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An open letter to Bud Wilkinson:
November 12, 1962
Ever since President Kennedy first coined the phrase in these pages (SI, Dec. 26, 1960), the concept of the Soft American has been a matter of national concern. According to the President's last "progress" report (SI, July 16), more than 10 million of our 40 million school children are still unable to pass the very minimum of physical fitness tests—and European youngsters are still far ahead of us. In 1961 George Munger, director of physical education at the University of Pennsylvania, offered a challenge to Bud Wilkinson, the Presidents Special Consultant on Youth Fitness. Professor Munger, using his own comparison of European and U.S. athletic activities (SI, July 31, 1961), concluded: Americans are too varsity-minded. "What we need," he said, "are more mediocre scatbacks having a bang-up time on the seventh team." This week, a Michigan housewife, mother of three (two boys, 15 and 4, and a girl, 12), presents a second challenge based on similar and, we think, even more meaningful findings right from her—and our—own backyard.
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November 12, 1962

An Open Letter To Bud Wilkinson:

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Ever since President Kennedy first coined the phrase in these pages (SI, Dec. 26, 1960), the concept of the Soft American has been a matter of national concern. According to the President's last "progress" report (SI, July 16), more than 10 million of our 40 million school children are still unable to pass the very minimum of physical fitness tests—and European youngsters are still far ahead of us. In 1961 George Munger, director of physical education at the University of Pennsylvania, offered a challenge to Bud Wilkinson, the Presidents Special Consultant on Youth Fitness. Professor Munger, using his own comparison of European and U.S. athletic activities (SI, July 31, 1961), concluded: Americans are too varsity-minded. "What we need," he said, "are more mediocre scatbacks having a bang-up time on the seventh team." This week, a Michigan housewife, mother of three (two boys, 15 and 4, and a girl, 12), presents a second challenge based on similar and, we think, even more meaningful findings right from her—and our—own backyard.

Dear Sir:
I have watched and listened to your television plea for more physical fitness classes for youngsters until I can no longer refrain from writing to you. I believe we adults are entirely to blame if we have "softies" who cannot perform even elementary skills.

A child is born with a physical drive so strong that a playpen, crib or other restraint is useless after 18 months. Some resist earlier. From toddler to preschooler the active, boundless energy of children amazes adults. And yet these same hardy, healthy, energetic youngsters are the subject of your messages about softness. Why? What happens to their zest and enthusiasm for exercise as they grow older? What possible lure can a television set offer as a substitute for good, hard play outside on a nice day? And why does such a large percentage of our youth enjoy sports only from the grandstands? I believe I have a partial answer.

We adults are so used to our heavily competitive stride we cease to think about it. We believe in stiff competition. We believe it nourishes better business, finer products and keener minds. We tend to forget its side effects, especially when we foist our adult "competitive spirit" on our children. Ask any psychologist and he will tell you young schoolchildren are already highly competitive. One psychologist at the University of Michigan said that second-graders hold such high standards for themselves that they overtry, sometimes with disastrous results. And this is apart from the pressures of school and home.

Therefore, if children are both naturally energetic and aggressive the fault must lie elsewhere. I believe it is because we will not tolerate mediocrity in athletics. We make room for the "average" in any other field, any walk of life, but we cannot abide it in sports. Remove the shame of mediocrity from sports and you will have more takers.

Have you ever been to a tryout for Little League baseball? This, to me, was enlightening. When our son was 8 he appeared with several other excited, highly nervous boys. They were all "auditioned."

All wanted terribly to be good enough. Several boys were not just good, they were excellent. Our boy managed to ease in on probation after he promised lots of home practice. But the humiliation and disappointment on the faces of those who were rejected was something I will never forget.

Isn't 8 years old a little young to be a failure? Why are only the best allowed to play? Isn't the fact that they all wanted to play much more important than how well they can play? It seems no matter how much the Little League has accomplished, it has defeated its purpose. The Little League is also an excellent tool in many cases for the parents to grind personal axes. The teams no longer belong to the boys. Our boy lost interest after the first year because he warmed the bench practically the whole season. This was not the fault of the coach, just the system.

In school gym classes it is the same story. I am not discounting the tedious and exhausting job of contending with 40 or more children who tend toward the unavoidable horseplay. But for those who really try and still cannot excel should there be shame attached? Our boy could not tumble in the sixth grade; now he is in the 10th grade and still can't tumble. One incident in gym class in the sixth grade was inexcusable to me, and it is all the more sickening because I have heard the same story with variations from other people here and in other states.

During a calisthenics series all the boys were performing one at a time to pass the tumbling test. A youngster having just as much trouble as my son was forced to try over and over again in front of the assembled class with accompanying abuse and derision from the gym teacher. He never did succeed in passing the requirements and so he was punished. My son was ill that night and was still vomiting the next day. It was several days before I learned that it was his turn the next day and he couldn't face it. If a speech teacher or a chemistry teacher had behaved in such a manner he would have been taken to task, but we allow our gym teachers this ugly privilege.

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