Is Athleticism a Language?

I’ve become fond of the All or Nothing series that airs on Amazon Prime each summer. For the first two years, it was an inside look, documentary-style of an NFL team, from the draft through the end of the football season. S1 covered the Arizona Cardinals and S2 covered the St. Louis-to-L.A. Rams. This year, the chosen NFL team was the Dallas Cowboys, which was not a team I cared to follow, plus professional football is not as much fun to watch right now as it used to be. Between the concussions, the crackdown on athlete protests, and the seeming lack of any ethics regarding labor practices, my household has backed way off on its NFL watching. So, I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t get a fun documentary to watch this summer. And then I saw that Amazon had produced a season of the program that was shorter, but covered the famed rugby team from New Zealand, the All Blacks.

The NZ All Blacks rugby team squat in a haka dance prior to playing England.

The All Blacks perform their haka before a match in England.

Despite seeming to not have quite enough of a narrative to sustain a full slate of episodes (one match actually stretches across two episode of the series), following the All Blacks is entertaining and taught me a lot about rugby. The game itself is not entirely clear to me, but I understand it much better just from watching All or Nothing. It is, however, an intensely dangerous game, and I cannot believe players aren’t required to wear headgear of some kind. One All Black player had gotten a few concussions in a row and had to take a break from playing in matches for a short period. Another great element of the series was getting to listen to all of the New Zealand accents and getting to see the beautiful locales where the players live and work.

But despite all of this, I was especially drawn toward an interesting phrase I kept hearing used throughout the series, often regarding a player who needed more encouragement or motivation, or who was talking about how they planned to play their best in a match: “express yourself/myself.” The coach would often motivate certain players by reminding them that they had the opportunity, through a specific rugby match, to express themselves out on the pitch. He encouraged them to find a way to play their best, win the match by executing the game plan, and by expressing themselves. This 2017 article from a rugby news site is headlined “Express Yourself, Coach Tells All Blacks.” The lede mentions that the assistant coach was motivating his team, who had just lost a match, to rally back to win the series by “express[ing] themselves and us[ing] their brains.”

I’m honestly not clear on what this really means. I am also not sure if it is a ruby-specific phrase, or if it is a phrase used a lot in New Zealand sports more generally, but it seems to mean something slightly different than what I infer “express yourself” to mean. When I think of that phrase, I automatically think of Madonna, but I also think of showing your true self and nature to others through art or speech or even just articulating your views clearly. I have never heard it applied to an athletic performance. Typically, athletic motivational speaking–at least in the US–is filled with other clichés, like “give 110 percent,” “get out there and win one for the team,” or the dreaded “momentum shift.”

I will say that I like this phrase quite a bit, as applied to sports. The idea that athletes use their body and physicality to express themselves opens up a whole new way of looking at the work of sports. Why shouldn’t athletes be seen as communicating something through their athleticism? The way athletes have to use their minds is often overlooked. The other sports cliché of the dumb jock is no doubt accurate in many cases, but not more so than in any other field. Dumb people are everywhere, after all. Football players and rugby players (I think, anyway), have to remember and execute fairly complex plays at any given moment in a match. Tennis players have to watch their opponent carefully throughout a match, so they can find a weakness or change up that might help them win. Runners have to observe everything around them while still pushing themselves to their limits to win, whether short or long distances. Successful athletes have to be smart, but all athletes can express themselves in their game, whatever it might be.

This article about the French rugby star Jean-Pierre Rives also mentions this idea of expression, as Rives compares his previous career of rugby to his current career of sculpting:

It’s the same in lots of ways, rugby and sculpture — you express yourself through something,” says Rives. “When you play rugby, you try to express yourself with your body, with your soul. In art, it’s something else — color or form.

So, perhaps then athleticism is itself a kind of artistic expression–is anyone working on this topic out there?

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