Mind, body, sports | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Mind, body, sports

The new season of the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) has started, so I thought I’d write about sports.

I’ll start out by saying I’m the most unathletic person imaginable. Last March, when I assumed my new work at UP Diliman, I was told that one of my tasks was to attend UAAP board meetings.  “What’s that?” I said, thinking it meant University Academic something.

If ever there was a nerd, it was me, “condemned” early in life to that stereotype. I was frail (in more ways than one) and sickly, and wore thick glasses. All that sent signals to our school coaches that I would be hopeless in sports, so nothing too “heavy” for me. My parents were also very protective, fearful that any kind of physical activity, even biking, would hurt me. Swimming they allowed, but only after I was in a near-drowning incident one summer.


It’s unfortunate that we’ve dichotomized the mind and the body, presuming one excels at the cost of the other, and this is particularly strong in schools, where it is presumed that “academics” means thinking, and that athletes don’t, or can’t, think.


My first encounters with our varsity players in UP came about when Marty Paz, who has been a mother to all the athletes for maybe 20 years now, would come around asking if our anthropology department could take more varsity players. It was a tough task for her: Many teachers were reluctant to accept the athletes, presuming they would be difficult in class.

The varsity members that I had in my classes made me question the “jock versus nerd” stereotype because they not only passed, they excelled. Those who chose to major in anthropology managed quite well, completing their degrees on time. As far as I can recall, at least two of them went on to become lawyers.


UAAP challenge

Fast-forward to the present. Rising to the UAAP challenge, which included goading from the alumni for UP to “climb out of the cellar” in basketball, I’ve had Ron Dizer, dean of the College of Human Kinetics, briefing me on our varsity teams.  I’m also getting crash courses on the different sports, learning about basketball “running shots” and “assists,” even the scoring system—all Greek to me until recently.

I’ve learned, too, that our varsity players are very much driven, spending long grueling hours for practice. I’ve seen how they walk an emotional high wire as a game approaches, and during the game itself. When they win it’s chaotic jubilation, but when they lose I worry about how harsh, unforgiving and demanding they can be on themselves.


Given all that pressure, it should not be surprising there’s little energy left for the academics. Fail, some do in their academic subjects, and we’ve lost valuable players that way.

Many of our varsity players get into UP by passing the UP College Admissions Test (Upcat). We do have another program that admits varsity players even if they do not pass the Upcat, but the screening is still rigorous, still considering their high school academic performance—and, once accepted into UP, they have to follow the same academic standards as nonvarsity students.

The few varsity players who flounder in academics again become stereotypes, with many people unaware that most of the athletes do succeed in combining sports and academics. Recently in Taiwan, where the basketball team and UP Pep Squad (also considered a varsity team) played in an international tournament, I boasted at a press conference about our athletes’ academic backgrounds.  The basketball coach had sent two of our best players to the press conference, and when, right before meeting the press, I asked them what their majors were, I was pleasantly surprised.  Kyles Jefferson Lao majors in business economics, and J.R. Gallarza, in early childhood education.

I could hear the audience—Chinese, Japanese, Korean—murmuring in admiration as I introduced Kyles and J.R., but I had more to boast about when I introduced the basketball coach, Rey Madrid, who is an architect. (The Chinese term is more impressive: master of construction.)

I’ve since learned about the academic backgrounds of some of the other basketball players. Agu Amor Jr. will be doing mechanical engineering, and a new recruit, whose name I’ll keep confidential for now, wants to major in music composition.

I also want to emphasize that the usual majors for many varsity players—physical education and sports science—are not easy subjects. Sports science is in fact a premed option, with required subjects in biology, chemistry, physics and math.

In Taiwan I boasted, too, that our Pep Squad is probably the only one in the Philippines, maybe even in the world, with a physician… not to attend to the athletes but as a performer and alumni coach herself.


Varsity honors

We have so many athletes who excel in academics that Dean Dizer is thinking of setting up a Varsity Honors Society.  I’ve told him he should push it through, and when that happens we will give full publicity to the awardees, as a model of the ultimate UP scholar.

I’m convinced we can do more to tear down the mind-body dichotomy. We hear about multiple intelligences and presume it simply means some are good in math, others in reading, others in the arts, forgetting that athletics is one form of intelligence, too.

We have to think of athletes as more than “players” who obediently follow practice routines and instructions for a game. Watching our basketball players in competition, I am amazed at how good they are at strategy, masters in spatial perceptions and estimates—it’s applied physics at its best.  All that with psychology, anticipating your opponents, and your own team’s next moves.

I sometimes wonder if our UP basketball players are “too” smart, because they swing to the other extreme of thinking too much, maybe anticipating the worst, and then getting bogged down by their angst.

It should not be surprising that our varsity players excel in more performance-oriented sports like gymnastics and fencing. I think of Jose Rizal, the ultimate nerd who would have never made it in basketball (he was barely five feet tall) but loved fencing, a sport where you can practice alone, deep in thought.

Which takes me to our contemporary nerds. I would like to see nerds discovering the joys of sports, and how physical activity can actually enhance their mental prowess. Swimming, for example, while competitive and requiring tremendous physical exertion, can also be very cerebral, offering quiet time.

I’m also working now on mobilizing our psych and education people to develop more appropriate support programs for varsity players who do struggle with academics. Science research shows that people have different learning styles, and many varsity players are “kinesthetic” types, people who need more physical freedom when learning.

I’ve been talking with our human kinetics people about expanding the types of physical education courses we have, to include those that allow more mind-body integration—yoga and qigong, for example—which can help condition our varsity players for competitions.

We’ll get there yet, a time when people appreciate, from preschool to university, how much of a perfect fit sports and academics can be.

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