Gym Class Humiliation Can Cause a Lifetime of Inactivity

Hi Readers! Bad gym teacher = bad life. I KNEW it. And now, that’s what this fykbteinsy
cool study
by Billy Strean, a professor in the University of Alberta’s  Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, has just confirmed: “A lifelong negative attitude toward physical activity can be determined by either a good or bad experience, based on the personal characteristics of the coach or instructor. For example…a teacher who has low energy, is unfair and/or someone who embarrasses students.”

Maybe that’s why I was always so scared of my gym teachers! (Well, that and the fact I couldn’t get off the knot when we had to climb ropes. And the fact I couldn’t make a basket. And the fact I could never touch my toes. And — I’ll stop now.)

Anyway, as fascinating as the topic of gym and gym teachers is, what really jazzed me was the bottom paragraph of the study:

Strean also found study participants had better experiences from minimally organized games such as street hockey, compared to the more organized activities. He suggests adults try not to over-organize sports and allow the children to explore sporting activities on their own, with minimal rules and no scorekeeping.

Right on! Let the kids make up their own games! Give play time back to the players! My good ol’ book has a whole chapter on how important “free-play” turns out to be, vis a vis child development. Nice to see this backed by yet more evidence. And from a professor of recreation, no less! Hey kids — go outside and PLAY! The professor says you have to!   — Lenore


63 Responses to Gym Class Humiliation Can Cause a Lifetime of Inactivity

  1. Barb January 7, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    Randomly, I went to college with Billy!

  2. catgirl January 7, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    I’ve always had good or neutral gym teachers, but it was the other students that made me dread gym class. In 8th grade, I was unlucky enough to end up with all the girls from the schools volleyball team in my gym class. So my average ability looked really bad relative to them, and they made sure I knew it.

  3. Joe January 7, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    I love free play. It is so important, but I take issue with the no score keeping deal. First, my kids always want to keep score (even if they are loosing – they don’t mind loosing). Second, it is good for kids to learn to understand that are not always great at something, they are not always the best – sometimes they loose to kids who are better at said activity/sport. Of course, it is how you react to the score that matters.

  4. Nicola January 7, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    I agree with you, Joe. Our schools recently changed the way you get your grades. My kids don’t get A’s, B’s, C’s, etc. They get 1 (worst) – 4 (best) with plusses or minuses for whether or not they put forth effort. Apparently, kids and parents couldn’t handle seeing F for failure – but at least you knew exactly where you were.

    In gym, I’ve got to admit, it’s usually the kids that ruin it. In middle school, if you participated you were a teacher’s pet, in high school if you participated you were a loser. Even kids in sports didn’t participate in gym class. I’m betting if the study was asking people what turned them off of gym class, he’d have found much the same sentiment.

  5. tana January 7, 2010 at 11:47 pm #

    i’m all for kids keeping score- if the kids who organized (and i use the term loosely) the game are the ones who initiate score-keeping. sure, sometimes feelings end up getting hurt, but this is the real world. you don’t always win, it doesn’t always feel good. if you’re shielded from that until you’re suddenly released into the adult (and i use that term loosely, too, ha!) world, it won’t just be a few sniffles and a sulk that come as a result. if it truly is free play, why should parents have any say in whether or not a score is kept?

    the news about gym teachers is no shock. the same goes for many, many subjects, not just phys. ed.

  6. sylvia_rachel January 7, 2010 at 11:56 pm #

    That’s certainly what happened to me. I loved PE from kindergarten until Grade 4, when we had a cheerful, laid-back teacher and the class involved stuff like frozen tag, dodgeball, square-dancing, and playing around on the gymnastics equipment. When I was in Grade 5 that teacher left the school, and the new one was all about The Rules and totally focused on skills.

    Junior high was even worse, not least because my class was full of athletes who really made the rest of us look bad (and the teachers, I’m sorry to say, encouraged this). The one exception was the introduction to the annual gymnastics unit, which was an unbelievably fun game called Mission Impossible: for a week or two all the gymnastics equipment was set out on the gym floor and the stage as a kind of obstacle course, and during each PE period half the class had to make their way around the circuit without touching the floor while the other half acted as spotters to prevent cheating (and then we switched). I was GOOD at Mission Impossible, even though I was terrible at actual gymnastics, and it was so. much. fun.

    Then came high school, which was worst of all: for the one half-semester of PE I was required to take in order to graduate, I had a teacher whose disdain for both girls and non-athletes made every class period miserable. I was in a class of IB wannabes, mostly science geeks or math geeks or just plain geeks, and we could have had an awesome time with a teacher whose attitude was “Let’s learn fun ways to stay active that don’t require you to be the next Doug Flutie!” Instead, well, we got Mr F, whose mantra seemed to be everything, no matter how inherently non-competitive [I’m looking at you, Social Dance], must be structured as a competition, and the losers thereof must be humiliated.

    My 7-year-old takes after her dad in that she’s much more athletic than I ever was, so I’m trying hard not to project my PE-teacher-fueled neuroses onto her … but neither is she playing on a soccer team, or playing Timbits Hockey, or (I swear I am not making this up) winning kids’ triathlons. She loves PE. I hope it lasts.

  7. Nancy January 8, 2010 at 12:04 am #

    I would have liked gym better if it was more about effort and enjoyment rather than getting a grade on how well you played soccer. I feel that system means that all the kids who have played in soccer leagues (or volleyball, football, gymnastics, ect) were at a disadvantage because they were being graded on skill rather than learning. Of COURSE the kids in HS who were on the gymnastics team were going to perform better than me. I loved trying new things but always got so bummed out when I would get a ‘B’ on volleyball because I lacked experience. I tried! I learned something! And those STUPID tests about the rules of the game? Dumb!

