Monday, September 30, 2013

Gym Class and Getting Grown: A Series of Rants

I'm thinking about trying out for the local roller derby team.

Sheila vs Tonka

Depending on how well you know me, that may or may not sound surprising, but for those of you who have known me since childhood, it should definitely come as a shock.

See, in gym class, I was hiding. Literally. Our gym had this weird little stairwell that jutted out just enough to block the coach's view. Since we played kickball about 78% of the time in elementary school, we were often lined up next to this hideaway. I would press myself up against the painted cinderblocks, strategically looping back behind each person who was after me in line. With a little luck, I could go several gym classes without ever having to kick the ball.

In the outfield, I did what most of my outcast compatriots did:

This strategy carried me most of the way through school, but the stakes were raised when I had to take one year of physical education in high school. There were seldom kickball games (basketball was the game of choice, and for some reason all of the girls who actually played on the basketball team were on one side against the rest of us. A real exciting game, I'm sure.) 

The punishment for not dressing out was having to walk the track, so I calculated how many times I could do that without jeopardizing my grade. Then I hid. When it was time for the one-day fitness exam, I stayed home sick. 

Gym was miserable. I hated it. It was not that I did not like it or that it simply didn't showcase my strengths, it was that it was the worst thing I had to do in school, and that included being the subject of gossip or having my crush find out I liked him.

Who Else Hated Gym?

This came to my mind recently when I read this post from The Rabbit Hole. In it, a trainer discusses how many people she sees who are intimidated by (or downright terrified of) the gym. She has a call to action for people who are in charge of physical education (coaches, school teachers, fitness counselors, etc.) She challenges them to find ways to make exercise a welcoming space for all:
I contend that the physical education environment is not meant to create superstars, it is intended to foster learning and a love for activity. Those who love sports and competition will seek out additional opportunities to be active. It is those who will only experience activity in gym class who we need to worry about.
This trainer's experience has been mirrored in my own anecdata. While thinking about writing this post, I posed some questions on Facebook. Amanda, a friend of mine who is now a Pilates instructor and someone who touts the benefits of physical activity and the mind-body connection on a daily basis, explained that she hated gym in school and spent much of her time using the same tricks I did to avoid having to do it. Another commenter (Mike) said that as an at-risk counselor, he saw a lot of students who cited a fear of gym class as one of their motivators for dropping out of school. In particular, the humiliation of changing in the locker room scarred many of them.

Sure, some might say, we're just nerds who didn't get to dominate this field. We had plenty of other opportunities to showcase our skills. Maybe we were whizzes in math or writing. Maybe we could paint really well or play the saxophone. Why should gym class be made warm and fuzzy just to appease a few kids who can't cut it in a competitive sphere, making it harder for people with athletic skills to hone them in the classroom?

But what about when the negative impacts of physical education turn people away from fitness (especially women, who tend to get more negative messages about athleticism--being sweaty is "unfeminine" after all)?

Must Fitness Be a Competition?

I can remember only a single activity from gym class that was not a competition. For a few minutes on two different occasions, we warmed up for the day by doing the first part of a tai-chi tape. This was the only time in my entire exposure to athletics that I wasn't being directly matched up against and compared to someone else. It was also--I'm sure not coincidentally--the only time I enjoyed gym (unless you count my "punishment" of walking around the track talking with one of my likewise outcast friends). 

It seems that athleticism and competition are so innately tied up that we have a hard time decoupling them. 

In her book Bodily Arts, Debra Hawhee explains that the training for athletics in ancient Greece closely mirrored the training for sophistry, the rhetorical training for public debates. In both of these pedagogies, conflict and tension are not only prominent, but they are a necessary part of the circumstances. 


But Hawhee explains that this tension, this strife, does not have to be destructive. We do not have to destroy one another to "win," and the Greeks understood this, often finding honor in the act of the athletic display itself, not necessarily the victory over an opponent. This agonistic tension is nearly invisible in our contemporary displays of rhetoric. Instead of an ongoing, sustained debate between opposing sides where both learn from one another and find honor in entering into the struggle, we get crossfire-style high drama that Hawhee says is best exemplified by "the pummeling style of cable television's debate shows." No one is listening to anyone else, and there certainly isn't any learning taking place between the opponents. This is not agonism; it is antagonism. 

