Breaking Out of Sporting Norms
By Sophie Duplock and Dr. Sara Campbell
As an athlete and coach who works in the world of breakdancing (breaking), I (Sophie) question the norms of more traditional sports like football, baseball, and gymnastics. More specifically, I am disturbed by the prevalence of abuse and the general erasure of athlete identity in traditional sports. I believe breaking can offer coaches and athletes in these traditional sports a more ethical and inclusive alternative. Therefore, in this blog, I contrast the norms of traditional sports with those of breaking.
Individuals or Machines?
One norm prevalent in traditional sports is the expectation that athletes should fit one mold. We want them to look the same, move the same, and think the same. Underlying this desire for conformity is the assumption that there is a right or wrong way to be an athlete. For example, in gymnastics and ballet, we require a more feminine expression. Athletes must be a certain weight, height, wear their hair a certain way, and fit the societal mold of what it means to be a gymnast or a ballerina. A back handspring or plié should look the same across the board. Perfection is predefined. In more masculine sports like football and baseball, feminine attributes are conversely viewed as weak, gay, or passive. Instead, we expect male athletes to be muscular, violent, and tough.
When athletes move outside these norms, intentionally or otherwise, they experience harm or exclusion. For instance, a gymnast who feels like their body type doesn’t fit the norm of their sport may develop an eating disorder, while a football player may turn to doping. Likewise, athletes may dress differently than what is comfortable for them to meet their sporting norms. In essence, they set aside their individual expression to meet a standard of perfection defined by their sport.
Bullying, abuse, and hazing are also commonly experienced by those who break out of sporting norms. The physical and mental harm caused by these experiences lasts well beyond the initial occurrence, and the erasure of one's identity can lead to struggles later in life.
So, how do these norms manifest in breaking? From my experience, it is quite the opposite. Individual expression is foundational to my sport. From your dance name, to what you wear, and how you dance, everything is expected to be an expression of who you are. My dance name is Bgirl Triplet. My mentor's name is Bboy Sweet Lu. When we step into a battle, we embrace our identity in everything we do. I dress and dance differently from those I have trained with, and this is celebrated. In fact, copying someone else’s signature moves is referred to as ‘biting’. Essentially, biting is the plagiarism of breaking, and it is viewed as a threat to our culture. Like art, breaking should be a dancer's creation.
There is also an expectation that your personality is reflected in your coaching. Afterall, if everyone is encouraged to dance in a style unique to themselves, it is only natural that this will carry over to their coaching practices. I trained with a well-known bgirl virtually during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She asked that I not directly take what she has shown me and use it in my coaching practices. In some cases, she taught me her old moves and gave me permission to use them with the recognition that that permission did not extend to anyone I taught or trained with. It is common for mentors and teachers to pass down moves or concepts, but if these are overshared, it starts to dilute the individuality that makes breaking culture what it is.
By respecting the differences each dancer holds, we continue to build a culture that encourages individual expression. By fostering an environment that supports these differences, we are taking steps to avoid harmful practices that stem from pressure to fit one mold.
There’s No Crying in Baseball
Another prevalent norm in traditional sports is the lack of attention on mental health. Athletes and coaches are essentially seen as unemotional avatars who are sent onto the field, court, or pool to perform. There’s no crying, no questioning, and there’s definitely no quitting. Athletes and coaches are expected to be cool, calm, and collected at all times. A slip in mental health is akin to a performance mistake.
Yet, athletes and coaches do regularly experience mental health struggles. This isn’t surprising given the constant pressure they are under to perform. Traditional sporting norms encourage coaches and athletes to ignore, hide, or burry emotions that fall outside of sporting norms (violence, poise, masculinity). Consequently, athletes and coaches commonly fail to seek help or create a space where unconventional emotions can be shared. This can lead to underperformance, serious mental health conditions, or death by suicide. While sport and clinical psychologists serve an important role in this process, so do coaches.
Breakdancing In the seven years I have been dancing, each of my mentors has placed a strong focus on mental health. There is an understanding that dance is not separated from our outside lives. My coach encourages us to be open about what we are going through. Coaches themselves even discuss struggles they are experiencing. Some practices, we spend the first twenty minutes talking about what is weighing on us. Creating a safe space for athletes and coaches to discuss their emotions allows us to build a community and a much needed safe space.
Rub Some Dirt on It
The last norm I’d like to discuss deals with the physical side of sport. It’s all too common to see coaches in traditional sports push athletes beyond their limits. Likewise, many athletes continue to perpetuate this norm by ignoring injuries or pushing themselves beyond what is safe. Just in the last few months, several athletes were sent to the hospital after experiencing rhabdomyolysis, a condition that occurs when athletes are overtrained to the point that their damaged muscles release toxins into their bloodstream. Moreover, athletes are regularly encouraged to play through pain and injuries. We tell athletes to “rub some dirt on it”, “suck it up”, and “work harder.” These harmful practices can lead to underperformance, long term physical pain, and even permanent disabilities.
Breaking culture emphasizes a holistic approach to health, focusing on people as a whole, rather than just their performance. For example, it’s common for breaking mentors modify a training or ask an athlete to sit out. As an athlete, it can be hard to understand this approach. It’s not normal for a coach to step in and ask athletes to do less. We expect coaches to demand more. However, this can make a world of difference. It teaches athletes to listen to their body, and add injury prevention into their training, which allows them to excel at other sports outside of breaking. If coaches and athletes can transpose this mindset into more traditional sports, we will likely see athletes who not only feel better but also perform better and stay in their sport longer.
We are all trapped in the norms of this sport or that. Breaking culture itself has much to learn from other sports. However, because breaking goes against many of the norms of traditional sports, it provides a hotbed for new practices coaches can use to challenge the norms of traditional sports. Thinking about these differences has allowed me to question norms, improve inclusivity, and prevent harm in my coaching practices. I encourage you to do the same by reflecting on the questions below.
Key questions for coaches to break out of sporting norms:
- What are the norms in your sport?
- How do you or your athletes conform to these norms in terms of appearance, personality, or movement patterns?
- How might these norms be harmful?
- How do your coaching practices reinforce or challenge these norms?
- How can you break out of these sporting norms?
- What’s stopping you from breaking out of these norms?