Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/April 1888/College Athletics and Physical Development




APRIL, 1888.




IN an article on "The Physical Proportions of the Typical Man,"[1] Dr. Sargent has taken occasion to speak of athletics in connection with the general subject of physical development. In the following pages I wish to show that neither in that article nor in the subsequent article, on the "Physical Characteristics of Distinguished Athletes,"Ibid., November, 1887. did he do justice to the influence of athletics in "reminding the individual of the ultimate aim of every kind of physical exercise"; that his remarks on the loss resulting to athletics from "making excellence in achievement the primary object" of them would have had more force if they had been more discriminating; and, finally, to present some statistics which lead to conclusions favorable to athletics.

"Every writer on education, from Plato to Herbert Spencer, has advocated physical activity as a means of attaining that full-orbed and harmonious development of all parts of the human economy so essential to robust, vigorous health." Theorists, then, are agreed upon this as the "ultimate aim of every kind of physical exercise." But we all know how difficult it is to get the best theories put into practice. They may commend themselves as the very best, but they fall far short of their good to men till they can be made working theories. In this respect the "harmonious-development" theory, whether mental or physical, forms no exception to other theories. But once get hold of some motive by which to induce even a few individuals to put a theory into practice, and half the battle is won. If it is a really good theory, its own practical examples prove the fact. "Wisdom is justified of her children." Here is always the difficulty—to get hold of the motives which will influence men and women in such way that they may finally be possessed by the "love of symmetry in form" which has such "a deep moral significance." You may preach the doctrine to children, and your words will be like the idle wind. Even our young men and our maidens will prefer snug-fitting garments and handsome raiment covering a bad form, to the proportions of Apollo or the beauty of the Venus of Milo not clothed in the fashions of the day. Many men and women, staggering along under burdens of ill-health, self-imposed by neglect of the simplest natural laws, will give your beautiful theory small thought. They will pursue their phantoms of wealth and ambition, while they hug the delusion that they suffer by God's will in this "vale of tears." They do suffer, and deservedly, but only because they do not use their own wills to conform their conduct to His goodwill as revealed in the constitution of their own being. It is useless to set forth to such people the truths of health, the glad tidings of deliverance from many of their ailments by the natural remedies of air, exercise, and food. The doctrines of health have always been preached, and men have not heeded. Let us begin, then, with children, and educate them to these high truths. But with children we have to use authority or play upon motives. If we use authority merely, the idea of harmonious development will become distasteful to them. They will break away from authority and break with the theory at the first opportunity of liberty. Put them at what we elders call play, and they often accomplish of their own free-will what we with difficulty get out of them by force. Now I say that, by their various athletic organizations, young men are doing this very thing for themselves that children do in play. They establish in the colleges a system of training for their various sports which affects not only the members of the higher institutions of learning, but which reaches almost every young man in the land. To express the idea in Dr. Sargent's words, "the college clubs look to the academies, the academies to the schools, the schools to the homes and firesides, to furnish candidates for athletic honors." Dr. Sargent proposes this as one of his objections to making "excellence in achievement the primary object of athletic exercise." But it is the reward which this same "excellence in achievement" receives that brings forward good material and stimulates an increasing number of men to exercise, who would never think of doing so without this stimulus. One is at a loss to understand how this fact should account (as Dr. Sargent says it does account) for the "lack of active interest in athletics." On the contrary, it is one of the principal causes of that active interest; it keeps young men in training, holds them to regular, systematic exercise, in season and out of season, through an important and critical period of their growth; it sends them into the gymnasium when the season forbids practice in the field; it restrains them from excesses, from smoking and drinking, and from late hours; it brings the whole force of college opinion to bear in favor of a healthy, moral life. To be sure, the desire to defeat a rival club or team is not the highest motive of the human mind; the honor of winning a medal in a race is not the greatest honor which earth can afford. The glory of being champions at any game seems puerile to serious-minded people; but we must take young people as we find them. If we can not induce them to exercise by the "deep moral significance" of "the beauty of symmetry of form," we must lay hold of the motives, not wrong, which do influence them. The majority of them not being open to the highest motives, we take the next best motives which appeal to them. That is the principle on which all education is conducted. Competitions, prizes, medals, honors, appeal to students, move them, and hold them to efforts which higher and worthier objects fail to call forth. By these we educate them to habits which fit them to receive the higher motives. They are their schoolmasters to train them for a better life. So it is in athletic sports. By habits of exercise from earliest youth young men are educated to appreciate the value of it. Accustomed to feel the good effects of it in themselves, or to see the good of it in the person of some upholder of the honor of their club, they learn to admire the cause of this good. The prominent athletes present examples of beauty of form and vigorous health. The sight of them stimulates many a man to try on his own person the effect of the training which he sees embodied in the winners of prizes or championships. More than this, having once learned the value of exercise to health, he forever associates together health and exercise in a necessary companionship. So the athletes preach to all men by example.