Perhaps we have subverted the nobler and more productive agonistic trends in athletics just as we have in rhetoric. When everything must be about the win, we lose focus of the other benefits of athleticism. 

Are Millennials Less Antagonistic?

A recent Wall Street Journal article laments the death of elite athleticism because the Millennial generation is turning competitive races into "parades." Citing events like the tremendously popular Color Run and Warrior Dash (neither of which post winners or even finish times), the author cites those who see this as a sure sign of our impending doom. Without competition, they wonder, how will we ever get stronger? What will motivate us if its not avoiding defeat at the hands of our peers?

I was a Color Run participant, and I have to admit that the race was by far the friendliest I've done. Yes, some people were walking. There was less pressure to push ourselves.

I haven't yet competed in a Warrior Dash (though I'm doing a timed obstacle course in two weeks), but I have friends who have. The training they've gone through and the work they did on the course did not seem unmotivated to me.

I don't know if my generation is more agonistic, but there are some signs that we may be less antagonistic. We seem more willing to collaborate than workers in previous generations (in the aggregate, of course there are exceptions).

If activities like the Color Run and the Warrior Dash are getting more people to feel confident and excited about fitness, isn't that a good thing? Shouldn't that be a win for Millennials, not a loss?

The Pedagogical Implications of My Roller Derby Aspirations

I used to think that I just wasn't an athletic person. Using the lingo of Multiple Intelligences, I had always excelled in the logic and verbal intelligences. So what if I wasn't kinesthetic? So what if I didn't like playing team sports? I could go to college on an academic scholarship and someone else could go on a basketball scholarship and the world would be fair and well-rounded. 

Multiple Intelligences (Writing III, 2008, females)

But now I am having to rethink that. 

As I have discovered that I really love lifting heavy weights and running, I'm becoming more and more interested in pushing myself physically. I enjoy exercise. I like feeling my body get stronger and more agile. I love knowing that my body did something today that it could not physically do two weeks ago. That's empowering as hell. 

But it makes me angry that it took me so long to find that out. Why did I have to wait nearly 30 years to know that I liked being physically active? Shouldn't my education have helped me figure that out? 

Once I started asking those questions, I began thinking about my own students (community college students in a developmental writing class). What if they felt the same way about writing that I had felt about sports? What if their early experiences with writing had taught them that they just didn't have what it takes? What if every assignment they turned in made them feel the way I felt when I had to kick that ball with all eyes on me? 

And, if that's the case, how can I make it better now?

My main frustration with my late-blooming athletic pursuits is that I was always made to feel like I had to be the best or it didn't matter. I knew I wasn't going to be the best, so I decided it didn't matter. 

That's a ridiculous way to look at it. Just because I'm not going to be the best runner (and I'm not) or the best skater (and I'm definitely not) doesn't mean that I'm not going to reap benefits from those acts. Even if my students never pen the great American novel (though they might!), they will benefit greatly from having the ability to write cogently and powerfully. The message that its "be first or go home" is, in my opinion, way more damaging than a message of "everyone gets a trophy." After all, there's only one first. 

So, maybe I'll make the roller derby team (some day, after I learn how to skate), or maybe I won't. Either way, I will have conquered what has long been a mental block to my own strength and action. I was letting a message I received decades ago control what I did (or, more accurately, didn't) do with my own body. 

What happens if we use educational opportunities to lay the groundwork for reaching our own bests instead of trying to top everyone else's? What if competition (still present, for sure) becomes the background to the real goal of igniting our own motivations?

What Do You Think?

What do you think? Did you like gym class? Has your approach to fitness changed as you've aged? Do you think that fitness and athleticism were presented to you antagonistically? If so, did it motivate you? 

