We have an odd relationship with fighting and physical contact. We seal ourselves off from it, leaving it to the men and women in the cage. Rarely do we take time to engage in playful conflict.
But this isn’t just kid stuff. Call it what you will - risky play, rough-and-tumble, spontaneous free play - roughhousing has major benefits. Let’s learn the what, why, and how of roughhousing and physical play.
What Is Roughhousing?
It seems like a silly question, but many of us have forgotten how to roughhouse. We don’t even know what qualifies as play and what qualifies as assault. This is a good distinction to make.
According to animal behavioral scientist Gordon Burghardt, play is any behavior that doesn’t serve a direct survival purpose, that is intrinsically rewarding, and occurs when an animal is well fed and stress free. So, we can rule out Mad Max-style fight scenes and muggings.
Humans can learn a thing or two about physical play from our four-legged friends.
To get a better sense of good roughhousing, we can look to the original experts: animals. Think back to the last time you saw two dogs playfully fighting. Even if they’re different sizes, you don’t see one sandbagging the other. There’s an element of self-handicapping at work. When one participant has a distinct advantage, the game can only continue through self-imposed limitation.
We see this in many martial arts schools as well. When I was rolling with my teacher after BJJ class, he could easily submit me time and again. Despite his obvious advantage, he displayed some restraint, creating a space that was simultaneously challenging and rewarding. It is the perfect learning opportunity.
There’s also an element of role reversal. Think of kids chasing each other on the playground. One is cop, one is robber. Then they switch. The game is no fun if there is no variation. Switching roles allows both participants to direct the course of action. Aggressor becomes defender, defender becomes aggressor, and the dynamic shifts.
As you can probably guess, most of the research on roughhousing comes from studying children. Adults seem to forget how somewhere along the way. Bearing in mind that the lion’s share of research focuses on youth, it isn’t hard to imagine that these benefits extend well past childhood.
Roughhousing Improves Coping: Roughhousing is a perfect way to introduce the unfamiliar – and potentially scary – stimulus of conflict. We know progressive overload applies to training stimulus, and the same thing happens in a neuro-social context as well. You wouldn’t start deadlifting at 500lb. Similarly, you wouldn’t start roughhousing by seeing how hard you can take a punch.
In both cases, we gradually adapt to new stimuli. A study in Evolutionary Psychology demonstrated that with repeat exposure to “risky play,” children learned how to cope with and master age-appropriate challenges.1 The more risky play, the less anxiety we have over these situations of conflict.
Roughhousing Increases Socialization: We’re inherently social creatures. Evolution took a gamble, and social structure seems to have paid off for us. Not only do we organize huge amounts of individuals, we do it in increasingly complex ways. Much of our ability to socialize develops in childhood, but neuroplastic changes can occur at any stage in life when we provide the appropriate conditions.
By engaging in rough-and-tumble play, we explore a petri dish of sorts. We discover how we instinctively respond to threats within a safe space. The boundaries established by play help us challenge ourselves and our partners, and as we’ve seen, partnered movement has benefits even beyond roughhousing.
Roughhousing Fosters Creativity and Resiliency: By building on that framework of socialization, roughhousing gives us opportunity to develop new adaptive behaviors. It’s like an incubator for behavioral options. We learn how to literally roll with the punches and grow from novel stimuli. Again, once we establish a safe environment, we’re free to explore new possibilities. There are infinite ways to evade a punch, to close space, and grapple. Roughhousing gives us a uniquely challenging environment with definite boundaries to explore.
How Do We Start?
If you’ve never dipped into the world of roughhousing, it can be oddly confusing to start. I mean, do you just hit someone? Do you suplex them? I recommend getting the basics under your belt with a good teacher.
What are those basics? The natural movement method breaks combatives down into two main categories: striking and grappling. Developing efficiency in these fundamentals will allow you more room to explore with a partner.
If you want to keep things really simple, Frank Forencich of Exuberant Animal outlines a common sequence found across species:
- The Play Contract. Think of the puppy bow, slapping hands with a sparring partner, and the like. This step establishes “play mode,” so both parties know this isn’t a fight to the death.
- Rapport Building. You don’t come out swinging at full steam. Test the waters, and start light. Get in a couple of easy jabs to see how your partner reacts. The two of you can scale accordingly.
- Increase Intensity. Once you and your partner are comfortable, it’s time to push the boundaries a bit. Gradually increase the intensity, keeping in mind the ideas of self-handicapping and role reversal.
- Find Closure. Bring it in, hug it out, do what you need to do. Roughhousing is a fantastic way to build rapport and resiliency. You and your partner challenge each other and both grow from the experience.