Fitness: In Praise of Backyard Games, the Comfort Food of Sports and Recreation

by Mark Rhodes

After enduring the challenges and knocks of Cross Fit and MMA last month, I was ready for another kind of challenge: a recreational activity that would allow me to participate without the threat of spilling my martini.  This made me think of the importance and place of backyard sporting games in the summer months.

The best of these games require a modicum of skill, combined with a sense of play and friendly casual competition that allows friends and family to compete on relatively equal ground.  Let’s look back at some old favorites and consider a couple of new entries in the pantheon of backyard sports.

Cornhole (Pairs well with a hipster/working class American beer, like Pabst Blue Ribbon)

Cornhole is a lawn game (although it can easily be played on concrete) in which participants take turns throwing bean bags at a slightly raised platform with a hole in the far end. The object of the game is to get the bag on the platform, and ideally get it into the hole. Scoring typically awards three points when a bag is thrown into the hole and one point for a bag on the platform. Play usually continues until a team or participant reaches 21 points.

Cornhole was introduced to me by family members in North Carolina, where the game is very popular. This popularity is due, in part, to the consistently warm weather, which allows the game to be played outside for most – if not all – of the year.  It seems that Cornhole games are often played on patios, of which there are many in bars and even restaurants in the laid-back city of Wilmington.  I’ve also noticed what seems to be a strange connection between the activity and football season, with an apparent spike in play during the late summer and fall.  This might be explained by the fact that the staccato rhythm of football, with its many timeouts and halftimes, allows players a chance to get in a quick round of Cornhole (these rounds are often called “innings” or “frames”).

Despite some basic rules of play, Cornhole players are well known for improvising with regard to the rules of the game, scoring, and styles of play. This is one of the most appealing aspects of the game, as it allows the game to evolve, keeps it from becoming rote, and gives it a surprising level of complexity. Seasoned players often add a degree of skill and athleticism, managing to curve and spin the bean bag with the skill and finesse of Tom Seaver.

I found Cornhole to be very addicting and even stress relieving, with its rhythm of swirling bean bags in the air and the satisfaction of having the bag skid along the platform into the hole. I can’t say that there are many fitness benefits to this game. I can, however, attest that you can fully participate in it without spilling your cocktail.

Hula Hooping (Pairs well with a dry rosé)

Hula hooping began as a kid’s fad in the late 50s, but has had a surprising transformation in recent years as a method of staying fit.  Hula hooping can be a great workout for the core, can help develop balance and coordination, and can be a source of cardio exercise if performed for a consistent length of time.  Companies such as Canyon Hoops (www.canyonhoops.com) sell hula hoops for a variety of purposes, including fitness, performance, and dance.  The most sophisticated hoops are a step above the traditional toy store hoops and can be weighted to transform them into a serious fitness tool. High-quality hula hoops are made with better and more durable materials for serious hoopers.

An interesting aspect of contemporary hoop culture is the rise of “hooping, ” or the use of hoops as a prop in dance, gymnastics, or performance.  Hooping reflects influences from rhythmic gymnastics, freestyle dance, and modern circus arts as practiced by such groups as Cirque du Soleil. With this evolution, hula hooping has become more than just a physical activity. It is now a vehicle for creative expression in burlesque performances, performance art pieces, avant-garde circuses, and such festivals as Burning Man.

There is no need to over think it, however. Hula hooping is a great multi-generational activity that is a lot of fun and is a natural antidepressant.

Skittles (Pairs well with a dark European beer or a glass of Irish whiskey)

Outdoor/lawn bowling has never completely caught on in the United States. However, around the world, and particularly in Europe, there are a dizzying array of outdoor/lawn bowling games and variations of the same.  The most popular of these types of games is probably bocce (known as “boules” in France). The general idea of these games is to use a heavy, compact ball to knock down pins, or to get the ball as close as possible to a small target ball (as in bocce). Again, there are a number of variations of bocce and boules, with the rules and scoring slightly altered and varying ways to put the ball into play. For example, the French game pétanque is a close cousin of boules, but allows for the ball to be thrown overhand instead of being rolled.

Skittles is a very old game, dating as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, and remains popular in the U.K., Germany, and Austria. As with the other European lawn sports, there are myriad versions of skittles, varying from country to country and even between regions in a single country. The U.K. in particular has a near-comical variety of rules, gear, scoring systems, and game language that distinguishes the game from region to region. For instance, in greater London the game is often called “nine-pins” and is typically played in pubs.  Skittles is a popular recreational sport in England, with serious competitions and rec leagues that are similar to bowling leagues in the U.S.

In my estimation, skittles is a merger of bocce and bowling. Finesse, good hand-eye coordination, and a steady wrist are keys to doing well in the game.  The game is esoteric enough, and has a great enough history, to satisfy the sports snob in me. Again, as with most of these other activities, this is a versatile sport that is accessible to all ages.

Badminton (Pairs well with a gin and tonic)

Badminton is an old backyard standby that is ripe for rediscovery. The sport originated with British officers in 19th century, evolving from a racquet game called battledore and shuttlecock, which was played without a net. Badminton is, of course, a racquet sport and is sometimes compared unfavorably to tennis, often being characterized as tennis’s more precious and delicate cousin.  However, badminton’s proponents contend that the sport is a more athletic enterprise than traditional tennis and requires superior reaction times, foot speed, and hand-eye coordination.

For the purposes of summer and backyard recreation, the main appeal of badminton is that it is a fun backyard pastime that requires a rare amount of athletic skill and knowhow for success.  Unlike the other activities discussed in this article, badminton (at its highest level is a serious sport) has been an official Summer Olympic sport for over 20 years.  The sports participants at this level are world-class athletes, and this newish idea of the athleticism of the game has given rise to products like next-level Speedminton (sometimes called “Speed Badminton”) which is a kind of ‘badminton on steroids’ that emphasizes the athleticism and fitness aspects of the sport.

These and other backyard games are sort of the comfort food of sports: something familiar, the love of which is passed down from generation to generation, from older brother to younger brother, older sister to younger sister, father to son, mother to daughter.  Another nice thing about these games is that they are constantly evolving to adapt to advances in materials and athleticism, helping ensure that they will remain vital to the fabric of the short, but sweet, Fire Island summer.

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