    If it would have been more about putting forth an effort and improving the skills you have (and if you can’t swim, maybe that means learning to float or put your face in the water, or can’t play soccer, maybe it means learning a few basic skills) rather than being able to name all the rules. I LOVE watching football, but I don’t even know all the rules… seems like the pros don’t always either. I even think this approach would make more kids likely to try after school sports activities, rather than being like “why bother? I got a C in volleyball…”

  8. Mimi January 8, 2010 at 12:11 am #

    Ha! Maybe that explains it. I was a little perfectionist, and was really upset when the PE teachers didn’t explain the rules of dodgeball (in kindergarten) or basketball (in junior high) and expected us all to know… my parents weren’t athletic and I was shy and I just had no idea. And I kept screwing up. I still remember how humiliated I felt (I was so PROUD when I finally got into the center in dodgeball… and then lunged to catch the ball…). So I can blame that for my lifelong dislike of exercise?

  9. Tameson O'Brien January 8, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    I hated gym in school. I got beat up every time we played dodge ball. I hated running laps. My gym teacher sucked. I am quite overweight now. I didn’t make the correlation until I read your post. I thought I just had a natural aversion. Could be more like history – I hated it until after I got out of school, because it was boring – now I love it, and seek out historical movies and books and points of interest. Maybe I just needed better gym teachers.

  10. Renee January 8, 2010 at 12:33 am #

    Maybe high school shouldn’t be the place for organized sports and focus on gym.

    Just like organized sports in for younger school aged children or funded separately from school’s budget. But then there maybe an argument to separate music/theater also, which may have benefits also. If such programs are more community centered, inter-mural sports/community bands/theater young adults won’t drop the hobby because they didn’t make the team. Because these programs are so peer orientated, less cliques and such.

    If your kid is talented the NFL, NBA, or MLB will find him with a school program or not.

  11. Sky January 8, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    NO SCORE KEEPING? What FUN is that? We ALWAYS kept score in street games, and there were always winners and losers. Competition is the crucial ingredient that makes games fun. Kids know that. It’s the modern, sensitive adults trying to shelter the imaginary, impossibly fragile egos of children who don’t seem to know that.

    Interesting theory on gym teachers, though. I had an 8th grade gym teacher who made me cry. Maybe that’s why I hate working out until this day.

  12. Sky January 8, 2010 at 1:10 am #

    “Our schools recently changed the way you get your grades. My kids don’t get A’s, B’s, C’s, etc. They get 1 (worst) – 4 (best) with plusses or minuses for whether or not they put forth effort. Apparently, kids and parents couldn’t handle seeing F for failure – but at least you knew exactly where you were.”

    You STILL know exactly where you are. Obviously 1 is an F, and 4 is an A. It doesn’t matter whether they use letters, numbers or shapes. They could have cricle, square, trapezoid, and diamond, and as long as one meant best and one meant worst, you’d know where you were. It’s sheer silliniess to change the traditional grading, system, of course, as though you could really spare someone from a sense of failure by not calling it failure, as though it were necessary to spare someone from a sense of failure. I’m not a teacher, but I edit student essays for a private company. I was asked to stop using red ink and to use blue or green instead. Somehow, the change in color from the traditional red would protect their fragile self-esteem, even though I was making the same corrections. Of course, red ink is traditional because it shows up well in contrast to the black and blue ink kids write with, but never mind that…shelter those little egos!

  13. Sky January 8, 2010 at 1:15 am #

    Oh, I loved gym until middle-school. Crab soccer, freeze tag, elimination, sharks and minnows, square dancing, shipwreck, dogeball – lots of different fun games. Score keeping, yes, but not skills. Everyone playing for fun. The only skills we learned were for the Presidential Fitness test once a year. I didn’t like it once we got to middle school because, frankly, you aren’t moving half the time. You aren’t participating a lot of it. You aren’t PLAYING. If you want to be an athlete, fine – they should have classes for athletes to train and learn. Otherwise, you should be able to just opt out of P.E. after elementary school, I think. By that age, you’re either responsible enough to exercise on your own in some way you personally enjoy becuase you care about your health, or you;re not. P.E. isn’t going to change that for anyone, and no one really gets much real exercise out of a 7th-12th grade P.E. class.

  14. wahoofive January 8, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    I’m going to disagree here. I had what you might call a free-range P.E. class in high school in the 70s — they basically just gave us a bat and ball and said “go play”. Classes were supervised (it would be an exaggeration to say “taught”) by varsity coaches who considered classes a distraction from the important stuff. We got graded on attendance. If you were non-athletic (like me) you got sidelined a lot.

    But play is play. Shouldn’t school be a little more rigorous? If you’re going to have a class, shouldn’t learning something be the goal?

    We’ve seen all kinds of student-directed approaches to academic subjects, and the result is that a few kids excel and the rest learn nothing. Why should P.E. be any different? I’m all in favor of free play, but it’s not necessary to have classes for it in school.

  15. Leah Ingram January 8, 2010 at 1:27 am #

    My mother is a retired gym teacher so I never had a negative view of PE teachers overall because of my mom. That said, I didn’t really enjoy PE until high school (believe it or not) because our high school let you sign up for mini courses, like aerobics, weight training or badminton. They were fun.

    These days my own high schooler thinks that the school district should allow kids of who play on sports teams to be exempt from PE. They’re already getting their physical activity five days a week for 2.5 hours after school. I think she’s right.

    Besides the “already active” factor, both she and her sister have played competitive sports since they were little, and oftentimes the PE teachers in their middle school and high school are teaching skills and rules the WRONG way. So then what are kids like mine getting out of PE? A class period of frustration.


  16. wahoofive January 8, 2010 at 1:28 am #

    Oh, and I never developed an interest in sports or fitness.

  17. Melissa January 8, 2010 at 2:08 am #

    I hated PE from day one. I don’t remember who my teachers were, or if anything negative happened. I just know that I despised it. I think it was more a matter of being self-conscious in front of the other kids, who I perceived to be more athletic than I.

    But in hind-sight, I loved recess! What kid doesn’t? We played games and ran around and competed all the time and I never thought of it as exercise. I was just having fun. I remember especially liking jump-rope and being quite good at it (double-dutch).

    It seems strange to me that kids HAVE to take PE, but recess is being shortened or flat-out removed from the school day. Why not keep the recess and have a coach/teahcer on hand to organize games for those who want them and let the other kids play as they like, rather than forcing PE on so many kids who hate it?

    Kids are built to learn and play; Why is it so hard to let them do just that?

