat other people in sports should be performance oriented. The average person who simply wants to enjoy the physical process of play, or who wants to improve their own ability to kick a ball simply as an athletic challenge, should be enjoyment oriented, not process oriented.

Here is what happens at an S.V.S. soccer game. One person says, “Let’s play soccer” to some other people. Whoever feels like playing at that moment comes to the field. There are six-year-olds, ten-year-olds, eighteen-year-olds, maybe a staff member or parent who feels like joining in. There are boys and girls. Teams are then chosen with a conscious effort at creating evenly matched sides. Someone who hasn’t been there would not believe the amount of effort that goes into making the teams even. Given the diversity of the players, this often consists of one team having an extra “big kid” who can play well and the other team getting a small army of six-year-olds to get in his way. People want even teams because they are playing for fun. It’s no fun to play a game with lopsided teams.

After a game starts, someone will often come and say, “Can I play too?” and the teams will be rearranged to accommodate them, trading players back and forth. If that proves impossible, they will be told “Get someone equal to you to play also.” The game is played by whomever wants to play, for as long as they feel like playing. There will always be certain people who value winning, but there is little peer performance pressure. Most people don’t really care who wins.

Now, you might get the impression that people are not trying very hard to be good at the game, but that’s not true. Because the process of play is only fun if you exert effort and challenge yourself. That is why people developed the idea of games like soccer in the first place. Running around for no reason gets boring, but running around trying to kick a ball between two posts that are guarded by people who are trying to stop you—that’s exciting.

The people who play sports as we do at S.V.S. learn far more profound lessons about life than those that can be taught by regimented, performance-oriented sports. They learn teamwork—not the “we against them” type of teamwork, but the teamwork of a diverse group of people of diverse talents organizing themselves to pursue a common activity—the teamwork of life. They learn excellence, not the “I’m a star” type of excellence, but the type of excellence that comes from setting a standard for yourself to live up to and then trying your best to live up to it.

I’m twenty-three years old and I’ve played a lot of soccer. It would be pretty silly for me to try to be better than the three eight-year-olds who crowd around my feet every time I try to kick the ball. I think that the eight-year-olds are too busy running after kids who are three feet taller than they are to worry about being the best eight year old. In this game, as in real life, the only standard that matters is one you set for yourself. One of the profound truths you learn is that we are all so different from each other that peer pressure and comparisons of worth are meaningless. If you’re eleven years old and you are only allowed to play with other eleven-year-olds, it’s very hard to glimpse this profound truth which unlocks the true meaning of excellence.

They learn responsibility and restraint. In all the years of playing very physical games like football, soccer, and basketball, there has never been an injury beyond a minor cut or bruise. People play all these sports in their regular clothes without any of the standard protective equipment that is normally required. How can this be explained when people wearing protective pads injure each other with alarming frequency? Because in a regimented, performance-oriented way of looking at sports (or life), making sure you don’t hurt someone becomes less important than winning. So it doesn’t matter how much you talk about “sportsmanship” or how many safety pads you wear, people will get hurt. When you approach sports (or life) as a fun, exciting process, as something that is done for the sheer joy and beauty of doing it, then not hurting someone, not impairing their ability to enjoy the same process becomes a top priority.

This whole experience of sports at the school is just one of the many ways in which the kids answer the question, “What activities produce a meaningful life?” or, to put it more simply, “What is the meaning of life?” For people at school, freedom is not just a tremendous wonder, it is also a tremendous burden. This freedom to do what you want forces you to decide what you want. People play because they are free to, they want to, and they are alive. At the school, sport and physical play are magnificent expressions of the people who play them.

To participate in an activity where the clash of unequal bodies is transformed through teamwork, pursuit of personal excellence, responsibility and restraint into a common union of equal souls in pursuit of meaningful experience has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. I am sure it has had a similar effect on others. This can be easy for anyone to understand, but not if I simply tell them that I “played a lot of soccer at school.”

When I was eight years old and people asked me what I did with my time at S.V.S., I said, “Nothing.” I now realize what I meant to say was “everything.” Education is not so much a matter of learning facts as it is a matter of learning how to think. What the school teaches (or, rather, allows people to learn) is how to think. It does this by allowing people to talk, listen, play and contemplate as they see fit. It is this rare and wonderful privilege that colors and gives meaning to every activity.

The language that we use to describe the school must take into account the uniqueness of the context within which things happen here. We must speak the language of philosophy. We must talk about the processes that occur when one of the deepest needs of the human spirit, the need for freedom, is fulfilled: the process that occurs when a young mind is forced by that freedom to find activities which it considers meaningful (because humans hate to be bored); the process that occurs when you do things because you want to, not because someone or something makes you. This is not a school to be compared blandly with other schools. It is a way of thinking and of living.

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The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.