We will now consider the various athletic sports, in order that we may weigh the justice of Dr. Sargent's remarks on the evils of making "excellence in achievement" "the primary object." We may eliminate from the sports certain ones not liable to these evils, such as have for their object a victory, not a prize. To the contestants the importance of match-games of foot-ball, base-ball, lacrosse, and polo lies not in excellence of achievement, but in defeating rival organizations. The big score may be desirable, but the principal aim is the championship. Rowing, also, may be said to be free from these evils, because, though "good form" and the best stroke may be aimed at, the principal purpose is to put the boat over the course fast enough to come in first at the finish. Excellence in achievement consists in winning the race. Fast time may be acceptable, but, if the winning boat makes the fastest time for its particular race, the winning crew is satisfied.

If, therefore, we remove base-ball, foot-ball, and rowing from the list of athletic exercises which are liable to the evils following from "making excellence in achievement" "the primary object" of them, Dr. Sargent's seven specifications can not apply to them. Some of them may apply on other grounds, but not as corollaries of "excellence of achievement." Some of them do not apply at all; viz., robbing them of half their value—III. "By reducing the number of active competitors"; IV. "By relying upon natural resources rather than upon cultivated material; V. "By depriving the non-athletic class of every incentive to physical exertion."

"III" is disproved by the fact (only necessary to be mentioned in order to be admitted) that the number of active competitors has increased so much, especially in the colleges, that instead of contests between a few clubs in one large association, the contests are now between many clubs in many associations.

"IV" has already been noticed, but the question might be raised whether it were possible to look for material from any other than "natural resources." If it were, does not "IV" conflict with "II," in which "making excellence in achievement the primary object of athletics" is said to "rob them of half their value" "by increasing the time devoted to practice"?

"V" is not true, as the non-athletic class is continually being stimulated to exercise by the example of the athletic class, a fact on which I have already commented.

The objections of expense and time I have considered elsewhere,[2] but will assert here that, in these respects, athletics merely keep pace with other undertakings of modern times. More money is spent upon education than formerly. More money goes to gymnasiums. There is more money in the land. Success as well as failure costs more. But we are getting better results. We are inducing more people to exercise. The increased cost is due to the better results. Like every other good, exercise costs something. The real question is, whether the results are worth the cost. I think they are. I maintain that the saving to the health and morals of our young men all over the land is worth the whole cost of their athletic organizations.

As to time, it is undoubtedly true that some young men spend too much time in athletic exercises, but the majority of them do not do so. They spend no more time than is good for them, at a period of their lives when they are laying up physical capital. And the fact that, to be well prepared for contests, successful athletes have to keep in training the greater portion of the year, instead of during a small part of it, as formerly, is one of the best features of the present system of athletics. It gives them healthy occupation for their leisure moments, and enforces habits of good living all the year, instead of for a few months.

To "VI" I have very little to say, except to express a more hopeful spirit with regard to the future of "all competitive sports which bring men into personal contact." Putting boxing out of the list, it seems to me that young men interested in the other sports are in a

PSM V32 D743 Comparative table of athletic and average students at amherst college 1887.jpg

fair way to solve for themselves the problems connected with them, so as "to retain the good features and to hold the evil ones in check."