  18. Brad Warbiany January 8, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    “For example…a teacher who has low energy, is unfair and/or someone who embarrasses students.”

    I had a gym teacher like that. But I didn’t let her affect me — not even when she sent me to the dean for “insubordination”. And no, I’m not kidding, that was actually what she put on the paperwork 🙂

    I never lost my love of activity, but I’ve certainly developed major problems with authority!

  19. iamfern January 8, 2010 at 2:32 am #

    Speaking as someone from England, I’d say that the issue with our PE lessons is that nobody’s decided whether they’re teaching rules, skills or fitness. Get us to do netball drills? That’ll teach netball skills. Get us to play netball? We’ll learn the rules. Make us do aerobics? That’s fitness. As someone who is entirely uninterested in sport but appreciates that exercise is important for health, I’d much rather just run a few laps or something so that I’ve *done* some exercise than be forced to dress it up with a game I don’t enjoy and don’t see the point of.

  20. L. Vellenga January 8, 2010 at 2:33 am #

    i loved gym all the way through middle school but appreciated being able to opt out in high school due to playing sports. my only beef was the whole showering thing since a) we rarely broke into a sweat, and b) there wa never enough time, and c) despite a) and b) we’d be marked off for not showering. dumb, and we all knew it.

  21. Raine January 8, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    I despised PE as kid, especially the running. I can remember in kindergarten we had to finish a mile first before we could play or participate in class, and I’ll still be out there walking or jogging around the track while everyone else was doing the activity. This also highlighted how non-athletic I was, so when we did play sports, even the ones I was good at, I was usually among the last to get picked for teams.

    My middle school, if not earlier, it was easier just to sit on the sidelines and not play than to be humiliated by being one of the ones nobody wanted on their team, or being one of the “losers” because I had no interest in most physical activity those days.

    The funny thing is that lasted through college, and I ended up very overweight, unathletic, and depressed. In college, I took snowboarding for my one required PE class, had fun, and took 3 additional semesters of PE as electives for fun [another snowboarding, tennis, and kickboxing]. Once it was a choice instead of a requirement, I could enjoy it more. It still took me a while to be able to tolerate running, but I learned to enjoy it later on and did my first half marathon last year [in my old hometown, at almost 300 pounds, partially to prove that I could].

  22. Blake January 8, 2010 at 4:04 am #

    PE was pretty fun in elementary school. I was never the athletic type, but I did enjoy a good baseball or dodgeball game. That all changed the one year I had in middle school before my mother started homeschooling. Still wasn’t athletic, but I was expected to be in order to get a good grade in the class. I was forced to do things like run laps with track students or play basketball with the basketball team. Outside of PE, I was pretty much an outcast to begin with, so, needless to say, PE didn’t exactly help me.

    Then I was homeschooled. My mother enrolled my sister and I in a simple bowling group that got together every Tuesday morning. Every kid in the group was homeschooled, so we already had a common bond. The scores were kept up, of course (computers), but we never really cared about scores until someone got a really good one, then we cheered. We’d tease each other and generally fill our time with more stupidity than actual exercise. The parents never did butt in to tell us to stop, though, and I’m still in touch with several (in fact, saw one of the girls at Thanksgiving for the first time in five years; we had a great time catching up).

    In addition, after bowling, we had a couple places we would go. If we went to the nearby CiCi’s Pizza or Taste of China, we would just hang out and play some games. If we went to the nearby park, the after lunch period would be filled with a game of kickball until the parents were ready to go home. When I would go camping with my family in Buccaneer State Park (sadly destroyed by Katrina), we would also play Frisbee Golf there.

    Nowadays, I still enjoy bowling (though it’s mainly the Wii version lately) and frisbee golf (again, mostly on the Wii), and I can still be awesome at kickball. Oh, and I hate football, I hate basketball, and I hate running. Coincidence?

  23. catgirl January 8, 2010 at 4:25 am #

    and was really upset when the PE teachers didn’t explain the rules of dodgeball (in kindergarten) or basketball (in junior high) and expected us all to know

    Yes, I had this same problem! I guess most kids watched sports on TV so they knew the rules, but I never had an interest so I had no idea what was going on. It was so embarrassing that I was too ashamed to even ask the teacher. And each year it got harder and harder because I felt like I should have known already, since I’d played those games in previous gym classes.

    our high school let you sign up for mini courses, like aerobics, weight training or badminton. They were fun.

    That sounds like a great idea and I wish my high school had done that.

  24. LoriLynn January 8, 2010 at 5:43 am #

    Wow, interesting subject. Thinking back, I actually had a tough time in gym class. Now I am the gym teacher. I have been nurturing my hubby into becoming an active guy (he must have had a really bad gym teacher!!!) and homeschooling our 3 kids. We can’t get enough of our gym activities, and combine our gym classes with other home schooling families to shake things up a bit. It’s just a whole lot of fun with a nice healthy amount of competition! Love the post.

  25. babelbabe January 8, 2010 at 6:08 am #

    i didn’t like gym and totally slacked off.
    Now? My idea of a good time is running three miles or swimming laps for an hour.
    I discovered I am not a team player.

  26. Catherine Scott January 8, 2010 at 6:32 am #

    We, those who watch kids, have known for quite some time that kids like the games they invent better than the ones adults make them play. And then stand on the sideline and scream at them for messing up!

    Kids under about 11 aren’t really ready, cognitively or emotionally, for organised team sports and the results of enforced participation can be quite dire.

    A real issue is that coaches tend to expend the most effort on the kids who need it the least, and leave the kids who need help flopping around in the background. Same happens in dance classes: the ones who look like potential prima ballerinas get the attention and the kids who actually would benefit from some instruction get ignored.

    That said, my older kids attended the only democratic ballet school in the world, where every single gawky, stumble footed kid got the same attention as the rising stars.

