Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/Tendencies in Athletics for Women in Colleges and Universities

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FROM correspondence with the leading colleges and universities which educate women, I find that they have very generally introduced, or are preparing to introduce as far as possible, physical training and athletic sports.

I find, too, from this correspondence that if I describe the conditions at Vassar, where I am most familiar with them, I shall describe the general tendencies in athletics for women.

From the beginning Vassar has required practice in the gymnasium and an hour of outdoor exercise daily from every student throughout her course. A riding school was provided and a bowling alley, and the lake furnished boating of a mild type. There was not sufficient interest in riding to maintain the school, and after a few years it was given up. The bowling alley atrophied and fell off as a member of the body academic. The hour of outdoor exercise has been very generally spent in walking. The result of this daily practice is that members of the upper classes can walk, so that when the Professor of English at one time introduced the delightful custom of annually inviting fifteen or twenty seniors to accompany him on an autumnal tramp of from ten to twenty miles through the highlands of the Hudson, the invitation was always accepted with enthusiasm and the walk greatly enjoyed.

About twenty years ago, when I was a freshman, seven or eight baseball clubs suddenly came into being, spontaneously as it seemed, but I think they owed their existence to a few quiet suggestions from a resident physician, wise beyond her generation. The public, so far as it knew of our playing, was shocked, but in our retired grounds, and protected from observation even in these grounds by sheltering trees, we continued to play in spite of a censorious public. One day a student, while running between the bases, fell, with an injured leg. We attended her to the infirmary, with the foreboding that this accident would end our play of baseball. Not so. Dr. Webster said that the public would doubtless condemn the game as too violent, but that if the student had hurt herself while dancing the public would not condemn dancing to extinction. Singular point was given to her remark a few days later, when a student did fall while dancing and broke her leg. After this we played with the feeling somewhat lightened that we were enjoying delightful but contraband pleasure. The interest in baseball did not increase; clubs were not formed by incoming classes. I think there was too much pressure against it from disapproving mothers. However, those of us who had learned the value of vigorous play succeeded in keeping alive enough interest in the game to support two clubs until our senior year. This year saw the advent of tennis at college.

Knowing as I do that I owe to the regularity of college life and to vigorous play an excellent health record since graduation, it is difficult for me to conceive the point of view of those, if there be such, who disapprove of athletics for girls.

Tennis, being more conventional than baseball, at once gained, and has steadily maintained, a hold upon the students. A tennis association was organized, many courts were prepared, and an annual tournament, in competition for the college championship, was instituted.

The primitive calisthenics of the gymnasium have long since given place to scientific physical training, and a modern gymnasium has been built.

About seven years ago, through the generosity of Mr. Rockefeller, facilities were provided for flooding the lake. The skating season was thereby extended from a precarious duration of a week or two, contingent on the snowfall, to a reasonably certain period of six or eight weeks. As soon as these conditions were established, large numbers of students learned to skate. I think probably two thirds of the college now enjoy this sport.

A few years ago athletic games were introduced in connection with the work of the gymnasium. The students were taught battle-ball and basket-ball in the gymnasium, golf links were prepared and golf clubs procured. Battle-ball was discarded, as it did not prove a good game for outdoors. Golf, I believe, was voted uninteresting, and accordingly neglected, and I learn that it has not yet found favor with any of the colleges. It is thought that as golf becomes better known throughout the country, and students learn it before coming to college, they will play more at college.

Basket-ball has been enthusiastically received with us, as with all the colleges. Each class has a team and substitutes, and inter-class contests are held. An athletic association has been organized by the students, and an annual field day has been observed, when there have been contests in field and track athletics.

If there be those who assume that physical excellence is the attribute of the so-called "new woman," and therefore unwomanly, we can only reply that the idea that women should have the same physical training as men is no newer than Plato's Republic, wherein the Greek sage insists that the women should have the same physical training as the men, that the race might be continued in the highest perfection of mental and physical vigor. Little is told us of the education of girls in Greece; but this we know—that Spartan girls were subjected to a course of training differing from their brothers only in being less severe. They had their own exercise grounds, in which they learned to leap, run, cast the javelin, throw the discus, play ball, wrestle, dance, and sing. The result of this fine physical training was not only health and strength, but beauty; for it is a well-attested fact that the daughters of Sparta were handsomer and more attractive than the more delicately nurtured Athenians. In Aristophanes, Lampito, a Spartan woman, excites the jealous admiration of the Athenian women because of her beauty. When some one said to Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, "You Spartans are the only women who rule men," she proudly replied, "Because we are the only women who bring forth men."

