There was a time when you could go to any schoolyard and see kids being kids. Kids would run, leap, throw, and exert themselves with the pure joy of uncorrupted youth. They were suddenly realizing their bodies were incredible machines capable of precise, complex movements, and the games they played developed these capabilities. Dirt clod fights, epic dodgeball matches, and tetherball developed hand-eye coordination and agility; roughhousing that never graduated into enmity taught kids the value of a few bumps and bruises (as well as how to dish ‘em out); games like tag, capture the flag, and monkey in the middle emphasized foot speed, lateral agility, and rapid changes of direction. The teacher on yard duty might hand out a citation or break up a little scuffle once in awhile, but recess was generally pretty relaxed. About the only thing your average schoolyard athlete worried about was explaining away the grass stains, or maybe the scuffed knees. Looking back, we really had it good: unstructured play , impromptu workouts that didn’t feel like work but got us into great shape and developed our social skills. We were little Groks , cultivating our minds and bodies without actively planning a routine (or play date). It probably helped that we didn’t have Nintendo DS Lites or smart phones (or overbearing parents) to distract us, but the fact remains that we just were. A bit like Grok, we didn’t run and jump to get better at running and jumping; we ran and jumped because it was fun, because it simply felt like the right thing to do. Our athletic development was merely a bonus.
We’ve totally lost that. Kids now spend recess checking their Facebook statuses, their weekly itineraries, and catching up on piles of homework. I actually have a close friend in school administration – principal of a public elementary school – who laments what she sees as the loss of recess. Well, recess is technically still around, but it’s been neutered into some unrecognizable form. Dodgeball is widely banned (promotes competition and inequality), and the random roughhousing and general tomfoolery kids used to get into are completely cracked down on. Dirt fights and wrestling, I can understand, but dodgeball? I weep. I weep, but I’m not even that surprised. Those red rubber balls sure do sting (the ego?), and we wouldn’t want our precious kids made aware of any discrepancies in ability between their peers and themselves. Save that revelation for adulthood – that’ll be healthy!
But the latest schoolyard casualty is too much to handle. I won’t stand for it. As of 2006, administrators in Cheyenne, Boston, and Spokane elementary schools have banned tag . Tag. It’s perhaps the oldest game in the world, and it’s being banned from schoolyards across the country – even here in my backyard , Santa Monica. They cite “concussions, broken bones and numerous bumps and scrapes” as potential causes for concern, as well as the “self-esteem issue.” I dunno about you, but I foresee far greater self-esteem issues for the kids who never learn the value of honest competition. Getting picked last is part of life. Losing is an essential skill. If they don’t learn these lessons early on in a natural, organic manner, how are kids supposed to handle the rigors and responsibilities of adult life, where the consequences are graver and your parents can’t come pick you up at lunch and get you ice cream?
I’m beginning to digress.
My point is this: those childhood games teach us important lessons, and they facilitate our athletic development. As adults, we stand to gain a lot from going back to these games, even if we were lucky enough to grow up in an age where kids were allowed to be kids (strike “allowed,” actually; kids simply were kids). Games like dodgeball, monkey in the middle, and especially tag are excellent ways to get a great, fun workout (I would advise against dirt clod fights and roughhousing with random adults – these tend to morph into actual fights). Play , after all, is one of the Primal Laws , and what better way to show your children the value of a good game of tag than by playing it with them?
Let’s remove the “childhood” tag from tag, shall we?
I focus on tag because it can be played anywhere without equipment. Dodgeball is great, but a good game requires a special ball, a court, and a certain amount of players. All you need for tag is a few participants and an open space. Tag’s also perhaps the purest, oldest game. I’m strictly guessing here, but I’d imagine organisms – hominids, dogs, otters, baboons, and squirrels – have been chasing each other around for no particular reason for millions of years. Go to a zoo or a dog park or a playground (sometimes) and you’ll see evidence of animals left to their own devices who default to chasing each other.