  27. Jen Connelly January 8, 2010 at 6:48 am #

    I can attest to that but it wasn’t the teacher per say that was causing problems. Actually I didn’t have a regular gym class in school until I was in 5th. Before then it was at our regular teachers discretion and they taught the class (we had no gym teacher). 5th grade was my first real introduction to organized sports and gym class. The teacher was nice enough and taught us the fundamentals of each sport (spending like a month on each one).

    the moment that sticks out in my mind, though, was when we did basketball. I am naturally not athletic. I’m overweight and uncoordinated when it comes to sports. I can’t judge distance well and just lack the strength for the most part. The coach decided to split the class in 2. Boys were playing a game on one hoop (with him refereeing) and the girls were supposed to be running shooting drills at the other end with no supervision.

    On my 2nd turn I missed the basket and the ball bounced and hit this girl in the side. She went ballistic and started shouting at me, calling me names (that aren’t polite to mention here) and then chucked the ball she was holding so hard at my stomach that she knocked the wind out of me and I fell over gasping.

    Luckily I had some good friends in class that stood in her way when she charged me while I was down and stopped her from kicking the crap out of me. It was over a minute before the teacher noticed what was going (and that was only because half the girls were now screaming at each other). These were 10 and 11 year olds. After that I did everything in my power to NOT participate in gym class and those other girls did everything they could to ridicule me and make me feel like dirt and the teacher did little to stop them. I really, really hated gym class and anything that had to do with sports.

    The only time I ever enjoyed a sport in gym class was when we didn’t keep score (usually on the last day of school) and every kid in the class was just playing for fun, not to win. But my best experiences with sports have definitely been pick up games in our alley with my brother and friends. My brother and my next door neighbor were awesome at basketball. I sucked but I was taller then them so I was good at picking up the rebounds. And everyone got to play. We would just divide into teams which were usually uneven and put Justin (the youngest..he was like 5 or 6) on the team that had the better players. When someone got tired they sat out and the game continued. If the teams got to uneven someone would switch teams and continue. We had so much fun and would play until it got too dark to see the basket. Back then I even went out to shoot hoops on my own.

    We used to play baseball a lot, too, which was anything that could be used as a bat and a tennis ball. Sometimes even a plastic bat and a huge beach ball…whatever we could find. Those were fun times. Too bad those horrible experiences in gym class have overshadowed all the good times I had with my friends outside of school.

  28. Wren January 8, 2010 at 6:50 am #

    I don’t know about this study. I like that it mentions that kids need time for free play, because they do need to learn how to organize a sports game themselves and actually have the opportunity to enjoy it.

    But to me it seems to play into the whole helicopter parent philosophy of ‘one bad experience will ruin my child for life’. Now we need to protect kids from their PE teachers lest they be imperfect and destroy my child’s zest for for square and render him obese.

    It also plays into our tendency to blame other people for our shortcomings. I’m not sedentary because I’m a poor athlete or lazy- it’s because my elementary PE teacher made me try to climb a rope in front of the entire class.

    It doesn’t really seem so groundbreaking.

  29. Wren January 8, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    err….four square…

  30. gramomster January 8, 2010 at 7:13 am #

    I loved school, period. At least through 6th grade. Everything about it. PE, math, reading… everything. It was my refuge. My teachers provided me with positive messages about myself and my abilities, something I sorely lacked at home. The other kids didn’t really like me, I was kind of the pariah, and even in high school still considered largely undateable. Eh… whatev…
    What I hated was that my personal adults didn’t find any value to being active. I mean, yeah, they sent me out on my bike, and into our yard, and stuff like that (until I hit 13, and then suddenly I was a terrible kid who was just going to smoke dope and have sex, neither of which I did until 16, after 3 solid years of being accused… easy expectations to live down to). AAaaanyhooooo…
    I was actually very athletic, and the fact that sports were completely devalued meant I never gained permission to be on a team, or continue any lessons beyond the most rudimentary skill set. One round of swimming lessons. I love it! Once I could float, I was done. Ice skating — stay on my feet? Good enough. Ballet? I think I got to go to one 6-week session in about 2nd grade after begging for ages.
    Then I went to junior high. I was one of about 10 white girls in junior high IN the chicano projects. Really. I went back this past summer, and drove by to check my memory. IN the projects. I was 3 blocks out of the district to have gone to the junior high my elementary school classmates went to. I and the one other white girl in our gym class of about 25 were, on more than one occasion, surrounded by a bunch of very tough girls who thought it was funny to try and make us fight each other. Neither of us ever hit the other, as we were both scared to death, but the other girls found it hilarious. From then on, I was just terrified to go to school. Too scared to change clothes, or be stuck in a room without a teacher with these chicks. Nobody took my fear seriously. Grades dropped, got sent to Baptist school, which was an epic fail, back to public high school, dropped out at 16.
    I avoid gyms like the plague (trying to get over this now, as my doctor says I must), and I did end up back in school at 25, and have 2-going-on-3 college degrees. In sociology. Go figure.

  31. Jennifer January 8, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    There’s nothing that stops people from trying like either (1) succeeding all the time without effort or (2) failing all the time no matter what you do. Many people I know had the latter experience with gym class. They could never be good enough for the whole thing to not be a humiliating experience. This is not to say we should resort to (1), and eliminate all competition or tell kids they’re great at everything when they’re clearly not. But there’s a balance where people receive enough encouragement and help so that they think it’s worthwhile trying, but not so much that they think they don’t have to put forth any effort. Some gym teachers I’ve met have been good at balancing this and some haven’t.

    I remember other kids being pretty cruel to anyone who wasn’t athletic. I was sort of in the middle, and to this day dislike organized sports, even though I wasn’t treated nearly as badly as some were. I love physical activity, though, and enjoy skating, swimming, running, and biking. But this is in spite of rather than because of gym.

  32. Bob Davis January 8, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    One of the problems with gym classes where team sports are the major part of the period is that typical US sports, especially softball and touch football, involve a lot of standing around. During softball season, I was almost always in right field–where I could do the least damage. In football, since I couldn’t throw or catch worth a hoot, I was always a “lineman”. Neither of these positions involved that much exercise. And the above mentioned comment about the coaches being absorbed by the varsity teams is so true. If you didn’t “go out” for a sport you were a “nobody”. Not the best way to encourage non-athletic young people to pursue a “strenuous life.”