In behalf of the introduction of games as supplementary to the work of the gymnasium, I will quote Miss Hill, of the Wellesley Gymnasium: "Four years ago I began to give my services to the college in organized ‘sports and pastimes’ in connection with the department, feeling that we were giving in America too much attention to artificial exercises and too little to the development of the play instinct, which is the natural means of recreation. I believe in gymnastics for girls for their corrective value and as an antidote to the faulty postures we take so much, the effects of wrong clothing, etc., lack of knowledge how to breathe, run, walk, to climb and leap for practical purposes and self-preservation in accident. But I think we use them too much. We waste time and strength in not accomplishing the direct results of gymnastics, and fail to obtain the nerve stimulus that comes from natural play. If games and sports are organized and directed to a certain extent by the director of physical training, often, of course, the gymnastic and corrective value can be got out of a sport, and the fun, too."

Matthew Arnold, in his work on Higher Schools and Universities in Germany, says, in describing the exercise ground of a German school finely equipped for gymnastics, "Nothing, however, will make an ex-schoolboy of one of the great English schools regard the gymnastics of a foreign school without a slight feeling of wonder and compassion, so much more animating and interesting do the games of his remembrance seem to him."

Statistics regarding the benefits that students have derived from athletic games are frequently asked for. These are difficult to state in the form of records. Nevertheless, the advantages are very real and very evident. A graduate of the University of California writes me, "Athletics proper, as distinguished from physical culture, are enormously important for girls—more so than for boys, for it brings out a side of their nature cramped from childhood." She says that, from her own experience, she knows that "there is nothing like the hard-played game to bring out powers of the body that the routine work can not touch. Still more, the mental and moral effect is wonderful. There is a zest, a freedom, a whole-souled sincerity of effort, a flinging aside of every consideration of how she is looking, or whether she is doing the proper thing, that goes right to the root of some of the most inveterate evils of feminine adolescence. The effect on our basket-ball girls has been perceptible in a single year; all their attitudes toward life have taken on a healthier and heartier tone." She adds that this is heartily the belief of the director of the gymnasium of the University of California.

The tendency of athletic games to dispel morbid conditions is, I think, too well known to require comment. One can not watch a game of basket-ball without observing the will-power, nerve-control, and general self-government which the rules of the game to prevent all rough play, and the necessity of quick decision and instant decided action, cultivate.

The match games give outdoor entertainment to the whole body of students, thoroughly diverting, and of the most healthful kind, free from all the unwholesome influences which more or less attend dramatics.

As a less direct result of the growing interest in athletics we may notice the increased stature of women, and a corrected aesthetic judgment which now pronounces the normal form the most beautiful.

A dinner was recently given at Vassar by one of the students, at which the guest qualification was the habitual wearing of broad-soled shoes. The hostess is a disciple of Matthew Arnold, who can not enjoy "sweetness and light" without a disposition to "make them prevail."

Many students ride the bicycle in all the colleges. So many papers have appeared in current literature setting forth the advantages of bicycling that little remains to be said on the subject. A note appeared in a September journal to the effect that at the annual sanitary conference at Newcastle, England, Dr. Turner declared that cycling in England had raised the average health of women—and this of English women. It preaches more effectively the gospel of recreation, fun and fresh air, and of hygienic dressing, than could countless lectures of eminent physicians.

There is a problem which men have failed to solve and which confronts us—the problem of making general the habit and love of outdoor athletic sports. In spite of the interest awakened throughout the country in baseball, football, rowing, and track athletics, in spite of American successes in the international contests in Greece, it is yet true that American men are not, as a class, habitually athletic or physically vigorous.

So with our students: notwithstanding the interest that has been awakened in athletics among them, there are yet many whose outdoor exercise still consists in an hour's walk, which, allowing the mind to dwell on the last subject read, does but meager service as a form of physical recreation.

In this connection the question has arisen whether we shall endeavor to stimulate general interest in athletic games by intercollegiate contests. The Western colleges seem inclined to answer this question in the affirmative. Chicago has played with Northwestern; there has recently been a very interesting game between the University of California and Leland Stanford University, and other Western colleges are anticipating future competitions with neighboring institutions. On the other hand, the Eastern colleges unite in disapproving of intercollegiate contests. Among other reasons it is thought that the strain on the players would be too great; that the tendency would be to narrow rather than to increase the number of players by raising the standard of excellence of the play and discouraging the less expert players; also that the interclass contests afford all the advantages of intercollegiate games without the objectionable features of the latter.

In considering athletics for women we must reckon with the American's national characteristic of immoderation when fired by interest in any new thing. It will be necessary to restrain the enthusiastic few from excess while endeavoring to stimulate the indifferent many to active interest. The end to be desired is, of course, symmetrical development, not the training of athletes.

