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Monday, April 02, 2012

The enduring educational value of dodge ball

By Dick Hirsch

What I remember most about playing dodge ball was how the game immediately transformed the personalities of certain of the players from docile or passive to aggressive or hostile.

I understand the game isn’t featured very often these days in the various gym activities in elementary schools, although forms of it are still occasionally played on college campuses. Although it is verging on obsolescence, I’ll describe it in the present tense. It is among the most rudimentary of activities, yet it is definitely an invaluable learning experience because it reveals how a stressful setting can result in dramatic behavioral changes. It provides the most elementary understanding of the meaning and importance of the survival of the fittest.

Dodge ball rules are simple: players are divided into two groups. It would be inaccurate to call them teams, because there is no provision for teamwork; it is every player striving for survival. The ball of choice is the size of a volleyball. I’ve forgotten how it is determined which side first gains possession of the ball.

The idea is to wind up and throw the ball, aiming to hit a player on the other side. If the ball hits an opposing player, he is “out.” Possession of the ball is returned to the throwing side, providing them another chance to hit and oust another opponent. However, if the ball should be caught by the targeted opponent, then the thrower is “out.” Simple, huh?

Dodge ball success requires quick feet and good hands for that phase of the game when a player is a potential target. For those intervals when in possession of the ball, the player needs a quick delivery in addition to a strong arm. The simplicity of the game mandates that the ball should be thrown as hard as possible, thus making it more difficult to either evade or catch. When throwing, the experienced player selects his targets with care, first choosing those who may be overweight and less nimble. The last player remaining is the winner. Any number can play, depending upon the space provided. The larger the playing area with more participants requires the use of more than one ball, which means that players can be throwing and ducking at the same time.

My own experience with the game is probably typical, played occasionally during the boys’ gym class at PS 22, which was abandoned and converted to apartments years ago. The setting was both unusual and challenging, a basement room, about 36 feet long and half as wide with a low ceiling. It was very confining. The walls were unforgiving brick and many a player, cowering near the back wall, banged his head on the wall while taking evasive action.

Why did we play there instead of the gymnasium? I can’t be sure, but I believe the girls‘ class was being held there while the boys were assigned to the basement.

Our gym teacher in those days was Mr. Carter, a soft spoken and pleasant man. He didn’t look athletic and some of the boys thought he must have been a regular classroom teacher, just working temporarily as a gym instructor. Their minds changed the day he mounted the Pommel horse to offer an impressive demonstration of some gymnastic maneuvers and followed that by effortlessly climbing up the rope and touching the gym ceiling.

Mr. Carter always attempted to have the players maintain an aura of calm during the dodge ball games, but it was an effort doomed to failure. The majority of the participants adopted what was a basic defensive approach. Since there was no place to hide, they scampered near the rear wall, thus presenting a moving target. There were others who favored a less mobile posture. Some were confident of their receiving ability, certain they could catch any ball hurled in their direction, thus ousting an opposition player and assuming control of the ball. Others were merely watching, hoping to be hit. They accepted their inevitable ouster, which would enable them to observe from the sidelines.

In reflecting on my days as a dodge ball player, I’ve often thought about what educational value, if any, the game provides. The short term benefit would be its function as an outlet for the exuberant release of excess energy. Its long term value is enabling the players to recognize that the mild and the meek person can be transformed by stress, becoming belligerent and nasty. If dodge ball is a game, that is the enduring lesson.