TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

Beyond winning


About Janet

Author, martial artist, and amateur neuroscientist Janet O’Shea is author of At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage, co-editor of the Routledge Dance Studies Reader (second edition), and a member of the editorial review board for the Routledge Online Encyclopedia of Modernism. She is Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA.


Wouldn’t it be great if there was something we could do that could teach us how to work together? Something that could show us how to disagree with respect? Wouldn’t it be better if that thing gave us the experience of mastery while reminding us that it’s okay to fail? And wouldn’t it be better yet if that thing were fun?

The thing I speak of is physical play. Kinetic games, sports, and other activities where interacting with each other is central to the experience. It may sound utopian, but I want to suggest to you that physical play can unite us, can teach us to respect difference, and show us how to get along even as we disagree.

How do I know that physical play can do this? Because I’ve experienced it.

At a point in life that I might reluctantly identify as middle age, I launched myself into martial arts training: kickboxing, grappling, and stick fighting with highly skilled people, some of whom were half my age. What I learned in that process changed my life. And I want to share that with you.

One moment in particular comes to mind. It was a Saturday afternoon at the Inosanto Academy for Martial Arts where I train, and I was in a kickboxing class. It came time for sparring and there I was with my partner kicking, punching, evading, and getting hit a fair amount. So I stepped off the mat after a few rounds, I took off my gloves, took out my mouth guard, and thought, “I love these people.” I pulled myself up short realizing I barely knew these people and we had just been trying to kick each other in the head.

So in addition to being a martial artist, I’m also a dance studies professor here at UCLA. And thinking about movement, what it can be, what it does, and what it means is central to my profession. So I just couldn’t let this idea alone, that competitive — in fact, combative — contact between people could yield this extraordinary sense of goodwill and commonality.

And then I got to thinking: wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone could experience what I did on the mat that Saturday? What I’ve realized is everyone can, but many of us are not.

So let me ask you a question: how many of you, when you were kids, played some kind of physical game, like kickball, soccer, even running around playing tag with your friends? Let’s see a show of hands. Okay. So how many of you do something roughly equivalent now, like a pickup game of basketball, riding bikes with your friends. Many people do that on a regular basis. Okay.

So if you are one of the people who had your hand up in response to the first question and down for the second, you’re not alone. Only 25 percent of American adults play sports on a regular basis. Of the 75 percent who don’t participate in athletics, most played sports as kids and many define themselves as sports fans. So we have outsourced physical play to experts. And we have relegated it to a specific phase of the lifespan.

So why is this? Well, to begin to figure this out, we can look at kids’ sports because kids’ sports have become increasingly competitive. They become increasingly focused on winning.

And kids are pretty clear about their motivation for playing sports. They play in elementary school when it’s fun, when it’s about interacting with other kids, exploring their environment and being inventive. And they tend to drop out toward middle school and high school when it becomes more focused on winning.

And they have a point. Because the more winning matters, the more structured our interactions tend to be and the less creative we get to be. Also, too much attention to winning undercuts the very benefits that sports are supposed to provide. So too much attention to winning can be stressful. It can encourage deception. It can even promote violence. So too much attention to winning turned sports from play into work.

So this might explain why we have a participation problem. But what do we do about it? Well to find a solution, first we have to understand how competitive play works.

So take my example of sparring. Now if you’re trying to kick me and I’m trying to punch you, we disagree on a pretty fundamental level as to what we want from that interaction. But we agree as to the terms of the interaction and very often as to much of its content: how hard we’re sparring, how fast we’re moving. At the end, we touch gloves or shake hands, we hug each other, and often we mean it. We walk off the mat, and we’re still friends.

In addition, sparring, unlike competition-level sport fighting, although it’s a test of skill, no one declares a winner. No one’s keeping score. Sometimes the only person watching is the coach.

So these two ideas — competing without needing to win and disagreeing with respect — are not unique to martial arts. They are common to sports and physical activities of many kinds. And they’re also ideas that we can take from sport into our daily lives.

Okay, so competing without needing to win. Well that’s a contradiction, isn’t it? It is. It is a functional contradiction because sports are an extension of games, and games are about paradox. In a game we have a goal, but we have rules in place that make it harder to achieve that goal. We follow the rules to sustain the state of play because it’s the state of play that’s enjoyable. Likewise, in a game we go up against another player or another team but will often forgo an easy victory just to keep the game going. So in other words, we don’t go all out to beat our kids at checkers, we don’t storm off when our friend wins a chess game, and we really oughtn’t to gloat when we win at cards.

Kinetic play is particularly useful for reminding us of the importance of process as well as outcome because kinetic play is immersive. It puts us resolutely in the moment. And because of this, kinetic play can yield all sorts of important benefits. It can make us more resilient, more inventive. It can teach us to accept failure, it can teach us about ourselves and give us a model for working in a team.

So what would a world look like in which we played without needing to win? Would we communicate better? Would we feel more connected to each other? Would our problem-solving skills improve? Would our public debate be more respectful? It’s possible.

To get to this point, it’s not enough to change our own attitudes towards competition, although that may help. We also need to work together, figuring out when to push each other and when to learn from one another.

So here’s my challenge to you: what opportunities can you create for yourselves and for others where it’s possible to compete and collaborate at the same time? Can you bring people together around these opportunities? Can you create the space for play, and can you invite others in? Thank you.