Making Work Play: Reflections on ESD and Fun

"When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

~ Lao Tsu

​​It’s a scene we see over and over again in our empowerment self-defense classes:

A group of women who’ve just met sit in a circle on the floor. Nervous. Quiet. Shoulders hunched.

And then, within minutes, the women are told pair up. After a few warm-up exercises designed to explore and discover personal boundaries, they’re hitting each other (or at least pretending to). But, they’re also laughing.

By the end of the first class session, in a scene reminiscent of young children walking back to class after a recess full of running, chasing, and good-natured roughhousing, the women in the class have their arms around each other, as if they’ve known each other forever.

In her recently-released book Risk, Failure, Play,” Professor Janet (Jay) O’Shea, ESD Global Camp 2017 participant, martial artist and professor of world culture / dance at UCLA, explores the value of play and the paradox of competitive cooperation..

Play has been a natural part of ESD training since its creation. But thanks to Professor O’Shea’s work, we now have a better understanding of the value of play and its role in our training.

What is Play?

Fun provides us with opportunities to master physical skills while understanding that it’s okay to fail. It’s the interaction, intrinsic value and process that matter. Play has no outcome and often has no goal. In the case of games that do have a goal, the rules make it harder to achieve, sustaining the pleasure and fun.

​​Think of puppies rolling around in a pile. Their play might be rough, but they have no outcome in mind. Nobody is trying to hurt anyone else. Nobody is trying to win. They’re in the moment, and they stop when they feel like it.

The same goes for children’s games like tag or “Duck, Duck, Goose.” Sure, the person who’s tagged becomes “it,” but the games can go on indefinitely, and in the end have no winners or losers.

The lack of goals and outcomes makes it easy to dismiss the value of play. But in her book, Professor O’Shea explains that, “Play provides this context for expressing vulnerability, risk, danger, failure, competitive pleasure, and interpersonal interaction. Despite its association with frivolity and ease, play is not the opposite of danger, rigor or failure.”

Work vs. Play

As kids get older, and games become more competitive, there’s a shift in how they view kinetic play. Games like tag and Duck Duck Goose are replaced by sports that involve earning points. And suddenly, play becomes work.

Unlike play, work has a goal and an outcome. The value of work, even when rewarding, is extrinsic. When we work, we aim to earn money and prestige, and feel satisfaction.

ESD can easily be thought of as work. Women don’t sign up for self-defense classes because they’re looking for fun. They sign up with the goal of learning to protect themselves.

So if ESD has the outcome of getting us out of danger, how is it that so many women consider ESD classes enjoyable?

ESD, Physical Interaction, Consent, and Healing

​​At the core of “Risk, Failure, Play” is the idea that, “. . . there is something extraordinary about the human ability to hit, kick, and grapple with each other in the absence of malice.”Part of that “something extraordinary” is the idea of consent. Unlike paid work, practicing ESD is a choice.

​​When we take an ESD class, we consent to the actual process of learning ESD skills, and show up because we choose to.As part of our training, we make our own decisions, which gives us a sense of control. We’re asked what makes us feel safe. We’re asked what makes us feel threatened. We’re given tools like hula hoops and pool noodles and asked to come up with our own ways to use them.

Most importantly, before any sort of physical interaction, instructors ask us if we’re okay with being touched, and participants don’t touch each other until they’ve confirmed that they’re ready.

Because of this, difficult and sometimes frightening activities have a higher likelihood of feeling empowering rather than traumatizing. The sense of empowerment helps rewire the brain, which for many women seemingly magical healing process.

Examples of Play in ESD

Any ESD class worth its salt involves games, many of which include a certain amount of silliness.

We once overheard an ESD instructor warn her students, “We’re going to knock the embarrassment right out of you.” She then had her students run towards each other with arms flailing, while screaming and making funny expressions.

“Knocking out the embarrassment” is a critical piece of ESD training, as it allows students to bond and develop the courage to try new things.

Here are some of our favorite games, all of which teach invaluable skills in a playful, non-competitive environment.

Sparring With Pool Noodles:

When introducing this game, ESD Global’s president and founder, Yehudit Zicklin-Sidikman often asks, “Guess what women aren’t used to. The answer? Whacking each other!”

Boundaries and Hula Hoops:

As Brene Brown says, "Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

But setting boundaries, especially with people we know, can be extremely difficult. That’s why fun activities like this are so important.

My Wrist is MINE:

This isn’t necessarily a game, but it does have a playful element. Many ESD instructors tell their students that it’s an activity they do with kids. Somehow, this helps everyone relax and eases any fears of being childlike.

Final Thoughts

According to Professor O’Shea, “Physical play can unite us, teach us to respect differences, and show us how to get along, even as we disagree.”

We believe that this is why women who train together become so close, in spite of age differences, backgrounds, personality types, and religious and political views.

As it says on the wall hanging prominently displayed at Beit El HaLev, a self-defense and women's martial arts training center in Jerusalem, "When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

While it’s true that sharing personal stories and life experiences brings women together, we attribute much of the closeness and mutual respect we see in our classes to laughter, play and lack of competition.

The challenge that Professor O’Shea presents at the end of her TED Talk is one that we’d like to pass along to ESD instructors everywhere:

“What opportunities can you create for yourselves and for others where it’s possible to compete and collaborate at the same time? Can you bring people together around these opportunities? Can you create the space for play? And can you invite others in?”

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

To learn more about the connections between martial arts, ESD and play, make sure to read Professor O’Shea’s recently released book, “Risk, Failure, Play” in print or ebook form.

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