Tag is completely free form. There are no boundaries and few rules. In football, there are clear goals. A guy’s chasing you, but he knows exactly where you’re headed: to the endzone. In tag, you can be completely unpredictable. You’re darting this way and that way without a real spatial goal in sight – except to get the heck out of the other guy’s clutches. You’ll develop moves you never knew you had and agility you thought was long gone, all because you remove those conscious mental filters that slow things down and prevent pure instinctual reactions.
Tag is sprinting  made effortless. Well, effort is still there, but you won’t be aware of it in a good game of tag; you’ll be too busy trying to stay “alive.” If you can’t seem to get out for a regular sprint session, you might try getting a gang together for tag. You’ll end up running what amounts to dozens of sprints without even thinking about it.
Tag promotes full-on effort. Even if you’re a committed sprinter, it can be tough to really hit maximum effort each time, because at the end of the day you’re alone on a track, or a stretch of grass. Unless you’ve got a competitive training partner, you’re in an official competition, or there’s a mountain lion on your tail, you’re missing that sense of urgency that compels the true sprint. When you get in the zone in a game of tag, you do everything you can to avoid being “it.” You dodge, roll, fake, and sprint as fast as humanly possible to avoid being tagged. If you really get into it, it’ll be as if there’s a lion on your heels or a world record to be broken – your body won’t know the difference, and your performance will improve.
There are dozens of varieties of tag . Most will work for your purposes just fine. British bulldogs, for example, begins with two “bulldogs” standing in the middle of the play area. Everyone else lines up on one end and tries to rush past the bulldogs to the other side. Those who are caught become bulldogs. The last one standing is the victor. Then there’s the always classic freeze tag, or even the modified tag variant hide and seek. Too many to name, but I think we can do better with our own variant.
I suppose the real “Grok Tag” would look something like basic schoolyard tag: one person trying to tag another person, who then becomes “it.” Just basics, no tricks or gimmicks. That’s fine, but I’m thinking we can distinguish ourselves and make it a real workout by throwing in a little twist.
- Gather a group of people together. At least five is ideal, three is good, and two will technically work.
- Go to a field, the beach, a forest – pretty much anywhere with real earth underneath, rather than hard concrete. You’re going to be running a lot, so avoid high impact ground.
- Have everyone do five burpees simultaneously for time. The slowest is “it.” Everyone else is the hunted.
- Once you’re ready to play, have the hunted disperse. “It” waits ten seconds and then begins the chase.
- If someone is tagged, they immediately drop and do ten pushups. Once they finish, they are now “it” and the person who tagged them is now the hunted.
- Next person tagged drops and gives fifteen pushups. Once they finish, they are now “it” and the person who tagged them is now the hunted.
- Continue in this manner until you reach thirty pushups. Whoever does the thirty is “it” for the next round, which begins in two minutes. For the next round, use squats instead of pushups. And for the round after that, use burpees, but start with five and end with twenty-five (unless you’re up for the full thirty). If there are low hanging branches or pull-up bars in the area, do a round with pull-ups instead.
- There are tag backs and yes, a single person might end up doing a disproportionate number of repetitions in a given round. That’s life, though, and it’ll only make you stronger.
You can modify Grok Tag to suit your needs and abilities. Raise or lower the reps as needed. Wear weighted vests for the duration. Have kettlebell stations positioned around the field of play, and substitute kettlebell swings into the game. You could even have a barbell sitting on the field – get tagged, do five deadlifts. The possibilities are endless, but the basic concept of being “punished” for getting tagged is key. You won’t want to do those twenty burpees or thirty squats, so you’re going to run like your life depends on it. Even the guys or girls who never get tagged still get a great sprint workout, and the guys or girls who always get tagged will only get stronger and faster.
I’ll admit. This can be a pretty hardcore workout and a far cry from the tag of your childhood, but its scalability means it will never be too hardcore for anyone. Plus, it’s a good way to ambush a reluctant workout partner: “Hey, wanna play a friendly game of tag?”And if your kids have never played the game, this might be a good way to introduce them to an archaic tradition while teaching them proper burpee and squat form.
Just don’t expect to see it in P.E. classes anytime soon.
Have your own thoughts on a variation of Primal tag? Share it in the comment board. Thanks, everyone!