And, to a broader point, should education aim to find the best of the best or make the best of the rest? (Or can it do both?)

Photo: Mark Nockleby, Sebastia Giralt, pabeaufait


  1. Competition was the thing I hated most about gym class. I used to play baseball in the backyard with my dad all the time, but when it came to team sports, I got so anxious. It stopped being play. I think that for P.E. to be useful for kids who aren't doing sports elsewhere, that sense of play or enjoyment needs to be there.

  2. I hated gym, but a lot of it has to do with changing clothes, getting sweaty, having to shower and change again in the middle of the day. And it is incredibly intimidating to change clothes in front of other people, especially as a teen with a developing body. I think that gym classes should focus on less-intensive forms of exercise like yoga or calisthenics, or at least have them as options. I have been feeling the urge to run lately. I really want to one day be able to do the Disney half-marathon. This comes from my own need to get in shape, not from any physical "education" I received in school. If anything, PE is discouraging people from being active teens and adults instead of fostering the importance of activity.

  3. Do you think that element of play is necessary in learning in general? That's something I've been thinking a lot about lately. A lot of early childhood theories seem to think that's the case, but I wonder if it also applies to adult education.

  4. Good question. I don't know if it's exactly play in adults. I get the sense that learning for adults has to involve a relevance to their contemporary lives, even if the thing they're learning is 18th century literature, for example.

  5. I hated gym class and still hate exercising, though I have gotten a bit better about it. I'd really never exercised in my life up until a couple of years ago, after I had back surgery and I wanted to be more active after seeing what it was like to lose so much function. I go to Zumba when I can, which is mostly fun and non-threatening, but there are some really perfect people who can intimidate me there. Usually, when I'm exercising, I'm the only overweight person there, and I feel really self-conscious about it. It's a big hang up for me, and one I'm still working through.

  6. A big part of what helped me was remedial gym in middle school. I was not the sort of student who needed anything remedial--usually I was in the top class--except I had this extra gym class, where we played against only the other kids who were bad a gym. Sounds terrible, but I actually enjoyed it. I think this is unusual (as opposed to leveled math or reading groups) but it's where I needed help and I'm glad Mr. Wilcosz (the only gym teacher I ever liked) did it.

  7. I have never even heard of a remedial gym class! (Probably because I went to such a tiny school.) I think that's a fantastic idea, and it makes me even more interested in the philosophical underpinnings of how we teach gym and how we teach other classes. I'm teaching a remedial English class right now, and I really feel like lots of my students have had experiences with writing that mirror the experiences I've had with gym. It gives me hope that you felt like remediation was the key to getting over those barriers that earlier introduction put in place!

  8. I had two gym teachers in 12 years of school that actually taught me something. The first one taught square dancing, and the second one taught me how to serve in volleyball. None of my other gym teachers ever taught basic skills or let us practice them. How do you learn to throw a ball? Can you learn it in 15 minutes with no instruction? (I didn't own any balls.) My last year, we were assigned an exercise routine with a little booklet. We were supposed to practice at home. I actually did practice a few times. At the end of the year, the other students were surprised to see the little booklet and exercise routine again. I did well that time.

    As an adult, I realized that I like walking and dancing. Those are exercise too! And I like yoga (not the competitive kind.)

    I played on a work softball team once. They let me pitch because I needed a LOT of practice and was really hard to get a hit from. I liked that. Outfield (yet again) would not have been any fun.

    I'm currently re-learning to ride a bike--I'm hoping I'll be adept enough to take the "riding in traffic" class in about 10 more practice sessions. The previous person who tried to help me re-learn keep trying to push me past what I was ready for. This time I'm breaking it down into little skills and learning them one at a time. No toe-clips (I panic if I'm trapped.) Short enough bike that I can sit on the seat while touching the ground. Level, traffic and pedestrian-free bike path. No dropped handles. Just riding for now. My helper is helping by letting me learn at my own pace. Yay!

