Sporting Discipline and Kept Time

The thought occurs to me in a public square outside the train station in Köln:

I am fascinated by skateboarders and their sporting ilk.

Skateboarding is a skill that I was never able to easily grasp as a youngster and today it eludes me completely, though I am even more intensely aware of the sport's aesthetics and politics. All of which is to say that skateboarding requires a disciplined body in order to execute its skills, a particular form of discipline not immediately subsumable under a blanket label of athleticism, and a discipline that I lack and envy in others.

But hasn't sportsBabel become an extended polemic against the disciplining of bodies for sporting purposes? I suppose to some degree that it has, so perhaps I ought to begin delineating a personal ethics of sporting discipline.

As a starting point, we turn to Debra Shogan, who points out that there can be no sporting performance in the absence of a disciplined body. Any sporting skill requires a sophisticated coordination of muscle groups major and minor; an articulation of this motor potential with ground, ball, board, or other technical apparatus; and an ability to pass through space and time in a fashion appropriate to the sport question.

Here we face our first challenge: what should we consider an "appropriate" sporting movement?

To determine what is "appropriate" we must begin to look at the sport's formal requirements, its purposes and goals. Dare we settle on something so binary as objective and subjective sport classifications to construct our argument? For now we shall, though I suspect we'll find these categories limiting in the end.

Once again, we are beginning with the premise that there can be no sporting performance without the prior existence of the disciplined body. But once we divide sports into objective and subjective categories, the character of the disciplined body is divided as well. In the case of objective sport performance goals are fairly clear cut and there usually can only be one winner in an athletic contest.

Take the sport of running, for example. Humans have always been runners, whether to catch a quarry, escape from a predator, transport from one place to another, or contest Olympic championships. Running is a very naturally-learned physical activity even though it is very distinguishable biomechanically from accelerated walking. The pumping of the arm opposite the leg that is being lifted and propelled forward is necessary for this skill to occur, and should be considered an appropriate form of bodily discipline, one that is self-learned and imposed.

What, then, constitutes an inappropriate form of discipline in running? It is the discipline imposed on a body by another. It is when we cease to describe a discipline of the self and begin to describe the diagram of power that disciplines the self. If there is a turning point to be found in running, it comes with the introduction of timing to the race process.

When two or more people have a footrace, in the majority of cases the runners themselves can determine the winner; even when the race is close, the kinaesthetic sense of being-in-body is enough (if the contestants are honest with themselves) to determine the winner. If not, they turn around and race again.

Even when the gaze of an "impartial" third-party judge is introduced, we have not yet crossed a barrier into an inappropriate disciplining of the sporting body since, generally speaking, this judge simply confirms what the running bodies already know but are perhaps unwilling to admit in their competitiveness.

The act of timing, however, brings a particular and peculiar violence upon the sporting body, since the disciplining ceases to be a local disciplining of the self and crosses a threshold to become a general formula for efficient production by imposing the tyranny of the clock. Put another way, timing a race serves little purpose if it is only done once. In the absence of other times with which to compare, this temporal measurement becomes a number without context and therefore meaningless.

No, the purpose of timing is to create an archive for comparative purposes: times of past performance, benchmarks for future performance, markers of record performance. Optimal time becomes the alibi for a most brutal violence to the sporting body that goes beyond a self-discipline to broader networks of power and economy constraining the self. This must be considered an inappropriate disciplining of the sporting body, even though it leads to body movements that are appropriate for the formal requirements of the sport in question.

Comments

2 responses to Sporting Discipline and Kept Time

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  1. Cathy Sherk says:

    Hi Sean… was browsing the web looking for "sports discipline" topics… Yours came up in the midst… funny… I am from Niagara… I am interested in finding out about how an athlete uses "personal discipline" (mental and physical)to practice better, play better and prepare better for golf events…. from introductory local tournaments … to national championships…. I teach golf and looking for info that is not too readily available??? Anyway… if you have any suggestions… I would certainly be interested…. thanks for your time… I will continue to read your article… cheers, cathy sherk

  2. sportsBabel » Marching Across Time says:

    [...] No, the purpose of timing is to create an archive for comparative purposes: times of past performance, benchmarks for future performance, markers of record performance. Optimal time becomes the alibi for a most brutal violence to the sporting body that goes beyond a self-discipline to broader networks of power and economy constraining the self (November 2008). [...]