The danger to athletics—"VII.By depriving them of their efficacy as a means of health"—is the only specification which might follow as a corollary from making "excellence in achievement" their "primary object." It is a danger, however, to which only a few men are liable in the athletic exercises mentioned by Dr. Sargent. I think, also, that it will be found that athletes in general are beginning to learn that to excellence and success, even in any special kind of exercise, a uniform muscular development contributes quite as much as the training of a few sets of muscles.

As bearing on this part of the subject, the remarks and chart published by Dr. Edward Hitchcock, of Amherst College, are here given. As Dr. Hitchcock is the Nestor of physical culture in the colleges, his observations have been very extensive, and his conclusions are well worthy of consideration:

"One of the results of the anthropometric work of Amherst College has been the approximate measurements and tests of the average college student, as obtained from the 1,258 different men observed during the past six college years. These are numerically and graphically arranged on the preceding page.

"The study of the present paper is to show the relation of THESE STATISTICS TO THE SAME IN THE ATHLETIC STUDENT.

"The men from whom these have been obtained were either class captains, the ball nine, the foot-ball team, or first prizes in the gymnastic exhibition and athletic games. Fifty-seven men in all.

"A study in connection with these, is what physical conditions, if any, specially characterize the athletic man in distinction from the average man or student. The chart on the preceding page shows a very close relation between the measurements of these two groups, but a little broader one in tests of strength and capacity, the greater one being in favor of the athletic man. The common consent of mankind would probably place in the same category great size and great strength of body, but, in feats of skill, our statistics do not confirm this combination' as a fact in nature. So far as Amherst College results are concerned, they seem to show that the athletic men are not athletic because of a greater height of body than the average, as the difference between them in this feature is only a centimetre, or four tenths of an inch. Of the fifteen men who took first athletic prizes in 1886, four were above and eleven below the average height of the college; and, of the nine first-prize men at the gymnastic exhibition, three were above and six below the average height.

"Another grouping of these statistics shows us what items are most alike in the make-up of these men. As already mentioned, the heights are nearly the same. So are the lengths and other measures of the framework, such as sitting height, length of arms and feet, and the breadths, which are determined by the bones as a basis of measurement. Of eighteen bony measurements, twelve give no greater difference than a single millimetre, or one hundredth of one per cent between the two. Of eleven of the soft or muscular measures, including the variable and developmental parts of the body, the range of difference is from five to forty-seven millimetres, or 3·3 per cent differences between the two. And of the tests of strength and capacity we find an average of 7·2 per cent in favor of the athletic man.

"Or we may group the items as in the graphic form. Here we find the increase in favor of the athletic student in weight is 6·92 per cent; in lengths, 0·14 per cent; in breadths, 1·42 per cent; in girths, 2·56 per cent; and in tests, 10·24 per cent.

"The grain of truth derived from these pages seems to be that athletism does not seem to depend so much on physical gifts„ accidents, or circumstances, as in the energy of will which is put into the muscles. The long arm and leg and the big muscle do not insure the feat, but the skill in using them. It is the intelligent training, and not the big measures, which determine the standards of excellence in our athletic feats and sports.

"President Garfield said: 'There is no way in which you can get so much out of a man as by training; not in pieces, but the whole of him; and the trained men, other things being equal, are to be the masters of the world.'"

At no college in the land is more careful attention given to physical development by means of gymnastic exercises than at Amherst. If, therefore, Dr. Sargent's statements were true with respect to partial development by athletics, the fact ought to show in these averages, and specially against the athletic student. The contrary fact appears.

Notice Dr, Hitchcock's conclusion, that "athletism does not seem to depend so much on physical gifts, accidents, or circumstances, as in the energy of will which is put into the muscles. . . . It is the intelligent training, and not the big measures, which determine the standard of excellence in our athletic feats and sports." This willpower, guided by intelligence, makes not only successful athletes, but successful men. The training which young men receive in their sports possesses its highest value by virtue of the fact that it brings forth some of the best powers of mind and character, not because it develops mere bone and muscle.

