Thursday, April 20, 2006

DF Tip #14: What's Wrong with Gym Class

db4I'm twelve years old, sitting on a bench in my high school gym, head held tipped back, a bloodstained swatch of the brown, fine-grained sandpaper that passes for paper towel in public schools clutched over my nose, which bleeds profusely. Through swollen eyes, I see my classmates running frantically about, alternately grabbing for or running from a half-dozen dark red public-school-issue rubber balls flying furiously around the gym.

The game they're playing is called "Elimination" and it represents everything that's wrong with physical education in schools. Elimination is, if it is possible to imagine, an even less civilized version of Dodgeball. As I think back now, I realize that Elimination, or "Elimo," as the athletic types who, unimaginably, liked the game used to call it, was what the gym teacher would foist on us when he was tired of calling fouls in basketball or spotting the uncoordinated kids on the pommel horse.

db5In essence, Elimination was a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself shootout with those nasty rubber balls, which on contact felt roughly like getting hit with an anvil. If you managed to get hold of one of the rubber balls, you'd throw it at another kid as fast and as hard as you could. If it bounced off of any part of their body except their head, they were "out" and had to sit down. If they caught the ball, however, YOU were out. Anyone on the "out" bench stayed there until the kid who got them out was knocked out of play themselves, at which point all their victims were resurrected, usually to be knocked silly again by a flying rubber ball within a few seconds. There were no boundaries and no teams.

In the game's one nod to civility, if you beaned someone in the head, you were out. But if you threw a low-flying ball at another kid and they were hit in the head while unadvisedly trying to duck, well, then, tough luck -- they were morons for ducking into the path of the ball and were punished by having to sit down. Usually this was fine by them -- they generally wanted to take a breather anyway and shake off the concussion.

db3Which is how I found myself on the out bench. Brendan Cray, an enormous hulk of an early-blooming eighth-grader, had let fly with what must have been a 75 mph fastball right at my crotch. Though I had very little conscious awareness of the value of my family jewels at twelve, instinct took over, I buckled at the waist, grabbing myself in horror, presenting my face as a perfect target for Cray's fast-approaching missile.

Heard from a distance, those rubber balls make an unmistakable, forlorn "boing!" But it's very different when you hear that sound with your head inside the ball. The sweaty, rubber smell gave the impression of having my head run over by a dragster.

db2I staggered off. Brendan Cray continued his reign of terror. Patti DeFoe kindly fetched me my facial exfoliator. I peered to my left to take in my benchmates. There was Alex Tepper, the comic-book collector and severe asthmatic, catching his breath after being winged in some crossfire; Jon Weeks, who was known to most people knew as the fat kid but had recently gained some begrudging props for playing Tevye in the school musical; Lara Greene, who had intercepted a ball, bounced it off her chest, and sauntered over to the out bench for the rest of the class, having committed elimination Hari-Kari in protest. And then there was me, a slow-bloomer, 113 pounds, all skinny arms and legs, big feet and hands, braces, bloody nose, watching six or eight big guys do the 12-year old version of Ultimate Fighting.

Like so many games played in school gym classes, Elimination draws a clear, uncrossable line between athletes and non-athletes. Nowhere else in school is humiliation so rampant. Academic grades are kept carefully hidden away so that the smart and the not-so-smart can peacefully co-exist, but in gym class your coordination, balance, grace, and, it sometimes appears, worth as a kid, are right out there for all to see.

db11To be honest, I don't know what's happened to gym class since 1983. I've heard stories of yoga and other noncompetitive endeavors being taught in schools, but I'm skeptical. I have a hunch that the one-hour yoga class is dragged out for parents' day and then boom! Back to another four weeks of Elimination while the teacher sips coffee and checks his email.

Here's the thing about competitive sports in school. There's nothing wrong with them for people who want to play them. No one else should be forced to play such games any more than every kid should be required to be on the debate team or play for the chess club. Now, you'll remember that I spent much of last week encouraging people to participate in sports, and I stand by that. They're a great motivator and a great way to provide structure and focus for your workouts. But playing competitive sports in a context like a gym class isn't a good way to improve coordination, grace and balance unless you already happen to possess those skills. If you don't, Brendan Cray will just juke right by you in his drive to the net and you won't touch the ball the whole game.

That's what happened to me. I hated gym class with a passion. My inability to connect with or enjoy any of the games we played made me decide early on that I just wasn't an athlete. And that's ironic, of course, because however meager my accomplishments as an athlete to date, I now consider daily exertion a major part of my life. So clearly something was missing in my formal physical education all those years ago.

db12I'll say it again: sports are a terrific way to test your skill and coordination, but they are a lousy way to develop them. And development, not constant pressure to perform, should be the focus of any fitness program. Certainly, it should form the basis of any structured physical education program draws on our hard-earned tax dollars.

Perhaps if that were the case, I wouldn't encounter so many people in my line of work who somehow don't think they have the right to be physical. Who are scared half to death of being in the gym, of exerting themselves, or of working up a sweat, because of a gym-class-induced, sports-field run-in with their school's equivalent of Brendan Cray.

Am I contradicting my last tip? Perhaps a little. But it's worth underscoring, for those of you still sitting on the sidelines, that being physical doesn't have to be a retread of your worst gym class moments. Pushing your own limits, improving your own performance, making yourself feel better by getting fit is far more important -- and rewarding -- than being faster, stronger, or more enduring than the next guy.

Have a great week!



Constance said...

I agree that "elimination" is a poor sport. Frankly, many sports are beyond my understanding of fairness and fitness. Unfortunately, my exposure to some sports is limited to TV programs, which are at times filled with injuries and difficult to watch.

One of my daughters, I am happy to report, appears to have a grade A physical education course. She also takes Jazz dance. The other appears to have a general dislike for activity probably stemmed from substandard teaching, at home and at school.

Personally, I jumped into cheerleading and girl's basketball straight from P.E. classes of scooter baseball and the dreaded dogdeball or 'elimination'. Although, it's been so long, I may have forgotten some perks.

I agree, that a fitness program is the better way to develop. Sports are better to develop coordination between players than develop personal training.

Leo Cisneiros said...

Great post! I felt exactly like this in my school times and I've developed an aversion for physical activities that lasted for many years. Only recently, at the age of 32, I began weight training and this year I felt in love with powerlifting and other hardcore exercises. (I'm planning to learn olympic liftings as soon as I master the powerlifting technique) I regret that I didn't begin sooner and physical education classes as those you've described were the main culprit for that.

Nice blog and tips! Bookmarked!

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