The YMCA’s contribution to sports and physical education

The YMCA’s mission challenges YMCAs the world over to “strive for spiritual, intellectual and physical well-being of individuals and wholeness of communities”. It is a holistic approach to development, symbolised by the well-known YMCA triangle representing body, mind and spirit.
Today the YMCA is famous for its health and fitness programmes, run in thousands of communities. The YMCA has made, and continues to make, some incredible contributions to the history of sport. But this has not always been the case. When physical education was first introduced to YMCA work, some questioned whether this was really the role of the YMCA which was created to provide spiritual and intellectual services to young men.

Meeting the needs of the whole person through sport

It was the YMCA of the USA that first grasped the importance of offering physical education to young men as a way of meeting the needs of the whole person. They also realised that local YMCAs that included sports in their programmes survived, whilst the others did not. The renowned YMCA triangle, which gave physical education equal recognition with spiritual and intellectual activities, was designed by Dr. Luther Gulick from the YMCA International Training School in Massachusetts, USA and was adopted in 1891. Gradually physical education came to be accepted as a core YMCA activity, based on the principle that “Any good programme which does not consider the whole person is incomplete.”

Besides the obvious benefits of promoting health and fitness, physical education has served many purposes in the YMCA. For example, it encourages social interaction, a sense of belonging and friendship. It also serves to promote the Christian ideals and values of the YMCA such as fostering a team spirit and working together. In the early days, YMCA sports programmes were seen as keeping young men out of trouble and encouraging clean, healthy lifestyles.

Basketball and volleyball: YMCA inventions

Amongst its amazing contributions to the history of sport, perhaps the YMCA’s invention of basketball and volleyball are two of the most well known.

The inventor of basketball was a Canadian, James Naismith, who was working at the time for the YMCA International Training School in Massachusetts, USA, which later became the YMCA Springfield College.

In 1891 the director of the Physical Education Department of the YMCA Training School, Dr. Luther Gulick, challenged his students to invent a new game. He wanted a game that could engage his students and that could be played indoors. At the same time Dr Gulick assigned James Naismith to a class of boys who were completely disinterested in the usual exercises and sports. Naismith became determined to invent a game for his “class of incorrigibles”.

Naismith wanted to invent a game that was easy to learn. He also wanted a game that avoided tackling. He realised that if players can’t run with the ball, there is no need for them to tackle, so the chance of injury is much less. Next, Naismith focused on the objective of the game. He found inspiration when he realised that, “If the goal was horizontal instead of vertical, the players would be compelled to throw the ball in an arc; and force, which made for roughness, would be of no value.”

The first time basketball was played, on 21st December 1891, the boys used two old peach baskets as goals. The game was an instant success. In 1936 basketball became an Olympic sport for the first time and today it is played by millions the world over.

At around the same time, in 1895, William G. Morgan, an instructor at the YMCA in Holyoke, Massachusetts, sought to invent a game for his classes that would involve less physical contact than basketball. The result was volleyball – a mix of basketball, baseball, tennis and handball. The net that he used was 6 feet 6 inches high, just taller than the average man.

Volleyball soon became extremely popular in the USA and, through the YMCA network, spread first to other parts of the Americas and then to other continents. By 1951 it was being played by over 50 million people in over 60 countries. In 1957 volleyball also became an Olympic sport.

International competitions

Besides inventing many new sporting games and helping physical activity to become recognised as a valuable educational tool, the YMCA also played an important role in developing large scale international sports competitions.

In 1918, a YMCA leader by the name of James H. McCurdy, realised the need “for an extensive programme of sports and recreation in the immediate postwar period that would bridge the gap and ease the transition between military service and civilian life”. The result was the Inter-Allied Games, the biggest international sports event that had ever been held at that time. The organisers included an impressive range of indigenous sports such as Arabian camel fighting, to attract as many countries as possible to compete. The Games, attended by 25,000 people, were a huge success.

The YMCA also organised its own international sporting events. In 1927 the first International YMCA Athletic Championships were held in Denmark bringing together amateur athletes from many different countries.

The YMCA has close historical ties with the modern Olympic Games. In 1929 the World Alliance of YMCAs was awarded the Olympic Cup by the International Olympic Committee for its services to sports. From 1948 to 1988 the World Alliance of YMCAs organised conferences to coincide with the Games for YMCA representatives “to share new/successful health, fitness, nutrition, physical education, recreation and sports programmes”. The YMCA has always emphasised not just the playing of sports, but research associated with it.

Sports for prisoners of war

“Tell them we’d have gone nuts if it hadn’t been for the Y.” This was a message sent by an American prisoner of war during World War II, praising the work of the YMCA. YMCAs sent sports equipment to prisoners in several countries: German prisoners in the USA alone received 10,000 footballs. YMCAs arranged for sports to be played in the prison camps and were able to make prizes available to maintain the men’s interest.

Sport for all

YMCAs offer sports programmes to people of every social and economic background. But what kind of physical education should be offered to a malnourished child? YMCAs are providing impoverished children and young people with fun, healthy forms of physical exercise and simple games that require a minimum of equipment. And at the same time they are addressing poverty through issues such as maternal and child health care, nutrition, hygiene and living conditions and income-generating activities.

An important YMCA principle is that health and fitness should be affordable for all and prices are kept low. In many cases subsidies are available for low income households to join YMCA gyms or fitness classes. In other cases sports programmes are completely free. YMCA health and fitness activities aim to be inclusive. In some countries such as Kosovo, YMCAs have programmes for the disabled. Others offer rehabilitation exercises for those recovering from serious illnesses. In the USA local YMCAs have adapted classes so that Muslim women feel comfortable exercising there.

Another important YMCA principle is that sports should bring the community together, rather than encourage individualism. For example in India, the YMCA adopted indigenous games in rural areas that fostered community-building, such as kabaddi and kho-kho.

The YMCA and sports have a long, inter-twined and impressive history, one which is still being played out today by millions of members across the world.