Nothing brings back memories of my school days better than the smell of sweat and the sound of a dodgeball smacking the exposed skin of an unaware student.
I actually really enjoyed dodgeball in junior high. It was a team sport that I could play without too much pressure on me as an individual. I didn’t have to worry about striking out or missing the basket and letting my team down. I could just play because eventually everyone got hit and there was something beautiful in that.
To my surprise, one of the three sports a student could join on sports day at my school in Japan was dodgeball. Like all the featured sports, this one was completely run by the students. They kept score, monitored the time, and refereed.
The American version is simple: two teams on opposite sides of the court. Hit a player on the other team and they are out. If they catch your ball, you are out and a player on their team comes back in. And that’s it.
Japanese dodgeball is slightly different, and I think sometimes more fun. To begin with, they only use one (foam) ball about the size of a volleyball. This makes the game a little slow, but also causes the spectators to watch a little more closely.
In my school in the US, all the balls started on the middle line and at the sound of the whistle we would race to the line to be one of the lucky few beginning with a ball. In Japan, the ball is decided like it is in basketball, with an elected member of each team trying to serve it to their side. A little less exciting, but equally effective.
The biggest difference between American and Japanese dodgeball is that the Japanese version sends three members of each team to the outside of the court, working from the opposing side. It looks like having three soccer goalies, but with no goals to defend. They play an offensive role, capturing the ball and lobbing it at the team right in front of them.
Oftentimes it is these three players controlling the game. If they work quickly they can herd the team into a small knot, making it easier to take them out. But in reality that doesn’t happen because someone drops the ball, giving the team time to move out of the way. This results in a tedious but funny, back and forth with most of the players from both teams not doing anything for a while.
When a player is out he will join the growing ranks on the outside of the court. Unlike the three who started there, if they are able to hit a player from the outside, they can come back in. Catching the ball does nothing, good or bad.
I did not set out to observe dodgeball for three hours that day. I don’t have a particular affinity for the sport, except for the slightly more than lukewarm feelings I have about it from my remembrances when I was a kid. It was simply a good excuse to be somewhat involved while I sat in the surprisingly warm spring sun. I even got a sunburn.
But watching the sport for three consecutive hours showed me how responsible and inclusive my students really are. Everyone played fair, making the need for a referee obsolete. Everyone cheered for each other. Students playing other sports would pop in to show their support for their class. No booing, no hard feelings. Lots of smiles and peace signs thrown up when a player was able to get someone out.
The shy kids were still shy and the loud kids were still loud, but now they worked together to dodge a single foam ball gently thrown at them from the other side.