For the best solution of the problem to which I have referred I think we must look for help to the secondary schools, in the hope that physical training and instruction in hygiene may begin with them.

The freshman comes to college utterly ignorant of the fundamental laws of hygiene. It is exceptional when the physical examination does not reveal marked defects of the nature of weak backs, poor chests, round shoulders, and anæmia. She is skilled and unpracticed in any athletic exercise, even in that of walking. After she has been in college a few weeks she will tell yon, with great pride, that she has walked to town, a distance of two miles! Every claim upon her time at college, social as well as intellectual, outranks in importance the claims of exercise, and this duty yields to pressure from any other. If she were trained to rank study and play of the right kind as of equal importance to her mental development, the conscientiousness with which she devotes herself to study would secure her faithful attention to recreation.

It is encouraging to see that already some schools are setting the example of reform in this direction. One school at Indianapolis has introduced scientific physical training under a skilled director, and has placed this training on exactly the same footing as the intellectual exercises of the school. Besides gymnastics, daily outdoor exercise of two hours duration is required of each student.

In another school, in Connecticut, in the care of an English principal, there is no two-by-two daily promenade. Groups of not less than three girls are allowed, within certain bounds, to take a walk of from four to eight miles. In the hour and a half which they are required to spend in vigorous exercise out of doors, they play tennis, cricket, and basket-ball, occasionally having matches with other schools. In the winter physical training in the gymnasium is prescribed in connection with the winter sports of coasting and skating. A "high-stand" prize is offered, for which no girl is qualified to compete without a good athletic record for the year.

Of special importance to the student is the relation of athletics to the hygiene of the brain. Physicians say that if a muscle is once overtaxed or a nerve overstrained, they never regain their original tone and power; and yet I think that in America little care is taken to prevent such injury to the brain. We summarily dispose of its welfare with the classical platitude, "Mens sana m sano corpore."

What is indicated by the fact that the college "valedictorian" of the past so many times sank into obscurity after his commencement oration, while his classmate, not overzealous in study and reasonably interested in athletics, subsequently rose to distinction at the bar or in the pulpit?—by the fact that the graduate student frequently fails to fulfill undergraduate promise and to go from strength to strength in mental achievement?—by the fact that the country youth with meager opportunities, fresh from simple rural life, so frequently outstrips classmates who have known all the advantages which our best schools can afford? What is indicated by these conditions but that the students of our schools and colleges work in ignorance of the needs of the brain for its steadily strengthening development?

I was much interested to see in the October issue of the Popular Science Monthly a paper by Prof. Kraepelin, of Heidelberg, bearing on this point. His paper reports the result of experiments in "measuring the mental capacity of individuals." The measure is afforded by determining the number of small similar problems resolved by the subject in a given time—such, for example, as the continuous addition of a column of numbers. "Other means of measuring the capacity of a subject are afforded by the ease with which he is diverted from his task, or his susceptibility to disturbing influences from without and within; his elasticity, or the readiness with which he recovers from the effects of fatigue or diversion; and the way he is affected by taking food, physical exercise, and the time he has for sleep."

The experiment in addition, as made upon young men, showed that their facility in addition fell off at the beginning of the second hour. Experiments made by Prof. Burgerstein, of Vienna, showed that a quarter of an hour of simple work is enough to develop the first signs of fatigue in a twelve-year-old pupil.

Prof. Kraepelin claims that when fatigue "has once gained the upper hand, a speedy and unintermitted decline of efficiency ensues. The time when this shall take place depends on the degree of capacity already reached, the personal peculiarity, and casual influences."

It appears from these experiments that the mental vigor of most men is usually maintained at a certain height for the longest time in the forenoon. The rapidity with which one of the persons experimented upon could perform his tasks in addition sank about a third after a night journey by railway with insufficient sleep. Another experimenter could detect the effects of keeping himself awake all night in a gradual decrease in vigor lasting through four days.

The paper concludes as follows:

"When, now, we look back at the conditions we have discovered that control mental vigor, we conclude that our children are exposed by the extent and arrangement of study work in the schools to great perils for their mental and physical development. The questions that press upon us in this matter are of such importance that we all have reason to give them our full, undivided attention. We are only at the beginning of a real hygiene of mental labor, but the results we have obtained in this research, fully indicating the nature and operation of the dangers, point with equal clearness to the character of the preventive and remedial measures which should be sought and applied."

