Now I will backtrack. In school, athletic prowess was always much admired. You were not considered a well-rounded student unless you excelled in a sport and were on a school team. Teachers spent a lot of time encouraging students to “find their sport” because everyone was good at something – you just needed to discover what it was.
The whole process was so crushingly public. There were two main forums: gym class (physical education) and field days (track and field competitions). Both were compulsory. You had to try new sports on a regular basis and attempt new skills in front of all your classmates.
To be fair, we did have training. In gym class, we’d learn the rules of a sport in the classroom, we’d practice individual skills and do drills, and then we’d be put in a game situation. My marks in gym class were always good because I studied and followed instructions. I just fell apart during the games!
There was a third forum for sports that I found the worst: the “pick-up game.” On a sunny spring day, the teacher would announce, “It’s too nice out to be here – we’re going to play ball!” As everyone gleefully raced out to the baseball diamond, I would drag my heels, knowing what was to come: the team picking line-up.
For a bookish student, could anything be more humiliating? The teacher would choose two athletic all-stars to be team captains. Each of them would pick a student to be on their team. Of course, they would choose the next most high-performing athletes. Each team would alternate choosing players until only a few were left. The last to be picked were kids with physical disabilities and bad athletes. I was one of the latter. The team captains would look at each other and roll their eyes and make the best of a bad situation: “OK, you take Dar and I’ll take Tim,” and we’d follow our new team mates as the captains sighed.
Now the captains and the other students genuinely wanted us to do well. They wanted to win! When we were up at bat, they’d give us all kinds of tips and encouragement. We’d feel all optimistic about getting a hit – which made it worse when we let down our team. Bases are loaded and Dar is at bat? Fuggedaboutit!
As I let the team down, everyone was supposed to think, “It’s only a game and we all tried our best.” But in actuality, no one was a good sport. My team was embarrassed and angry, not just for the team but for me. The other team gloated. The teacher would publicly give me pointers on what I should have done or could do next time.
The other bottom-tier athletes and I experienced this several times a week or month for the ten years of mandatory Phys Ed. The system didn’t change. We didn’t change. It was self-perpetuating. You can’t even imagine my relief when I finally reached Grade 10 and Phys Ed wasn’t compulsory any more. Needless to say, I did not subject myself to gym class for my last 3 years of high school.
I did care what my classmates thought of me. Why did I never improve? First of all, I wasn’t interested in team sports and never played them outside of school. The neighbourhood kids played ball and pick-up games of hockey; I had no interest. Without practice, I never developed a “body memory” for any athletic moves. I was also a somewhat solitary child, satisfied with a small number of friends. I didn’t have a team mentality, and didn’t know how to get one. I didn’t like the way teams showed aggression to each other during a game, even if they shook hands afterwards. In a perverse way, I was self-assured: I knew I was good at some things (like reading and academics) and there were other areas in which I would never be good, like sports. That was just a “given” to me. And although I cared about what my classmates thought, I didn’t care enough to want to wow them by being the Most Improved Athlete.
I often think about my experience with Phys Ed and I wonder how it could have been made better for students like me. I think the curriculum was on the right track by providing a huge range of activities, by teaching skills, providing coaching and drills, and providing support and encouragement.
One thing that worked against me is that Phys Ed teachers often devalued academic achievement. They saw gym class as a place where the more athletic, less academic students could shine. Some of them openly delighted in seeing an “A” student fail at sports and get their comeuppance. They saw it as levelling the playing field. Many of them highly valued team work and didn’t like it when students were individualistic. Now I see that Phys Ed teachers were powerless to “make” students be inclusive and kind to each other. They can put the structure in place, and make students outwardly comply, but they can’t make students like each other. Exaggerated competitiveness feels like intimidation – and often is.
When I was about 16, I had a Eureka moment. I overheard one friend talking to another. C said, “You’re good at everything!” and R replied, “No, I’m not, I just don’t do the things I’m not good at.” That was me – not that I was so good in everything, but I definitely didn’t like learning new things and doing new things in public view. I liked to read and practice privately, and emerge accomplished! I was quite a perfectionist and didn’t like displaying my shortcomings, especially if I knew they’d invite ridicule.
I am not sure about the responsibility of school in such things. If it were up to me, I would have quit gym class at age 9, never to return. I did learn about “active healthy living” in the following years, and I did enjoy some of the sports and activities, so it would have been a loss. But I would have liked a greater emphasis on fun and play, and less on achievement. Just being active and playing tag or skipping would have worked! Or (conversely), instead of changing activities every month, we could have been given a choice of 2 or 3 sports and practiced them for a whole semester, to feel a real sense of accomplishment. Or, we could have chosen from paths like “fitness,” “team sports” and “creative movement.” Maybe even in multi-age groups.
So did I turn out to be a total gym dud? Yes in Phys Ed, no in life. My swimming lessons at the lake every summer morphed into a job as a swimming instructor. I got into fitness and even liked aerobics and weights for some years. I liked hiking and skating and roller skating, and still do. But despite the efforts of some caring teachers, my years in gym class were more of a hindrance than a help to me.
By the way, did I ever mention I was always picked first for the class spelling bee? 🙂
This post is dedicated to the Canadian women’s and men’s gold-medal curling and hockey teams!
See also: What Keeps Me Fit