“Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.” ~ Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
The horror of middle school gym class is so universal that it’s practically a cliché. I know even gifted athletes who suffered the torments of junior high squat thrusts and rope climbing. But it’s not just the smelly, unflattering uniforms and gang showers (heavens above, do schools still use those??) that make 7th grade PhysEd a tragedy. The problem with the gym classes of my youth was their narrow focus on sports, competition, and everybody doing things the same way. (Note: I was taking those classes 40 years ago. I would love to hear from current physical education teachers about how they teach gym these days.)
True facts about my physical education history:
1. I am terrible at sports.
In elementary school, the only sport available to girls was softball. I was terrible. TERRIBLE. Softball is a game in which at every moment, one person is supposed to be doing one thing correctly: hit the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball. As an anxious kid, the pressure of all eyes on me as I inevitably missed the ball, dropped the ball, or threw wildly off target made my stomach hurt. I never got better. I never had fun. In high school, I played on the volleyball team. I got the award for following directions.
2. I was terrible in gym class.
I got nervous learning sports skills in front of the class. I could never figure out which knee was supposed to go up when doing a lay-up. I couldn’t jump so spiking a volleyball never went well. And somehow, soccer balls either ended up behind me or they tripped me up so I was in a heap picking grass out of my teeth.
3. The President’s Physical Fitness testing was an annual exercise in humiliation.
This was a week of doing a list of skills deemed important by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. The Frasier twins could do everything. Doris and Natalie could hang on that bar for a full minute without quivering. They probably loved Physical Fitness week. I did not. I couldn’t run fast, I wasn’t strong, and in an effort to save some sort of face, my tendency was to give up. (I could force myself to do 50 sit ups but then I was so sore that I could barely get out of my chair.)
4. I hated dancing.
In a progressive move brought on by the late 70s popularity of Saturday Night Fever, dance was added to the PE curriculum. We did dances in gangly tangled lines in the gym but I have a trouble with my left and right and I was usually stepping on the person next to me. I hated it. If you know me, my lack of coordination or athletic prowess is unlikely to be a surprise but it is absolutely true that until I was in my early 30s, I was so self-conscious and uncomfortable that I could barely move on a dance floor.
5. As I got older, I saw exercise as punishment for whatever I’d eaten or for my body not looking how I thought it should.
Over-indulge on the weekend? Extra time on the stair-stepper on Monday morning. Too many restaurant meals on the business trip? Get up at 5am to hit the hotel gym. Don’t look slender and buff like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2? Hire a personal trainer. Movement that was pleasurable, healing, joyful, or fun was never ever my experience.
The human body is designed to move. Sports games and disco dancing a la John Travolta are not the only ways to move. As a culture we tend to focus on competition and performance. If you thrive in that environment and love it like the Frasier twins did, that is wonderful. But even if exercising in squads was great for you, it’s important to remember that sport is just a small part of what the body can do. The tragedy is that many of us take this narrow view of physicality and generalize it to “I’m not athletic” or “I hate exercise.”
Lucky for me, I came across a practice that I love, a practice that isn’t about winning or competition but about awareness, healing, and feeling good. Lucky for me, after a few years of moving my body in a different environment than the no-pain-no-gain, sports-y world, I started to feel differently about my body and my physical abilities. I don’t have to run a marathon or clear the hurdles. I don’t have to dribble any kind of ball. I just need to find a way to move my body that feels good. I just need to invite myself to the edge between challenge and healing and find the joy of moving there.
Even if you flourish in the traditional athletic system and love playing of the game, it’s worthwhile to remember that competitive sports aren’t the only way to be an athlete. I can admire the talents of my beloved UVA basketball team and be amazed by the feats of Olympians and find my own sacred athleticism in other ways.
May physical education for everyone lead to understanding how the body works, how to move with awareness, and how to cultivate joy in our physical abilities, whatever they are.