Whether averages conceal or prove facts depends upon the interpretation of them. Dr. Sargent's charts would be more valuable to the public if he would give his data. The figures, by means of which the measurements of the "typical or normal standard" are derived, furnish the key to the chart. No man can test himself by the standard till he knows the standard measurements. The charts may be interesting and profitable as a private study, but can be of no benefit or authority to a single individual till Dr. Sargent discloses the measurements of the "typical man."

The real question with regard to athletics in the colleges, as far as measurements are concerned, is this: "What effect do athletics have upon the growth of athletes, as compared with the growth of those who are not athletes, but who are otherwise under similar conditions?"

To throw light on this question, the writer obtained from Dr. Seaver, of Yale College, two sets of measurements of members of one class, so as to ascertain the growth for one year. The first set of measurements was made soon after the class entered college, and the second set was taken in its sophomore year. Complete double measurements were procured from one hundred and two men, the remainder of the class—between twenty and thirty men—having neglected to submit to the second measurement. Of these, twenty-two were out-of-door athletes, and eighty were not, though they were under instruction in light gymnastics during a large part of their freshman year. The question, therefore, was considered under conditions as favorable as possible to Dr. Sargent's point of view. The results are presented graphically on page 729 and in numbers on page 730.

In the table, the items of strength of back and legs, and of weight, are given in pounds. Capacity of lungs is given in cubic inches. The other figures denote millimetres and tenths of millimetres.

The chart gives the average growth of the athletes as compared with the growth of the non-athletic men. The lighter parts of the chart indicate the excess of growth of one class above the growth of the other.

Of the twenty-two athletes two were base-ball players, six foot-ball players, six rowing-men, and eight were track-athletes. Of the football men five were also rowing-men. The averages are given for the four sets of men, as well as for the two classes (non-athletic and athletic), that the reader may see for himself how each kind of exercise has affected those taking it. The figures for the special athletes are derived from so small a number of men that they can hardly be taken as conclusive. They are merely significant. The small gain in the average of "strength of legs" of the foot-ball men was due to the loss of strength on the part of one man. Without him the remaining five gained an average of forty-eight pounds.

The growth of girth of neck of the athletes, in comparison with the same item for the non-athletic men, is worthy of attention. The gain in strength of back of the track-athletes, and their gain in strength of arm, ought to be noticed.

To test the question of symmetry of growth, the differences between the sizes of right arm and left arm, of right forearm and left forearm, of right thigh and left thigh, of right calf and left calf, were

PSM V32 D747 Athlete physiology table.jpg

taken for each year. The sum of the differences of the second year (being less in both classes of students) was subtracted from the sum of the differences of the first year. The remainder was a gain in symmetry. This remainder, divided by the sum of the differences of the first year, gave the percentage of "gain in symmetry."

For One Class: Average Measurements of Growth during One Year.

GROWTH Rest of
class: 80


22 out-door
2 base-ball
6 foot-ball
6 rowing-
8 track-athletes
Height 7 ·2mm. 8 ·mm. 8 ·5 mm. 7 ·5 mm. 11 ·3 mm. 5 ·75 mm.
Girth of neck 3 7 ·7 6 11 ·3 5 ·7 7
Girth of chest (normal) 16 ·1 32 ·1 11 35 ·8 31 ·3 35 ·2
Girth of chest (inflated) 11 ·7 36 ·2 15 ·5 33 ·8 40 ·7 39 ·7
Girth of waist 10 ·1 13 ·3 23 11 15 ·8 11 ·9
Girth of thigh 8 17 ·3 16 15 ·7 15 ·2 21 ·2
Girth of calf 7 ·6 10 ·1 11 12 ·8 10 7 ·9
Girth of arm 6 ·3 9 ·3 9 7 ·7 11 9 ·2
Girth of forearm 4 ·2 7 ·1 2 ·5 9 ·5 6 ·7 6 ·9
Breadth of shoulders 10 ·4 13 ·8 12 ·5 11 ·5 11 ·7 17 ·4
Breadth of waist 3 ·4 7 ·2 10 5 ·5 6 ·8 8
Strength of back 29 3/4 lbs. 68 ·4 lb. 30 lbs. 55 lbs. 63 2/3 lbs. 91 7/8 lbs.
Strength of legs 40 1/4 52 ·3 45 19 51 3/8 81 7/8
Capacity of lungs 5 ·9 cu. in. 9 ·7 cu. in. 12 ·2 cu. in. 7 ·6 cu. in. 10 ·2 cu. in. 10 ·3 cu. in.
Weight 7 ·1 lbs. 8 ·7 lbs. 7 1/4 lbs. 9 lbs. 9 ·6 lbs. 8 ·2 lbs.
Gain in symmetry 4 1/5 p. ct. 15 p. ct. 34 p. ct. 24 p. ct. 5 1/2 p. ct. 4 1/6 p. ct.

