Yesterday, the National Post had the following piece: Dodgeball isn’t just problematic, it’s an unethical tool of ‘oppression’: researchers. It’s a part of their “Oh, the Humanities” series, where they mock research in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Normally I’d want absolutely nothing to do with that, but since I seem to be the dodgeball player that everyone knows, I keep getting asked about it. So here goes:
My qualifications to talk about this
- I spent a decade playing in dodgeball tournaments all over North America.
- I was the Head Coach of Canada’s National Mens Team in 2013 and 2014. Yes, we have one. We won gold in both years, beating the U.S. in the finals in 2013 in New Zealand and 2014 in Hong Kong. I retired from coaching in 2014 with 2 gold medals in 2 attempts and an international coaching record of 11–2.
- I design courses and curricula as part of my job at Ivey, so I have some familiarity with what the researchers are trying to accomplish.
First Thoughts: I agree with what the researchers are trying to do.
It’s absolutely vital when designing course curricula that we think through what we want the students to learn. And that’s not just the actual “topic” of discussion. In my Ivey course on political risk, I want the students to walk away knowing something about political risk, but I also want to get them to be better critical thinkers, to think about the hidden assumptions they’re making (but not realizing it) when assessing a situation. The same holds true for physical education. You’re not just teaching the infield fly rule or how to hold a javelin, you’re teaching life skills. The researchers talk about “the potential of physical education to empower students by engaging them in critical and democratic practices”. I’m absolutely on board. This is a great goal!
Secondly, a lot of us have awful experiences in phys. ed. class. Some teachers and experiences are great and some aren’t. I know bad gym teachers, my highschool gym teacher was sex-offender Bob Bridgeman. So, better, more inclusive phys. ed. courses? Sign me up!
Finally, I agree with the researchers in the sense that if teaching “dodgeball” is just having a bunch of small children whip balls at each other without rules or purpose, that is abusive. So don’t do that.
So why teach dodgeball?
If schools are going to teach dodgeball, and I believe they should, they should do it the same way they teach baseball or basketball or any other team sport: by teaching the skills, tactics, and strategies of the sport. It should be taught as a six-on-six sport, like the actual sport, not just dividing the class into two halves. When you do that, you’ll find that the sport involves a great deal of teamwork, coordination, and strategy, all skills that are all useful in civil society.
But many sports can do this. What makes dodgeball particularly special?
- Unlike many sports like basketball, a broad range of physical characteristics are useful. In dodgeball, there is an advantage to being big (throw harder) but there’s also an advantage to being small and quick (harder to hit, easier to collect rebounds). If you look at high-level dodgeball, you’ll see a broader range of body types than you will in say, tennis. I used to play against a guy who was about 6 feet tall and 400 lbs, who was a great player, because he could catch anything. Glue for hands. In most other sports, he’d struggle, but there was a role for him in dodgeball. It reminds me a little of the old Nintendo Ice Hockey game, where the best teams are ones that have a range of physical characteristics.
- In pretty much every other sport, you spend most of your time without the ball, which can get a bit boring. In dodgeball, because there’s six balls, you spend about half of the time with a ball, and half without, so you have ample opportunity to get to learn both sides of the game. I always found hockey frustrating, because in any given game I might spend 30 seconds with the puck, so I never got to practice those skills in a game situation. Doesn’t apply in dodgeball.
- Dodgeball is a good introduction to “contact” sports. You learn how to take a hit, but instead of getting hit with a knee or elbow, you’re getting hit with a foam ball. It can sting a little bit if you get hit in the wrong place, but otherwise, it’s a lot lower impact than, say, soccer. Not many concussions in dodgeball.
- Coordination is vital. One thing you learn quickly in dodgeball is that you need to throw two balls, that arrive at the same time, at the same target. Because if you don’t, your throw will probably get caught, which is a bad thing. First you need to coordinate with a teammate, to throw at the same target at the same time while “under fire”. This is a highly transferrable skill to “the real world”. Even if you pick the same target, the coordination can be harder to do than it sounds — two players might start their throws at the same time, but if one has a longer wind-up then the other, the balls won’t arrive at the same time.
- Finally, it’s a great workout, and it’s fun. That should count for something.
Dodgeball has taken me all around the world and introduced me to great people I would have never otherwise met. Let’s reform how dodgeball is taught in schools, not throw it out entirely.
Why are you called the Gordie Howe of Dodgeball?
I got asked this yesterday and gave my standard answer “because I’m old”. The real answer is longer and more complicated, so here goes.
I got the nickname from my friend/teammate Sam Cornell, grandson of former Hockey Night in Canada great Ward Cornell. For the purpose of this story, that familial connection counts as a qualification.
In hockey, a Gordie Howe hat-trick is a goal, an assist and a fight, all in the same game (despite the name Gordie Howe hattrick, Gordie Howe didn’t do this particularly often.
In dodgeball, depending on the ruleset used, there are 3 or 4 ways to get an opposing player out. There’s the two that everyone is familiar with, that comprise 99%+ of all outs:
- Hitting an opposing player with a ball
- Catching a ball thrown by an opposing player
The two other, less common ones are:
- Knocking a ball out of an opposing player’s hand with a throw. (If an opposing player has the habit of holding a ball at their side, try throwing a fastball right at their ball. With practice, you can make this part of your regular arsenal, if you have a strong enough arm. And it really gets in your opponent’s head if you can pull it off. So much fun.)
- Forcing an opponent to step outside the court. (My specialty — think the “foot foul” from Dodgeball: The Movie, except the sideline, not the centre line. If an opposing player is playing too close to the sideline, try throwing a ball at their leg furthest from the line. Sometimes they’ll slide over and foul themselves out. This really gets in their head. Doubly fun! In many rule sets there are no “hard” sidelines, so this is not possible.
Back when I played regularly, I used to try and get these unorthodox outs. Occasionally I’d get three of them in the same match. After one time where I got three in the same game of a match (like tennis, dodgeball is made up of games and matches), Sam gave me the nickname “Gordie Howe of Dodgeball”, for getting so many dodgeball Gordie Howe hat-tricks. It stuck.