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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.