  33. Sheila Keenan January 8, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    When I was a kid/teenager, I rode my bike for two hours at a time, took up to four dance classes a week, took swimming lessons and swam as much as possible in the summer, went skating every Sunday in the winter . . . despite all this I was convinced that I was not very fit and not very well coordinated. Why? Because I was not into team sports and did not like gym class. Funny thing is, I’ve ended up with a son who LOVES team sports and probably would do well with an “old school” hard-ass gym teacher. Just goes to show every one is different and respond better to different situations. I would hope by now gym classes and gym teachers had evolved to reflect that.

  34. erica January 8, 2010 at 10:57 am #

    I loved sports in school, but hated the ridiculous competitiveness of some students and gym teachers. I ran cross-country…I was always last but still did it. I saved all my energy for impromptu games of soccer in the yard with the neighborhood kids, or spot-light tag or riding my bike without a helmet, 10 miles into the big, bad city.

  35. Lara January 8, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    I had the same initial reaction as Wren—really, it was that one bad gym teacher that ruined your life long love of physical activity? I think it is fine for PE class to actually have specific goals and directions. However, PE class shouldn’t be the only place kids get to run around and organize games. That is for recess. But, oops, no chasing allowed at recess in our district. That rules out a LOT of games.

    Mocking that school district rule did come back to bite me though. My son (not at school) was running around doing that free play that is so important and organized a game of tag and fell and broke his collarbone, Now I know what the school is so worried about! :o). Oh wait, he survived, has a good childhood story to tell his kids some day (though I did tell him he really needed to come up with something better than that he fell while running). Yes, my kid played tag and lived to tell about it!!!

  36. Lihtox January 8, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Someone mentioned opting out of PE if they already play a sport; I wish we had had that in my school. Not that I was playing a sport, but I hated having to take gym with the jocks. I was terrible at sports and just incur their wrath. They divided gym class into “boys” and “girls”, but they really needed to divide it into “jocks” and “non-jocks”, the way they track mathematics. 🙂 (Although the non-jocks could also be divided into those who couldn’t but wanted to, and those who couldn’t and didn’t give a damn.)

    I suffered through enough laps in gym class, though, to completely not understand why anyone would enjoy it.

  37. Susan2 January 8, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    @Nicola – Are you sure that the grading was changed to numbers to shield kids from A,B,C, etc? Here (New York State) my kids get graded 1,2,3 or 4 because that’s the way the standardized tests are scored as of No Child Left Behind. Any schools with too many 1s and 2s get on the “Schools in Need of Improvement List.” The report card grading has been changed to more closely correspond with the state standardized test grading. 1= well below standard for grade, 4 = above grade level. The state determines what skills are considered grade level. The grading is not only for parents. It is to help teachers and administrators estimate how close the school is to making standard and where effort needs to be expended before the state tests.

    As a parent of a child who attends a school on the “Schools in Need of Improvement LIst,” believe me, this can be a very. big. deal, and the administrators are looking for all the data they can to improve their standing.

  38. Tracey R January 8, 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    Woot! I’m happy the kids in my neighborhood seem to do this anyway, and I won’t feel so bad that my son hasn’t been in a sport for over a year.

  39. Larissa January 8, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    I think with PE it’s the same as any class. The way forward is to learn through play. PE for me was always about getting picked last, not understanding the rules and not being able to run as fast as everyone else. I hated it. BUT had the classes done more than play the standard Hockey / volleyball / running then I might have had more fun. Walking is a lot more valued these days as exercise so why couldn’t we have gone hiking, in my days they didn’t have girls rugby… I would have loved that! I was good at things like that! So I think it’s all about finding new and interesting ways to teach that value the students strengths and don’t ignore the weaknesses.
    My feelings of PE inadequacy still haunt me when / if I go to the gym. As do communal showers!!! And by the way.. I don’t think scoring or not scoring points is the issue. It’s about the above.

  40. Helen January 8, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    Wow – this is clearly an issue that a lot of people can relate to emotionally. I had a great time with PE at school. I was a good athlete and ended up girls’ sports captain for 4 of my last 5 years at school.

    But I know a lot of people who did not have such a good experience. While bad teaching can certainly shoulder some of the blame, most of them had a terrible experience with pick-up games too. The thing that seemed to put off most of them was constantly being picked last or near-last and not being included when the ball etc. was passed, that happened in lessons and in play.

    What I learnt from organized sport that I didn’t get from pick-up games were team building and management skills, and an appreciation of the role of tactics in competition.

    One area I think my high school excelled at was stepping out from the traditional view of PE a lot. We had outdoor pursuits – rock climbing, canoeing, caving etc. – and that turned a whole new slew of people onto physical exercise that many of them kept up after school finished. It also fostered perseverance, risk taking, self motivation, and team work in a way that more traditional PE sports didn’t.

    I think there’s a place for PE in school – competitive and non-competitive games, team and solo sports – and a place for free play. I don’t see them as replacements for each other at all.

  41. Dave January 8, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    I’m all for adults stepping back and letting kids play, but I also take issue with the idea of no scoring. It might be a male thing because my wife is a no score player. She says she wants to play for the fun of the game. My sons and I point out that fun is in the wining and the enjoyment of the game comes in trying to win. If no body wins why play.

    As a kid we always had pick up games in the lot behind my house and we always had winners. As a side not there was always some humiliation involved as well. We called it braging rights. Being humiliated made you play harder the next time, and it always came from peers not adults.

  42. Merrie January 9, 2010 at 12:04 am #

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree about supervising kids at PE. There are just too many bad things that can happen. I hate soccer to this day because of my elementary school pe teacher. He was really lazy and the easiest game to have us play was soccer. All he had to do was grab 4 orange cones and a soccer ball, then he’d pick the 2 most popular kids in the class and let them “choose up teams” picking their friends first. Football, baseball and basketball need a ref. But he’d just let us fend for ourselves at soccer while he went back inside. It’s a miracle nobody got hurt.

    In high school, gym was luck of the draw. Some classes got to play golf (which I would have loved) or volleyball (which I was actually good at) but I never got either of those. I got the football coach who actually graded us on the quality of our gymnastics. I was a straight A student who got a C in gym freshman year that almost kept me out of the National Honor Society. Gym wasn’t required after freshman year. The happiest day of my high school life was my last day of PE. My mother had to stop me from actually burning my gym clothes.