  9. I had a complicated relationship with gym. I couldn't hate it as thoroughly as most of the other girls did because I'm a naturally competitive person; I couldn't help but want to put that stupid ball in the freakin' net. That seemed to make me something of an oddity among the girls, especially since I wasn't very athletic (at least in their narrow definition of the word) and I didn't really have the motor skills to back up that competitiveness. I give my gym teachers some credit for trying to expose us to different things--there was no one sport that defined the whole class--but the "units" they did were still very limited and unimaginative. 2 weeks of basketball, 2 weeks of touch football, 2 weeks of badminton, ect. If your skills weren't oriented towards getting a ball over a net or between the goalposts, you were pretty much screwed. Also, there was never any choice in what you had to play. Fortunately, I had opportunities outside of school to figure out what I was good at, which happens to be martial arts. Having that gave me just enough confidence to suffer through yet another round of volleyball.
    But things got so much better when I got to college. A lot of luck and privilege was involved, but I ended up at a school that offered an "exercise science" major and the corresponding dizzying array of phys ed classes open to anyone. Suddenly, I could take rappelling and fencing and archery while the athletic kids took basketball and volleyball and the noncompetitive ones took yoga and intro to dance. I finally got to be good at stuff and didn't have to be embarrassed about that. I guess this ties into your broader question about education. Early on, kids are shoehorned into a few basic types of writing and made to do those until they never want to think about it again (I still shudder when I remember those five-paragraph essays, and I was *good* at them). There comes a point, though, when they can start to branch out and discover what they're good at, be it fiction, poetry, persuasive essays, newspaper articles, whatever. At that point, you just have to hope that their spirits aren't so broken that they don't try anymore.

  10. I was really self-conscious about being an overweight person in the gym, but once I started lifting heavy weights, I gained a lot more confidence. I don't know if it's just the familiarity of the space now (there's something empowering about feeling like you know what you're doing) or if doing an exercise where making my body as tiny as possible isn't the goal made me appreciate my body more, but I'm glad that the sense of not belonging is starting to fade. I hope it does for you, too. I'd be willing to bet that those "really perfect people" who intimidate you don't see themselves that way most of the time.

  11. That's fantastic! I think it can be frustrating that most of the people who teach (anything--not just fitness) tend to be people for whom the subject comes easily. They may think they're taking it slow, but they need to make sure they're listening to the student to see if "slow" is the right pace.

  12. Excellent points. "At that point, you just have to hope that their spirits aren't so broken that they don't try anymore." Surely we can do better than this, though, right? I'm hopeful that we are. I have a couple of friends who are elementary or middle school PE teachers, and it sounds like the curriculum (at least where they are) is much more diverse and pedagogically-driven than it was when I was in school. I am curious to see how that might translate into different approaches to fitness as those kids become adults.

  13. I'm a "millennial," and I can say my PE classes were a little different from what you're describing.
    Most times I hated PE: there were times when we were expected to learn skills and were graded on our abilities to do things like throw a ball or toss a frisbee with very little practice. Sometimes we'd play team sports and I never got to participate because no one would pass to me because I sucked at them (except soccer, which I could play pretty well, but everyone figured that since I was bad at the other sports I was bad at that one too). We'd have to do fitness testing- running laps, doing sit-ups, measuring body fat percentages- then got told what numbers qualified us as "fit."
    There were some good parts: every year in elementary school we'd get to ride bikes around the blacktop (except that one girl who couldn't ride a bike and had to practice on the grass with training wheels- did our teacher really have to make us all watch when she finally learned to wobble along without falling?). We learned some square dancing in middle school, where it was assumed no one knew what they were doing, so we got plenty of practice. In elementary school the best parts days were those with the occasional Halloween-themed obstacle course with fog and spooky lightning or those in which we played "Survivor," a team challenge in which every member of a team (randomly assigned) had to get to the other team's side without touching the floor, using a variety of mats and scooters.
    Gym was definitely a mixed bag, but mostly still awful for me. I wish we could have chosen gym classes based on our interests instead of the "one size fits all" thing we got.