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Developing ‘science’ and ‘wind’: eighteenth century sports training.

Day, Dave (2011) Developing ‘science’ and ‘wind’: eighteenth century sports training. [Conference or Workshop Item] (Unpublished)

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Abstract

Eighteenth century industrialisation, population growth, and rapid urbanisation, stimulated the activities of sporting entrepreneurs, many of whom were also involved in developing training and coaching, although the term ‘coaching’ did not become commonplace until the mid-Victorian period. In London, George Smith sponsored foot racing and cricket at the Artillery Ground, William Kemp ran the Peerless Pool, where waiters taught swimming, and Thomas Higginson promoted racquet sports and billiards, while combat sports were repackaged within specialist facilities such as Preston’s Amphitheatre and boxing was commercialised by ‘Professor of the Science of Defence’ James Figg. Coaching the skills, the ‘science’, of boxing was always an important source of income for professional fighters and Figg retired in 1731 in order to concentrate on teaching, as did James Stokes, while George Taylor ran a teaching academy and ‘Professor’ Jack Broughton was teaching at the Crown in the 1740s, or giving gentlemen lessons in their own homes. In addition to their instructional duties many practitioners developed careers as trainers, often using their experiential knowledge to prepare rowers and pedestrians in addition to fellow pugilists. A combination of Enlightenment thinking and increasing industrialisation had resulted in a reassessment of traditional ideas relating to the body and the belief arose that the application of science-based knowledge within training schemes could extend the performance of sportsmen beyond their God-given abilities. James Figg took responsibility for another fighter’s ‘Instruction and proper Diet’ before a contest in 1725, and thirty years later it was being argued that an expanding competitive programme would lead gentlemen ‘to keep champions in training, put them in sweats, diet them, and breed up the human species with the same care as they do cocks and horses.’ Tellingly, the author believed that, as a result, this ‘branch of gaming would doubtless be reduced to a science’ and gambling had much to do with stimulating the development of training practices and the refinement of skills instruction. The wealthy ‘amateurs’ who retained sporting professionals in order to make profitable wagers, recognising that the sporting body does not achieve peak performance automatically, tried to improve the chances of success by putting their men into training programmes, the content of which was recorded in some of the instructional manuals of the period. Wrestling was covered in detail by Parkyns in 1713, who considered technique, fitness, and diet, as well as recommending how to identify talent, while a seminal section on boxing was included by Godfrey in his 1747 book A Treatise upon the Useful Science of Defence. It had been observed in 1720 that it was not always the boxer with the strongest arm but the one with the longest breath who would be successful, and trainers clearly distinguished between the acquisition of technique, ‘science’ or ‘art’, and ‘wind’ or fitness, although both could be improved by frequent practice. Good wind, which enabled a man to sustain high levels of activity and to recover quickly, was enhanced by specific training, and, if impaired, it could be recovered by training and regularity of living, especially under the guidance of expert trainers. These men drew inspiration from their own experiences, humoral theory, and the accepted wisdom of the period regarding health and its dependence on the six non-naturals air, food, exercise, the passions, evacuation and retention, sleeping and waking. Since the best quality air was to be found in rural areas trainers normally took their men out of towns where the work of the trainer involved identifying humoral imbalances and redressing them through a programme of diet, exercise, and medication, normally beginning with a purging of the body. The first day purged the bowels, the second the liver, and the third the ‘reins’ in which lay the ‘drain’ of the ill humours. In 1726, one writer emphasised that individuals should not pass immediately from a ‘disordered kind of life’ to a strict exercise programme but should do it little by little, and men ‘in training’ were closely supervised by their trainers, avoiding excesses in food, wine and women, for periods of time that ranged from ten days to six weeks. Although training programmes were not always uniform in nature, and it was recognised that specific training schemes could produce different outcomes, trainers were unanimous in arguing that regularity was essential since both the mind and the body must be disciplined. This paper explores the emergence of the specialist coach/trainer in the eighteenth century and highlights the impact that these individuals, and their collective community, had on the development of sports preparation in this period and, ultimately, on the development of modern sport. It also considers the understanding of technical and physical training that underpinned much of the advice trainers proffered and their significance in establishing the foundations of training theory. This training lore displayed considerable longevity, informing many of the training practices across all professional sports for much of the nineteenth century, as well as proving to be extremely effective in developing athletes well beyond the normal capacities of their contemporaries. Even when training programmes became more refined in the later stages of the Victorian period they continued to address the key essentials of diet, exercise, psychology, and technique, as identified by eighteenth century trainers, training elements which remain the cornerstones of athletic preparation for the modern Olympian.

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