“Strong In The Arm And Weak In The Head” - What’s Behind The ‘Dumb Jock’ Stereotype?

written by Gemma Mann

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym”. This famous Woody Allen quote has been widely repudiated by infuriated teachers worldwide, who (rightly) take serious issue with the idea that ‘teaching’ is not ‘doing’. The punchline - that teaching sports is an endeavor suitable only for society’s most useless individuals - is often missed. The concept of the athletically gifted as cognitively challenged has long been an acceptable stereotype within our culture. In the United Kingdom, a common slur flung at individuals from other British counties (put very simply, a ‘county’ is the British equivalent of a state) is that they are “strong in the arm and weak in the head” - for example “Devon born and Devon bred/Strong in the arm and weak in the head”. Again, the offended party will inevitably fling back that the people of their region are by no means ‘weak in the head’, while taking absolutely no issue with the strength:stupidity association. What brought this cultural correlation about? And why is it so pervasive?

Mental Strength, Physical Weakness?

It is worth noting that the correlation also works the other way. It seems our culture believes that mental strength must come at the expense of physical strength, and vice versa.This is something which has perplexed many who have studied both athletes and intellectuals as, in fact, the reverse tends to be true. The body and mind are, after all, deeply interconnected, and a healthy body tends to lead to a healthy mind. While mental health does not necessarily indicate intelligence, it does make it far easier to utilize and express one’s intellect. Part of the issue here concerns what our society deems ‘intelligent’. It has been noted that the teamwork, strategy, subliminal angle-calculation, tactics and so forth which go into many sports do in fact require quite a lot of brainpower. It’s just that we do not traditionally accept cognitive achievements put towards sporting prowess as valid demonstrations of intellect. This cuts the other way, too. Many who present as ‘nerdish’ intellectuals are frequently jeered from the sports field and barred from high school athletic teams purely because it’s believed that they will be less able to perform - no matter how good at their chosen sport they actually are.

Are Athletes Actually Dumb?

There are certain mental conditions which do have an association with sports (or, at least, with exercise). We are increasingly seeing the development of anxiety disorders based around body image. Those afflicted with such anxieties will frequently allow concerns about their physical proportions to override all else within their lives. Thus, as their bodies become ever more toned, their inner lives appear to become ever more restricted. Their conversation is worryingly obsessive when it comes to calories, gym time, and the superficialities of appearance. It’s not hard to see how a friend sick of spending time with someone who cannot get their brain out of the gym may believe that said friend has nothing of intelligence to impart. In such cases, it’s worth remembering that this kind of obsession is often a sign of deeper mental and emotional problems. Isolated intellectuals are also prone to anxieties and depressive disorders - it’s worth remembering that the issues experienced by anxious body-obsessives are no less painful and no less valid than their counterparts in the ‘intellectual’ community. As an aside, it should also be pointed out that those athletes who ‘cheat’ through the use of anabolic steroids are much more likely to both present as less intelligent and to damage their cognitive ability than their clean counterparts. Such practices thus further ingrain the stereotype, and damage the reputation of athletes as a whole.

What’s Behind The Stereotype?

So, if there’s no real scientific basis for the “strong in the arm and weak in the head” scenario, where does this seriously pervasive idea come from? Well, it’s complex. In the USA, where college sports teams are prized and revered, much of the issue appears to stem from the idea that some good athletes are breezed into premier universities despite not being quite up to the challenge intellectually. Those who can grace the sports field and advance the school’s sporting reputation are given places at colleges for which they are not actually academically qualified. This does not mean that ALL athletes are sub-par academically - simply that some college athletes demonstrate a marked contrast between their sporting and their academic abilities in the elite environment of top universities. However, this does not explain why the stereotype should also exist in the Old World, where nobody gives a damn about college sports. And it’s here that we see the true roots of the stereotype.

Class And Labor

The association between intellect and strength is, when viewed through the prism of Old World class systems, more accurately an association between education and strength. Up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, manual labor - which naturally leads to physical strength - was something undertaken by society’s least privileged. Not having to work manually was an indication of class and status. Those who owned land had peasantry to work that land for them, and took pride in the signs of their indolence. To be very fat (or very thin), to be un-touched by the weather, and to be able to devote oneself to intellectual pursuits rather than have one’s time filled by physical labor were indications of one’s higher social status. Furthermore, those who did labor were generally unable to afford either the time or the funds for education, thus perpetuating the idea that the strong were also stupid. Nowadays, of course, much has changed. Indeed, Europe is in many ways a far more egalitarian society than the USA, and very much aware of the benefits of physical exercise. But the old stereotype nonetheless remains strong. Perhaps this is because some who find it hard to achieve academically gain a sense of validation through doing something they are capable of - building up muscles and muscle memories, dedicating themselves to a team, and getting good at sports. This is no bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. But it is by no means an indicator that all who excel at sports are academic failures.