    Today, I’m morbidly obese and detest sweating. And yes, I blame a lot of it on my horrible experiences in PE class. I know I’d be much better off with teachers who encouraged walking and tried to get students to find an activity they enjoyed and had some skill at rather than taking out all their jock frustrations on the geeky kids.

  43. jim sherman January 9, 2010 at 12:38 am #

    Interesting that so many equate developing a distaste for sports/ athletic activity to middle school. (Of course, in my day it was still called “jr. high.”) Three factors here: end of co-ed phys ed (the boys and girls went to “gym class” two or three times a week together as a class, but no showers were involved); introduction to coaches (who to this day I rate right up there with Navy chaplains as the most useless specieses of humanity I have ever met, seen, or heard of); and jock culture, where ignorant bullies of superior athletic ability are allowed an “alpha” status in the pack – and of couse middle school kids, being the little animals they are, have a tendacy toward a pack mentality anyway. I had never thought about phys ed being a major component before, but middle school is definitely where the jocks are seperated from the geeks. The only winners are the handful of kids who are both jocks and honor-roll geeks, who wind up going to Rice University and lettering in lacrosse or some damn thing while maintaining an A average. Then they wind up supervising both the jocks who went to Texas A&M and wound up working on the loading dock, and the geeks who went University of Texas and wound up working in the IT center.

  44. Lain January 9, 2010 at 3:19 am #

    Loved this post so much we included it in our weekly round-up at



    Lain Ehmann
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  45. Into The Wild! January 9, 2010 at 4:25 am #

    PE for me? Hell on Earth. As this study points out, a fantastic coach can make or break a kid. Middle school was the WORST! Our gym teachers spent most of their time pitting student against student in some kind of medieval torture scenario. They thought it would make us better and stronger, toughen us up for adulthood. More likely sent many of us into therapy for most of our adulthood. Parent/teacher conferences were awful: “Your child seems to lack the drive to achieve her place within the order of a team-oriented society.” ?!? Having a dad who’s a Marine and a Football/Boxing Fan did nothing to help the situation. Then, High School came, and I was terrified. Until I discovered: *angels singing* Marching Band! Yes, I am a proud Band Geek. If you were a musician, you could forgo traditional PE if you joined the band. Our Music Director was able to convice the administration to let us have our own separate PE period, because we spent most of our time training for competition in parades (concerts were done mostly in the evenings) and, being in Southern California the weather is good year-round, we did a lot of marching and drilling outside, sometimes up to 15 miles a day. Try that while carrying a 10-lb trombone or a 50-lb tuba. Now THAT is physical education! But we did have other outlets at our school, like surfing, yoga, fencing, archery, weightlifting (for girls!), so there was not so much pressure to join in the regular sports. Made HS much more bearable.

  46. Jasmin January 9, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    I liked PE. Always. I was neither very good, but good enough. I never considered Gym hell or bad. It was fun for me. Yes, some less skilled people did not like it as you perform in front of other people. It can be hell.

    But aren’t other classes like this, too? There are a few people that are good without effort, those that need to invest more to get to good results and those that are not good no matter what they do.

    I would not overthink the issue.
    This is what I hate these days. Everything gets so overthought, that by the end so many rules and policies are in place that nobody can enjoy or have fun anymore. It ruins it for all.

  47. Crystal Blue January 9, 2010 at 6:37 am #

    I hated gym class, except for kindergarten which was lots of fun, especially the giant parachute. I did love to run but I hated the smell of the gym and the attitude of the teachers. Our junior high teachers were enormously fat. We called them Mr. and Mrs. Tima-tank-a. One time I started getting into basketball and being assertive and one of the tough girls who wore AC-DC shirts to school and smoked got really angry at me so I backed down. Being a straight-A nerd in high school led me to have the ridiculous idea that smart girls didn’t do sports. (Ugh! I don’t know where that came from!) It was not until college that I was finally able to do physical fitness activities that I enjoyed — archery, fencing, ballroom, folk, modern, and jazz dance. Now I’m a bellydancer which is great exercise.

    Now, at 40, I’m 30 pounds heavier than in high school and greatly value physical activity for its health and mental benefits. I even can appreciate sports although I cannot stand the obsession people get about college and professional sports. I wish I didn’t have such a bias against sports when I was younger and had more energy. I might not have gained so much weight if that had happened!

    I think school gym would be better if they were more open to more varieties of physical fitness other than traditional sports. With most Americans being overweight it’s a definite necessity.

  48. Stephanie January 9, 2010 at 7:14 am #

    My daughter’s not too enthusiastic about her PE class in second grade, but I think a lot has to do with not liking to have to do things the way the teacher wants her too. She doesn’t like the current section on playing Frisbee because she can’t throw the way she wants to, and has to catch with both hands.

    On the other hand, she loves her karate class and is begging to take soccer. I had to explain to her that signups aren’t going on right now for that one. Should be interesting to see how that one goes when the time comes.

    Score keeping doesn’t bother me. I like kids understanding that you can’t win all the time.

    As for middle and high school coaches, I recall most as being not that good, especially the really overweight ones. The notion that these coaches who themselves didn’t look capable of running the number of laps or playing the games they wanted us to play were in charge always struck most of the class as ridiculous. But I was lucky enough to go to a magnet school for math and science, so most of us weren’t interested in being jocks. Probably made my life easier there.

  49. Jen Connelly January 10, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Speaking of good teachers/coaches making a difference…When my son was 6 years old he took track and field at our park. The class was for 6-9 year olds but only 3 kids signed up–my son, another 6yo boy and the coach’s 7yo sister. So the coach asked all the parents if it was okay for the kids to come an hour later to the other track class which was for 10-13 year olds. That was fine with me since I could actually get dinner cooked then but I was worried about my son being the youngest kid in the class.
    And he was the youngest and the smallest kid.
    But the coach, Mark, is the best. It was his first year at our park. He’s young and enthusiastic and you can tell he actually enjoys what he does.
    Never once did he make the little kids feel they weren’t good enough and he didn’t separate them. They ran relays mostly and, because the coach was so fair and caring, so were all the other kids. They never treated my son badly because he lost the relay for them even though they were 2 people ahead before my son ran. They just cheered him on as hard as they did everyone else and gave him a high five when he finally crossed the line.
    I know if they had ever started picking on the little kids the coach would have stepped in. He would never stand for it. EVERYONE at the park loves this guy and all the parents keep their fingers crossed that he will come back every year because he is such an influence on the kids.