The president of one of our great universities has been quoted as advising the following division of a student's day: Eight hours for sleep, ten for work, two for exercise, three for meals, and one for incidentals. Whether this is an authentic quotation or not, it describes with fair accuracy the practice of the average college girl, excepting that she rarely takes more than one hour of exercise. Her conscience is most approving when she spends all the time there is, apart from other definite engagements, with her books. Now, in the light of Prof. Kraepelin's experiments, if not in that of our own observation, what happens as the result of this protracted poring over books? Either injury is done to the brain through overexertion, or the brain protects itself by inattention and the student wastes precious time and depletes to no purpose her all too small store of vitality.

Prof. Kraepelin lays great stress on the importance of sleep as a compensation for all effects of mental fatigue, and all will agree with him in this. But he claims that "it is fundamentally false to regard physical effort as in any way a suitable preparation for mental labor. Protracted experiments pursued under my direction have given the result that a simple walk of from one to two hours diminishes the mental capacity in adults at least as much as about an hour's work in addition." How can we reconcile this with our own experience or with the testimony of students? Only a few days ago a student told me with enthusiasm of the ease and rapidity with which her evening tasks were accomplished after an afternoon during which she had walked two miles to town, had there taken a bicycle lesson of an hour, and then walked back to college, this being more than double her usual amount of exercise. Can there be any question as to which is the better preparation for a day of mental labor—nine hours of sleep and three hours of vigorous exercise in the open air, or twelve hours of sleep and no exercise? Of course, time should be allowed after vigorous physical exercise for the relaxation and rest of the muscles before using the brain, but the time required for this is not long.

It seems to me that the practice and experience of the English offer convincing testimony against Prof. Kraepelin's opinion on this point. An American student can not compete with the English student in respect to the amount of work done in a given time; nor, I am told, can the German student. The habits of Germans and Americans conform, and differ from the English in respect to long hours of work and short hours of exercise.

The English students have apparently learned that the brain does its best work when allowed long periods of leisure. They make strenuous efforts to reduce their hours of study to a minimum. They work on an average six hours a day. Students have taken honors at Cambridge with a smaller average of study hours. I was told that Darwin achieved the work of his life by devoting three hours a day to his science. The dons at Newnham constantly urge the students to reduce their hours of work, claiming that the best results have been attained at the university by those who spent the least time in study.

The English students' power of concentration is remarkable. They respect perfectly the study hours of their friends, and will tolerate no interruption of their own. The English excel when tried by two of Prof. Kraepelin's tests of mental capacity: amount of work done in a given time and power of concentration.

Wherein lies their advantage? They will tell us that their strong and necessary ally is vigorous outdoor sport.

The English girl has, of course, known from childhood the habit of outdoor life. At college she plays hockey or hand polo, cricket, fives, and the games with which we are more familiar, for at least two hours a day, and oftener for a longer time. Two hours is a minimum of time spent in exercise. At frequent intervals, usually at the end of each week, she seeks recreation from past and preparation for future effort by spending many hours in the open air, in boating on the river it may be, or in taking a tramp of thirty miles or so. During vacations she not infrequently makes walking tours of longer or shorter duration.

If an English girl finds that her mind is inactive and unreceptive, she recognizes this as an indication that it needs recreation. She drops her books and puts her brain in fit condition for study by some vigorous play. Under like conditions, the American student, not recognizing Nature's signal, mentally scourges herself for dullness, and urges her jaded mind on to overexertion. I once heard an English girl assert that she could dawdle all day, but could not study for more than two hours at a time.

A senior at Vassar, who had been honored by her classmates with several appointments entailing strenuous editorial and executive duties, once said to me that she was grateful to the extra work for showing her in how short a time her regular work could be done. Having learned this lesson, she observed with surprise the time spent by her classmates over their tasks.

Every American who studies at Cambridge adopts the methods of work of her English friends, and ever afterward looks with compassion on the mistakes of her countrywomen.

The power of concentration of mind can not be exercised at will by those unaccustomed to practice it, but it can certainly be cultivated through training, and the earlier the training is begun the better. One school is known to me which has worked effectively in this direction by restricting the time spent in preparation of tasks, and by requiring a sufficient amount of outdoor play to keep the brain fresh and active.

In conclusion, we claim that the average American college girl, in comparison with her English cousin, expends by her methods of study a maximum of effort with a minimum of result; that, by way of reform, she should limit the hours of daily mental labor, as the workmen's hours of daily manual labor are limited, in order that during some periods of each day she may know perfect relaxation and freedom from pressing duties; that athletic games, instead of being for her a foe to scholarship, as the faculties of men's colleges seem inclined to regard them, may, by the exercise of good judgment in their use, be made an effective agent to build up the physique, and thus to keep the brain in condition for vigorous effort.

  1. A paper presented to the Association of Collegiate Alumnæ, October 31, 1896.