It must not be forgotten that the conditions of American life have changed so greatly in the last century that, in order to view education aright, it is necessary to take counsel of new considerations. To be sure, the material to be worked on seems to be the same. The youthful mind and character are unchanged. Yet there are influences at work in these modern times which are destined to sap the physical strength of our young men, and thus impair the vigor of their minds and emasculate their characters, unless these influences be clearly recognized and continually counteracted. We will mention two of these influences:

1. Concentration of Population into Cities.—According to the last census report, of every one hundred inhabitants in the United States, there were dwelling in towns of eight thousand inhabitants and above—

In 1790 3∙3 In 1850 12∙5
" 1820 4∙9 " 1880 22∙5

But these figures do not tell the whole story. Towns have grown into cities, and cities have added to their population enormously in the thirty years from 1850 to 1880, as will be seen from the following figures, showing the number of cities of various grades:

Number of Cities having Inhabitants of

IN 20,000 to
40,000 to
75,000 to
125,000 to
250,000 to
500,000 to
1850 14 7 3 3 1 1 0
1880 55 21 9 7 4 3 1

At the last census fifty cities held 15410 per cent of the aggregate population of the country. Whatever may be said in favor of city life for adults, nothing can be said in favor of its influence upon the vigor or morals of young men. Life in the cities is faster than in the country. The incentives to excess in mental work are greater. The wear and tear of the nervous system is more intense. At the same time the opportunity or necessity of physical effort for the young men of the well-to-do classes is reduced to a minimum.

2. Increasing Knowledge demanding more Brain-Culture.—Thus increasing demands are made upon the brain and nerves by the faster life of the cities, and by the need of a better culture to meet the competitions of that life, while the opportunities are lessened for strengthening the body against these demands. When the population was extensively engaged in rural or mechanical pursuits, without the division of labor which now obtains, the bodies of our young men were hardened by toil and invigorated by life in the open air.

That the concentration of population is reflected in the attendance at our colleges can be established by an examination of catalogues. The fact is certainly evident at Yale University, as will be seen from the accompanying figures. Of every one hundred students in the catalogue, there were registered as coming from cities of thirty thousand inhabitants and upward—

IN CATALOGUE OF Academic department. Sheffield Scientific School.
1856-'57 21 1/5 18
1871-’72 44 39
1886-'87 55 58

Anything that will help to counteract the disintegrating forces of city life, that will help to strengthen our city young men against the insidious forces of ill-health, against the forces of low-living, that will tend to keep young men out of disorders, out of crimes against self and society, is to be welcomed as an ally of the best education. I maintain that the system of athletics existing at our colleges and in our athletic clubs in all the cities of the land does this. It does more. Its work is not only to save but to form men. It helps our schools and colleges to send out into the world not merely scholarly ascetics, but men full of force and energy, men of strong fiber, physical and moral.

The modern gymnasium is a necessary auxiliary to every well-equipped college, but it owes much of its increasing usefulness and importance to the fact that it is a training-place for athletes. There is no real antagonism between the athletic field and the gymnasium. It is not necessary to depreciate one in order to exalt the other. Existing side by side, and both rightly used, they will best contribute to the evolution of the "typical man."

  1. "Scribner's Monthly," July, 1887.
  2. "Popular Science Monthly," March, 1884.