    When my oldest was 4 she took a class at the park and there was this guy that working there that obviously thought he was signing up to teach junior high football or something and found out he had to help with ALL the sports. He scared the kids in the kiddie gymnastics, couldn’t be bothered to remember their names or even look them in the eye. His disinterest showed in the kids he worked with.

    Mark, though, helps with everything and knows all the kids names…from the little 3 year olds in kiddie gymnastics to the kids on his competing basketball teams and everywhere in between.

    Now, if I had had a coach like that in school maybe I would have a better view of sports. He keeps score with the kids but he never puts an emphasis on it. A team wins, a team loses but there is always another game to play. He doesn’t allow trash talking or gloating or bad sportsmanship. And he always lets the players that are having the most trouble have the coveted spot as center in field hockey (the kids fight over it) even if they have no clue what is going on. He makes the sports fun, he makes the kids care and he doesn’t focus on winning and being the best in the class. He tells them they just need to do the best that they can do even if they never come in first in a race or score a goal or even get the ball in the basket.

  50. Random January 11, 2010 at 3:18 am #

    I loved PE until the 4th grade when my teacher humiliated me in front of the two classes that took PE at the same time. That year was hard me because I had started to gain a lot of weight and start puberty.
    Mrs. Neffus-Steffus, a large bellowing woman who resembles Tony Little in voice and style, you know the yeller with the gazelle on tv? She brought out a huge doctors scale and the fat pinchers. Each of us had to be weighed and pinched in front of 60 kids. She LOUDLY announced the results, and for me bellowed that I was OBESE and needed to get off my butt and learn to exercise because I was far too fat for my age. She ordered me to run laps for the rest of the period, laughed at me and then for the rest of the year would single me out. She wouldn’t let me join in on this “butt scoot” game on these weird little bike seats on wheels where you scoot and throw a basketball, she said I was too fat and would break them (I was nearly 5 feet tall and 114 pounds, big for the age YES but not so huge I would destroy things).

    By 6th grade I was at a different school, and she came to sub for my PE class. She singled me out AGAIN and laughed at me saying “I see you never did listen, you’re even bigger now! Go RUN!”

    From there on out I cut PE as often as possible. I preferred getting F’s and Saturday school for ditching, than to dare take the humiliation and abuse from teachers.

    I always hated that woman. Teachers should NEVER verbally abuse students like that.

    And I will NOT run. You can’t make me. I can hike, I can paddle a boat, I can climb up a tree and swing from a rope, but I will NOT run. I hear that wenches voice in my head every time I think of it. Childhood Trauma #45: Mrs. Neffus-Steffus

  51. Virginia January 11, 2010 at 6:14 am #

    I so relate to this! I never thought about whether I was better or worse than other kids at physical activities until first grade, when I had. Mr. Higgins for P.E. at Belle Sherman Elementary School in Ithaca, New York. Yes, that’s his real name, and if you’re out there, Mr. Higgins, I want you to know that you were the one who set me on the path to a lifelong distaste for sports. There were plenty of other bad experiences afterward that kept me on that path. But Mr. Higgins was the one who first made me scared to come to gym class. Fifteen years later, when I was working in town, Mr. Higgins was still teaching P.E., and my boss, whose daughter was at that school, couldn’t stand him either.

    Fortunately, P.E. instruction is one of the few things that seems to have improved in the intervening forty years. My kids don’t necessarily love P.E., but I’ve never heard stories from them about the kind of browbeating and humiliation that were routine when I was a kid.

  52. Jay Young January 11, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    Too many people think “exercise” means going to the gym. The smells and the sounds put you right back where you were. It is the smell of failure.

    My experience is roughly similar to Sheila’s. I did farm work and took walks and rode bikes and danced, but was considered weak and a physical failure in school. Athletic ability and team sports were all that counted. Anyone who ran out of breath or couldn’t keep up, etc., was just “play-acting”. Nobody ever had asthma, or scoliosis, or trouble with their ankles, or breasts that were just too damned heavy. If you did, you should be able to overcome it by having a POSITIVE ATTITUDE & WANTING IT ENOUGH. (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-Sided”) Oh yeah and if you couldn’t see the ball, you could get glasses and become the next Willie Mays.

    This attitude stunk, and so did the gym. Personally I think gym class ought to be banned and they should just have recess three times a day all the way through high school.

    These things didn’t turn me off from the kind of activities I *personally* enjoy, I just won’t do them in any kind of competitive setting. You know, whatever happened to “New Games”?

  53. highwayman January 11, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    I had boycotted phys-ed through much of 8th grade simply because I did not appreciate being shouted at as if I was an untrained animal. Such a lack of respect! It got to the point that I did not care about the F’s I got in gym class if all the result was more shouting, be-rating, and the piles of false accusation coming from THE TEACHER! (They were male).

    One redeeming aspect of the phys-ed department in my Jr-Sr. high school were the female phys-ed teachers. They checked their egos at the door. I learned from them.

    Please note I am a guy, a male. And though I had an imposing physique, I was and still am a geek. Like another poster said on this board, the music department saved me. Even today, 25 years after I graduated, I am still grateful for the salvation that the music department gave me.

    One final note: I play volleyball, I swim, and I ride distance on my bike. Just don’t shout at me.

