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Fields of Play: An Ethnography of Children's Sports by Noel Dyck (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 86, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 657-661 | 10.1353/anq.2013.0030

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Given its widespread popularity and availability in discourse, sport appears relatively easy to study ethnographically. It can appear even easier if the author's interest in the topic arises from a fatherly investment in his child's soccer team, as Noel Dyck's does in Fields of Play. As Dyck shows in this study of community-oriented youth sports in Canada, however, discourses about youth sports are as contradictory as they are available, and they obscure as much as they reveal about how sports operate. When media portray youth sports, he observes, they generally stake out extreme positions, either proclaiming a zealous belief in the developmental importance of sport or condemning parents who become too invested in the sporting exploits of their children. To further complicate matters, sporting parents listen to this talk and respond to it as they try to determine for themselves the value of sport for their children. Producing an ethnography about youth sports, then, requires an anthropologist to take prevalent discourses about sport seriously, all the while accounting for practices and relations that resist easy categorization.

Dyck handles this perilous terrain extremely well, and he navigates it by considering children's sports as a collection of temporal and spatial "social fields." This classic theory and methodology is well suited to the study of sport, and not only because it insists that discourses and practices be analyzed in the "fields" in which they mingle. There is also an intuitive fit between a theory that explores the interplay of actors, their various motivations, and their negotiations over the rules of social action, and sports, which often operate under similar conditions. Though Dyck makes this fit between theory and practice productive, one consequence of his choice is that the text sticks closely to the social fields he has chosen to study. The organizing "rules" of gender and class, for example, are primarily regarded as relevant only insofar as they shape the demographics of sports participation. This may explain why Dyck's analytical aspirations remain resolutely focused on community sports as well—he primarily wants to discover how these sports operate. What do parents, children, coaches, and sports officials want from their involvement in youth sports? Why do they donate so much of their time and energy to supporting youth sporting organizations? Why do some parents and athletes quit immediately and others remain actively involved?

Though Dyck considers these questions modest, he also recognizes (from observation as well as personal experience) that responses to them say something significant and complicated about the seriousness of youth sport in Canada. Though this is probably just as true for school sports as it is for community-organized ones, Dyck provides justification for his strict attention to "community sports": because community clubs are free of rigorous institutional constraints, they cater to a wider array of sporting interests than most schools, and have a greater dependence on parental volunteers as well. These parents, Dyck finds, become involved in community sports for many reasons, but their desire for their children to develop properly and their eagerness to shape that development are undoubtedly the motivations that permeate this work. Dyck, to his credit, historicizes such motivations by noting that they rest on the assumption that childhood is a period of innocence and dependence. Though the influence of race and gender remain largely unexplored here, Dyck uses this observation to connect these parental motivations to the structuring forces of class (as wealthier parents have more time and resources to spend "cultivating" their children) and the moralizing discourses of the Canadian state (which often judges the health of families in terms of the behavior of their children).

Along with contextualizing and questioning some of the assumptions that parents have about childhood, Dyck also presents children as "actors" with their own interests and perspectives. In doing so, he shows that youth sports are produced dialogically, with parent and child each responding to the other. The specific contributions that children make to this dialogue are somewhat intuitive—they may want to play more or less competitively than their parents would like, and they are more interested in coaches who are fair than ones who are responsible supervisors—but Dyck's decision...

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