(Re)defining the notion of “sport” through an argument from biomechanics.

In my opinion, a “sport” is any activity for which an increase in the relevant hip extension abilities is a necessary component of developing greater performance in that activity.

(“Hip extension” is the ability to move our thighs back and forth. When we consider what function the act of moving our thighs back and forth has in relation to the whole system, hip extension amounts to the ability to push on a surface or object with our feet by using our thighs and butt as the primary movers).

But why would I define “sport” that way? Because I’ve looked at which activities we tend to label as “sports,” which we don’t, and which fall somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, I’m interested in what ideas we use to categorize these activities. In my opinion, the idea that most people use to categorize activities as sports—or not—is whether hip extension (the ability to move our thighs back and forth) is a central component of that activity.

Admittedly, I believe that when they categorize activities in this way, most people aren’t aware that their parameters for defining a “sport” are tied much more closely to the presence and importance of hip extension, than, say, to whether it is goal-oriented or physically strenuous.

However, for most people, a big part of calling something a “sport” comes from the notion that it is—or must be—physically strenuous. But that alone is not enough: although we certainly consider football, baseball, the decathlon, weightlifting, and sprinting to be sports, what about going to the gym and lifting dumbbells?

As opposed to the first examples, lifting dumbbells seems like “working out,” or like “exercise,” but not like a “sport.”

Why is that?

And for that matter, how about ballet dancing, yoga, and other forms of physical expression?

This is where the line begins to get murky, and, in the opinion of some, with good reason. Yoga and dancing are, at first blush, not goal-oriented. There is no competition involved. And yet, the intuitions of many people would squarely place these disciplines within the boundaries of the concept of “sport.”

Those intuitions strongly correspond with the knowledge that dancers and practitioners of yoga have: that these arts are as goal-oriented as “typical” sports—if not more. Most “sports” have a single goal: winning in one form or another, whereas these pursuits have a multitude of goals. Posture, consistency, and strength are all goals of dancing and yoga. But let’s look at a deeper difference (or similarity—however you look at it): other sports also value posture, consistency and strength. It’s impossible to become an elite athlete in just about any discipline without mastering these. Except that they are placed in service of an external goal. For dancing and yoga, the aesthetic qualities that appear through function are ends in themselves.

So, there seems to be quite a bit of overlap between dancing, yoga, and “typical” sports, even on commonly-contested grounds. But let’s discuss a more interesting topic: why do some people have such strong intuitions that these activities are sports? In other words, what is it about yoga and dancing that prompts people to try and classify them as sports in the first place?

Superficially, the argument is simple: there’s something about the mechanical particulars of yoga and dancing that should put them in this category, alongside running and football. After all, they are somehow different from, say, chess, (which is more “typically” goal-oriented).

To throw a kink in my argument, the International Olympic Committee does consider chess to be a sport. I don’t—and not because I don’t think it’s worthwhile. I’d call instead that chess is an athletic endeavor (the greek word athlein means “to contest for a prize”). I don’t include chess in my list of sports because I’m interested picking apart the intuitions that underlie the common usage of the term “sport,” which emphasizes the physical use of the body.

In that sense my argument does massage institutionalized notions of what a “sport” is.

However, we can still make the argument that chess is physical, in ways that are both obvious and non-obvious. The obvious, of course, is that we use our hands to move the pieces. That observation is also uninteresting. But there is also the non-obvious: in The Art of Learning, former chess champion Josh Waitzkin talked about how his rivals would often tap the board in a certain rhythm to quicken his thought process and make strategizing more difficult. In other words, competitors in chess often find themselves in physical battles of some sort. But enough to term chess a “sport” (beyond its obvious status as an athletic endeavor)? That’s a long shot.

Then what makes yoga and dancing different from chess, but similar to “sports”?

Simply stated: hip extension.

I turn to a discussion in a book by editor Ian Jeffreys, Developing Speed. Jeffries writes:

“During a sprint, forces are developed initially through the hips, then the knee joint, and finally through the ankle joint. Therefore, activities that maximize the triple extension abilities of the athlete should play a large role in the training to enhance speed and acceleration. Exercises such as the squat, Olympic lifts, and hip extension exercises such as the Romainan deadlift should form the basis of a strength and power program for speed enhancement.”

In other words, one of the most important components of increasing the level of performance in sports is to develop the hip extension characteristics necessary for that sport. Different sports will need different hip extension characteristics, such as strength, flexibility, explosiveness or dexterity, but they all center on hip extension.

This brings us back to my definition of a “sport:”

A sport is any activity for which an increase in the relevant hip extension abilities is a necessary component of developing greater performance in that activity.

For clarity’s sake, let’s reiterate this backwards: if developing some kind of hip extension ability is not necessary to become increasingly skilled in some activity, it is not a sport.

For reasons that I will discuss in the future, the center of gravity (and therefore the mechanical center of the body) lies in the hips. In order to achieve proper flexibility, and range of motion of the entire body, practitioners of yoga must emphasize the flexibility, range of motion and strength of the hips (as well as the core). But no amount of core strength and flexibility will allow a yoga practitioner to climb the tiers of difficulty—that can only be achieved by increasing the relevant hip extension abilities: flexibility and strength.

The same goes for all varieties of dancing. Expressing the body against the ground (and fine-tuning that expression) is centered around the speed, power, and explosiveness of hip extension.

The hips are present in all sports: martial arts, wrestling, even arm wrestling. Hence the following saying:

“Have you noticed that whatever sport you’re trying to learn, some earnest person is always telling you to keep your knees bent?”

-Dave Barry

(Bending the knees stretches the gluteus maximus, such that all subsequent movements depend on its contractions).

In conclusion, I believe that because we have intuitive (and often completely unconscious) knowledge that certain activities engage the mechanical center of the body (the hips), we lobby to categorize those activities as “sports.” 

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