  54. david January 13, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    Your ignorance about Physical Education experiences is only trumped by your obvious inconpentance as a parent! Anyone who exploits their child and compromises their safety to self promote or prove a point, should never be allowed to commment or share their “knowlegde” about others . . . especially children. Your confusion between gym class and outside athletics is only slightly more ridiculous than the obese bloggers that are looking to blame someone for their sorrows. Much like the demise of our society and “Modern Day Education” . . . . it is easier and more convinient to blame someone else than to take personal responsibility and be accountable for once actions. On behalf of ALL Physical Education teachers, we are very proud to teach life-long sports skills, physical fitness and most important . . . . character education. Take some time out of your busy scedule and see if you can find in your research what teachers make the best administrators . . . . principals and/or assistant principles in school districts . . . . that’s right . . . . . PHYSICAL EDUCATION TEACHERS . . . . as a matter of fact . . . . . do the research yourself! I look forward to reading your next article!

  55. Sunny1 January 13, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    This is so true!! my son who is not “the athlete” loved to hang out with the neighborhood kids. they’d be out playing football, basketball, etc and i thought “oh good, he likes the athletics. As it turned out, he was the official scorekeeper, the guy that retrieved the ball out of bounds, etc. He wasnt the nerd, the group needed “that” guy, they are some of his best friends now!
    Now if that had been in a structured gym class everyone wouldnt have been able to find their own strength and do what THEY are good at!

  56. bw January 15, 2010 at 1:57 am #

    I had plenty of drill sergeant gym teachers, scorekeeping, and embarrassment in gym class, and count it all good. It kept me out of team sports and allowed me to become less of a lemming, and as for my precious self esteem, what didn’t kill me made me stronger.

    At age 37, I competed in my first Olympic distance triathlon, and soundly beat a 20 year old who had a current division 1 NCAA swimming scholarship. In the race I wore black running socks as a tribute to the swaggering middle school gym teacher who knocked me down two letter grades for never having the preferred white socks.

    Sorry, but as I see it, wishing to spare your kids the ‘trauma’ of a hard knocks gym teacher is the epitome of helicopter parenting,

  57. Ryan January 29, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    I know when I was in gym two years ago, I felt horrible when I was fighting to compete NOT to be the last one to finish the mile. I am currently a sophomore in ROTC, Recruitment Office Training Course, and I enjoy the class. It is not only informational, we also learn about something we didn’t already study in Junior High in health class, and we don’t run around like guinea pigs.

    There isn’t really much public humiliation in ROTC, unless you’re really asking for it. Also, I believe ROTC supplies the lessons learned through the humiliation regardless.

    Also, I find ROTC much more useful than gym class. If people enroll in any branch to serve our country, it is not gym class that helps them get there, it’s ROTC.

    Others believe ROTC is just a way to get out of gym, which is untrue. At very least, ROTC usually does a day of physical training a week. Most weeks, it happens two or three times. Because of this, I no longer have to struggle to keep up, mostly because what exercises done in ROTC are more beneficial than day after day of breaking muscles down and not giving them enough time to build back up again.

    It’s not “hey, run in circles around the gym because we told you to”, it is “hey, run there, no pressure, just your own motivation.” We’re all friends in ROTC… Mostly. We’re more of a team than a competition.

  58. Icalasari July 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    In my case, it is just laziness and being manipulative (My parents actually told me once that I manipulate people and use my disorders to get what I want. Apparently, I did it subconciously because there were few cases where I did it on purpose)

  59. Merritt Swift February 8, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    I was tested out side of the school and it was determined during the third grade that I was not to be placed in competitive gym.They did anyway and I was so deeply and routinely humiliated that today at age 51 I consider gym class age 11,fifth grade as the day I died.Iv too many phobias and neurosis to list,and psychiatry Iv learned is a con.Migraine vision ruined my school years and they taught me to be ashamed and show no weakness,become an absolute hermit.I wake up and go to bed in a silent scream.Iv suffered the agony of the damned for forty years all because I was too respectful to fight back..

  60. Merritt J Swift September 16, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    I wasn’t supposed to even be in competitive gym and the school reassured my mom back in 1969 that they had programs when I switched schools in third grade.I had what turned out was cognitive deficits related to chronic migraine.I was humiliated to death in basketball and baseball.I died in school and have had a ruined life as a hermit ever since.I was despised in class and out for making the team lose.Ever since 1972 I’ve been most morbidly ashamed of my every weakness and hide totally things such as I don’t dare drive. They damn me to hell by what the faculty and students did to me.I am in chronic pain and daze every day and all the therapy for the past 30 years has been a sham of toxic but worthless pills.I tell the docs this and they don’t care to make waves.I need the shameless school to pay for real therapy so I can get some life back.Till then I have a silent scream going on every waking moment.They murdered me.I’ve said enough but have hardly started.I always turned the other cheek and never stood up to the attacks so I will always be ignored till the day I die old alone and bitter about tens of thousands of wasted days.

  61. Al December 10, 2011 at 4:49 am #

    The study is absolutely correct. And you can easily verify the sadism of some of these gym teachers by a few of the comments on here!

    In 7th grade I was exposed for the first time to the kind of gym class where one had to dress, shower etc. My “teacher” loved to humiliate the “underachievers” in front of the rest of the class. I was a “late bloomer,” had not yet developed significant muscle mass but was not “fat” by any stretch of the imagination. Neither was I the 90 pound weekling. In my case I had a father who was nearly 50 when I was born and not in a position to do contact sports with me.

    The first time this “teacher” asked us to line up in position to play football; I had not previously done so. My stance was not up to his standard and he ridiculed me by forcing me to waddle and quack like a duck in front of the other students. There were scores of other sadistic and cruel “techniques” employed by this animal on me and the other students during the school year but nother else like that one!

    I have never gotten over it! With all due respect to some of the “macho men” who have commented on this story I would say that I have an understandable reluctance to feel like “one of them” when it comes to sports, etc. But the big point is that instead of remembering a cruel monstor and an abusive sadist….I might instead have learned some life lessons about nutrition, the value of various exercise routines, the importance of fitness and how to achieve a life long appreciation of sports…..what one might call “EDUCATION” instead of cruenty, embarrassmant and ridicule.

    By the way….as many of you might guess…my gym “teacher” went on to become the High School basketball coach, won one or two State Championships and was well rewarded in his life for his “quest for excellence!” I wish I had helped to get him fired before he went on to influence the lives of scores of others.

  62. Brian January 13, 2012 at 9:19 am #
    a survey about physical education, plz answer for my research paper


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