Neo had a post, touched off by yet another story of a town that wanted to switch entirely to cooperative games, about the lessons learned through competitive sports. I commented there, but thoughts do rattle around in my head whenever the subject comes up. There has certainly been a change over the decades in American culture, but I don’t know if it is as thorough as claimed. In our common mythology, boys used to play pick-up games without much adult supervision and would play for hours, especially in summer. Presently, they play sports highly-supervised by adults, who ruin things somehow. Girls were unwelcome and rare in the old days, while co-ed games until puberty are more encouraged now.
As we can always find data to support a theory already believed, this view has become the common wisdom. I’d like to revisit it and would appreciate your collective knowledge. And - if you have any friends form other sites who might be interested, then - Red Rover, Red Rover, send Tommy right over. All conclusions are tentative, so theories are welcome even if the initial evidence for your idea is scant.
The first great exception to the myth is playground basketball, especially in cities. It is unsupervised, self-organising, and goes on for hours, just as we imagine happened in the old days.
OTOH, game equipment is certainly more standardised now, so even pickup games have more regularity than the games I recall playing in the 60’s and hearing about prior to that. An official size and weight ball in any sport was not a given in my youth, and was regarded as a treasure. Rich kids had sewn, intact footballs, basketballs, and baseballs. We often made due with worn tennis balls or cheap plastic items. (Tug of War with a cheap garden hose is a really bad idea, BTW.) These often required rule adjustments. Fields of play were oddly shaped and required adaptation as well: slopes, streets, bushes. These lend themselves more to informal games of catch and individual tricks.
My sons played both school sports and town sports, more than I did. But in my era we had church leagues, boy scouts, and day camps; the first two of those were even more common in earlier eras than mine.
Girls didn’t play in the defined sports much, but certainly played often in the competitive games of Eggs (Spud), Kick the Can, Red Rover, a dozen versions of Tag, Hide and Go Seek, Giant Steps, Red Light – I’m sure there were others. They rode bikes with us, though any boy and girl who rode out of sight together were subject to immediate teasing. It was these games, more than the sports, which were spontaneous and self-organising. Sports with any group larger than the usual half-dozen from your immediate area were spent in endless arguments about rules and infractions. Not a lot of actual running and throwing got done. The rules of games were more generally agreed upon. Or perhaps the whole dynamic of arguing about it was different with girls present. I seem to recall the girls being the arbiters and setting the rules more authoritatively, though age was an even more powerful vehicle of authority. I suppose there are important adult lessons to be learned from that as well.
My Dad talked about playing for hours when young. But he also talked about having lots of work to do and being isolated from other boys except the Greenwoods on the next farm. I suspect there were Saturday games occasionally allowed to go on for hours, rather than sports every afternoon, and these were well-remembered, taking up increasing memory space as he aged. Kids went swimming – I doubt think that racing was more than an occasional part of that anywhere. Wrestling, breath-holding, and swinging were more likely. In Manchester there was The Ledge, where boys jumped off cliffs into the water of an old granite quarry. The only competition was how high you dared jump from. Oh, and macho posturing and bragging, but that’s a given.
In our town, by the way, the intensity of competition increases with age. In T-ball, everyone bats every inning and runs to first base - no further. It doesn't matter what the rule is about throwing kids out on the basepaths, because it never happens. By minor leagues (up to age 12) however, the game is fully competitive.