It’s the end of the season for the netball team I play for – Hereward Harriers (a Peterborough-based regional team). We managed to keep our place in the league – just about. Whoop! I’ve been writing privately about netball for a little while now, but thought I’d share some thoughts. You might be a little surprised by how multi-layered this gets, but bear with it, I find it interesting – you might too.
A theme that’s been consistently seeping through my writing in recent months – making a comeback after my philosophy degree – is that of the body; the body that we grasp and make sense of the world with and through. I am continuing to write with this on my mind – often poems where the body is dissected; parts speaking back their interpretations of experiences and surroundings. To me the body is what we have – synonymous with mind, soul, spirit – however you define them. We are an amalgamation! Of course in poetry I can do what I want – separate them all out, play; inhabit the dreamscape.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty – a modern French phenomenological philosopher wrote a lot about perception. Edward S. Casey draws on Merleau-Ponty’s judgements and talks about the distinction that is often made between mental and physiological memory, saying it is not necessary to distinguish between them. Habit memory is neither strictly mental or entirely physical, but a mixture of intention and behaviour – animation by the mind and enactment by the body.
If we agree that memory doesn’t reside purely in the brain or in the body, but in a response that inhabits both of these, this opens all kinds of implications. We aren’t ending up with a visual projection of a memory, or of a feeling / body movement of that memory, but something that exists in the overlap – it could be reproduced without subscribing to any identifiable representational format, characteristic of a dream-like state maybe. I love this idea, which fits with the fact that truth is subjective – fluid, unable to be pinned down. This is a marvellous thing to hang on to when writing poetry.
Anyway – more of the netball. I’ve long wanted to write about my experience – the bodily experience of playing sport – stemming from the repetition of the same movements, the same way of planting the feet, the same way of reaching and bringing a ball down from above you and the same way of launching, turning in the air and landing. These and many more actions are things that are re-enacted over and over again (for me for over twenty five years). As a defender, I feel the hit of pleasure when all those movements, along with cognitive functions unite and the result is the perfectly-timed interception. That is the peak of the physical experience of playing, although it could be different from player to player, position to position.
My age and a changing body have brought this all to the forefront in recent months. I’ve been faced with questions about when to stop playing netball and a possible change of match day for my club could mean that I’m not able to play as much in the near future. It is pertinent when I hear about sports stars who couldn’t cope with retirement. For them, their entire existence (unlike mine, although there has been times I’ve been very driven) has been motivated by and geared towards being the best they can be in their sport. However, I think there is something much deeper, more inherent in their identity at stake. When we have lived, sometimes for the majority of our lives, performing specific actions over and over and have learnt pleasure from the results of particular actions, we have establishing a way of being – a mode of relating to the world through the body. This is what it feels so difficult to give up – an ingrained way of being in the world!
Merleau-Ponty’s examination of the bodily nature of perception feels significant in so many ways. He states that,
‘The corporeal schema is an incorporated bodily know-how and practical sense; a perspectival grasp upon the world from the ‘point of view’ of the body’.
John Hockey and Jacquelyn Allen Collinson go on to talk about the symbiosis of rhythm and timing, in relation to sport.They state that each sporting social context requires its own particular rhythm and this varies from sport to sport. Defining this rhythm as a,
‘patterned energyflow of action, marked in the body by varied stress and directional change; also marked by changes in the level of intensity, speed and duration […] To accomplish such rhythm, participants must skilfully coordinate certain bodily parts, with the complexities of that coordination varying considerably between sports.’
In my latest writing venture – a one-person play looking at elements of the body and their relationship to the environment on and off the netball court, I recognise that I am setting a rhythm through the metre of the lines that is set against/alongside the rhythm of playing netball. The continuous and repeated movements in a relatively small space are safe – there is a ‘measurable’ and more ‘concrete’ identity. Whereas the rhythms and language of the body negotiating itself around a vaster, more complex environment are more dangerous, less able to be repeated and embedded. There is a safety in knowing how to be.
A little excerpt:
I love you body
I love the way the skin is strong on me
I love you body
you’ve been so good
I’ve been so sure of you
so sure-footed – hopscotching rocks at a beach
I love you body
I love how your brain hones in
on ball and body
needed for the certain intercept
A spell – exact recipe:
torso smooth turns
fingers breach the Centre’s attack:
frustrate, set back and
the ball’s yours all yours
This short piece does distinguish brain/body, but in the name of poetry – ha!
To take this further – In Feminist phenomenology and the woman in the running body, Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson acknowledges that there are powerful influences and constraints upon lived experience and the corporeal specifics of bodies that are located in time and culture. She talks about her experience of running. In this activity that she loves and has repeated over decades, she has been unable to experience that safeness, because of the nature of being female in the environment. She writes:
‘Over the years, I have been subject to varying degrees of verbal and physical harassment; men/teenage boys have lunged and grabbed at various parts of my anatomy. The embodied consequences of such abuse and attack mean that at times when corporeal vulnerability is brought forcibly to the forefront of my consciousness, I run warily, eyes and ears on full alert, breath at times shallow so that I can better listen for sounds. My running body is no longer the running habit-body, at ease with itself and the environment, but is brought vividly and jarringly to consciousness.’
The netball court holds no resemblance to this. However when we consider sports women, and in this case netballers, on a general level there is much to be said. Allen-Collinson writes that looking at these things sharpens our focus on our embeddedness within the cultural and social worlds.
As women, we enter a world that is already steeped in patriarchal hierarchies, those in sport certainly being no exception. As I grew up I found myself to be a bit of a sporting all-rounder – doing gymnastics, ice-skating, playing on most sports teams and doing athletics and cross-country for the school and at higher levels. In my experience netball required just as much exertion, skill and competitiveness as the other sports I took part in, but I just happened to be better at it than the others. However, it wasn’t long before I learnt to regard it in a negative way. At school, I found that a couple of the sports teacher didn’t think much of the game and I came to be embarrassed about saying ‘netball’, always justifying how physical and great a sport it was by sharing my list of injuries – broken nose, knee, fingers etc… Many sports that are played by women are becoming more prominent and don’t seem to hold the cringe-worthy connotations, or be perceived in the same way and I have questioned why this should be. I always arrive at the same conclusion. Netball was first and foremost a women’s sport, not a man’s sport that women started to play, and as such took its lowly place in the patriarchal set up. It is not an Olympic sport and even though television coverage is now slightly better. It is in no way proportionate to the amount of people who play it both at school and beyond in the UK. On radio phone-ins about encouraging more women into sport, it is hardly mentioned, despite being one of the only sports particularly for that gender.
I will continue to harp on unashamedly about this. Perhaps I will think of something more provoking or further-reaching to do one day. I don’t think the answer is to relax and say that the profile and coverage is better than it was. When the first lot of women secured the vote, the campaign wasn’t over until they all had it and there’s still so much to do about all aspects of woman-hood – issues and passions and ways of being.
This last little rant was instigated by the previous thinking about body-knowledge and the body’s grasp on the world. The more time and coverage we give to sporting pursuits that are out of proportion to participation and interest, the more society is guilty of valuing one way of being-in-the-world more than another. Thoughts on this are welcome.
For more reading on sport and philosophy see Grasping the Phenomenology of Sporting Bodies, John Hockey and Jacquelyn Allen Collinson