Huddle Up and Hands In: Turning On and Off the Play of Sports

From the Series: HandsOn: Touching the Digital Planet

Photo by Tuva Beyer Broch.

On and off. Home schooling and home entertainment under the COVID-19 pandemic had us turning screens on and off. With a gentle tap, children all around went to class, chatted with peers, and played electronic games alone together.

We touch the surface of our smart phones, the “on buttons” of our PlayStations, to call digital selves, others, and things into being, radically altering the phenomenology of perception and existence (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2012; Turner 1995). Tapping a screen, we instantly dwell in the depth of the cultural-cum-electronic landscape of sensations, meanings, and socialities residing underneath the flickering display. As we return to our analog worlds, can we still touch and be touched by cultures and others? Can we still connect analog surfaces with cultural depths (Alexander 2010; Champagne forthcoming)?

In Norway—where 90 percent of children at some point in their upbringing have participated in organized sports—the pandemic first sent us off the courts and then back on again. Norwegian sports recruit widely across the social class spectrum, so the government had us all on standby. We were to get every child in quarantine back into sports that emphasize physical activity, play, social fun, and skill mastery (not winning a rule-governed competition) as soon as possible. Local sport halls were closed and then reopened with regulations as to who could do sports together and under what restrictions concerning touch, high fives, and huddles. But its not only policy makers who set the rules of sports conduct.

“Let’s see how the five of you can work together on defense. Grab the hand of the player next to you so you form a human wall.” It is afternoon in a small rural Norwegian town, and some eight-year-old boys have joined up to play some sports. I am a participant observer and the day’s designated voluntary coach.

“Do we have to?” Jonathan asks. I nod back to him. “But it is impossible” Jacob complains.

“Oh no, it is quite doable. You have even done it before. It just requires that you work together,” I answer. A couple of boys hang their heads; others throw up their hands in despair.

“But really, we cannot, because of Corona!” Jonathan insists.

“Fair enough, grab ahold of your wingman’s shirt, then.” That does the trick. Soon all of them scramble around showing me that the exercise is indeed quite possible to make difficult, especially if they neither want to be touched nor to stay in touch by grasping hands. Instead, grabbing their teammates’ shirts, they stay alone together. They call this existence into being, never transferring the warmth of their palms. An interplay between the outer forms of holding hands and the deeper meaning of analog togetherness is broken.

Children’s sports are often seen as clean-cut opportunities for togetherness, social fun, and physical exercise, Jonathan shows us that that may not be the case. Analog sports, like their digital cousins, can also be turned on and off as children use their bodies to push, run, and jump; to pull close or keep a distance; to generate heat or maintain a coldness. This is so at practices, but also during game time.

“Huddle up, guys!” I say at the halftime break. The boys should be exhausted from playing two games, as well as playing tag in the hallways and hide and seek in the locker rooms, and from eating Happy Meals, cinnamon buns, and whatnot between games. But they are hyped up, joking, laughing, making funny faces.

Guys?” one of the boys wittily responds to my request to huddle up.

“Yeah, guys,” I say. “Listen up. Fifteen minutes left of the game. Fifteen minutes left of the day. No need to save your energies. Let’s go out there and just . . .”

“Excuse me,” Michael says precociously. “It is Friday, we have to save some energy for gaming, eating candy, and dinner.”

I smile. “Of course, save what little energy you need to eat and do some gaming.” I want to continue my pep talk, but Martin interjects, “Expend our krutt,” he cautiously both asks and asserts.

“Yes, exactly!” I reply. “Let’s use up all what’s left of our energies. Let’s burn all our black powder [krutt]. Huddle up guys and put your hands together.”

The boys get to their feet and extend their hands in the huddle. Jonathan—the boy who had been anxious about getting COVID-19—crawls underneath all the hands and commands: “Both hands in! Put them all on my head! Both hands in!”

I agree and say, “Krutt on three, guys!” We share a subtle warmth with our hands-on-hands-on-hands-on-hands atop Jonathan’s head. “Ready? 1, 2, 3, KRUTT!” The energy lifts our arms rocketing into the air, fueling our cries, “KRUTT!”

“Krutt? What? Krutt?” Douglas looks puzzled, chuckling the word krutt and setting off a wave of chuckles from the boys’ parents in the stands.

On and off. Through screen surfaces and controller buttons we turn social life on and off, keep a distance. Of course, we can stay alone together in physical encounters, too. But, creating a sports team takes another type of effort, another type of touch. Fingers and palms must lock together. Being together in physical space, requires a touch that unlocks a cultural-cum-physical landscape of bodily surfaces and cultural depths of togetherness. In sports, our analog leisure selves and socialities can be evoked as our material surfaces make contact. Jonathan recognizes that: Just as with a PlayStation, he can turn sports on and off with his bare hands.


Alexander, Jeffrey C. 2010. “Iconic Consciousness: The Material Feeling of Meaning.Thesis Eleven 103, no. 1: 10–25.

Champagne, Anne Marie. Forthcoming. “Toward a Strong Cultural Sociology of the Body and Embodiment.” In Interpreting the Body: Between Meaning and Materiality, edited by Anne Marie Champagne and Asia Friedman, np. Bristol, U.K.: Bristol University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. [1945] 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Turner, Terence. 1995. “Social Body and Embodied Subject: Bodiliness, Subjectivity, and Sociality among the Kayapo.Cultural Anthropology 10, no. 2: 143–170.