"School made me think I hated exercise – but that couldn't be more wrong"

·8-min read
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

A tsunami of green and yellow rushed from the changing rooms into the hall, accompanied by the sound of squeaking trainers and teenage gossip. We all looked the same, thanks to our mandatory games kit, even if we didn’t feel it.

Every PE lesson started the same way: I sat with my friends whispering about what our upcoming weekend plans were, whilst the teacher, Miss Williams*, called over the girls in her athletic club to discuss their next race – seemingly ignoring the rest of us. Eventually, she clapped her hands and explained that hockey was on the day’s agenda.

"Which of you play?" Miss Williams asked, her eyes already fixated on the known-to-be-sporty girls. "Here are the keys, open the cupboard and pick out a hockey stick," she said, tossing them with a smile.

By the time the rest of the class, myself included, reached the cupboard, we were left with the damaged, splintered hockey sticks and minimal enthusiasm. Feeling miserable and unmotivated, we spent the remaining time lamely trying to hit the ball back and forth, but mostly just discussing what to watch on Netflix.

The teacher noticed us struggling, but she didn’t care. We weren’t her priority.

Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

Promote an active and healthy lifestyle. Develop a level of fitness. Encourage pupils to work as a team. The purpose of PE should be clear: teach students the joy and importance of exercise from an early age, so that it carries on well into adulthood.

So, why can it sometimes feel like PE is more about focussing solely on those who may want to work in sports when they’re older, or who already enjoy and participate in it outside of compulsory lessons? And why don’t the general classroom rules of respecting one another seem to carry as much importance when students swap their desks for a freezing netball court, or echoey gym hall?

Playing favourites

Whilst it’s true that we experience this behaviour in all subjects at school (teachers locking onto those who show obvious potential), when it comes to exercise, it feels harsher and, somehow, more personal. It can also create long-term negative connotations with something that’s integral to our wellbeing – and people, like me, who had a bad experience during PE, are far from a rarity.

A 2017 report by Women In Sport found that whilst 78% of 14 to 16-year-old girls understand physical activity is important, only 28% enjoy taking part in it. It's something that 22-year-old recent graduate, Jessica Barton, can relate to too.

As sweat rolled down her back and she stopped to catch her breath, Jessica felt her legs burn ferociously. She tried hard to keep her eyes fixed on the other runners, her fellow classmates, who had long since passed her on the cross-country field. She fought back the tears which were threatening to spring out.

Then, the person who ought to have been coaching her through her pain and the race – her teacher – shouted across the field, loudly and clearly, "Get moving, my grandma could run faster than you!" Jessica says in that moment, a decade ago, she wished the ground would swallow her whole. Her face still flushes at the memory now.

This competitive attitude held by some (but not all) PE teachers, can easily create feelings of fear and unease associated with exercise, says Nicky Adams, Director of Full of Beans Children's Fitness and Sports Coaching. "Competition can add stress to the situation and then skill level tends to drop, causing feelings of shame."

Dr Josephine Perry, Sport Psychologist and author of The Ten Pillars of Success, adds that she regularly works with adults who struggle with sport because "they don’t have what we’d call an 'athletic identity', they can’t see themselves as a 'sporty' type of person because they were always told at school they weren’t."

She adds that memories of always being the last person picked for a team can be difficult to shake as we enter adulthood, and that only being exposed to a small number of sports in PE can contribute to these negative experiences too. "We’re not all going to be good at the same sports and so if you don’t enjoy – or perform well in – [what’s taught] in PE lessons, those feelings of embarrassment and associated negativity can mean you’re less likely to go out and find a sport you do enjoy in later life."

Mental vs Physical Health

It’s not just emotional and mental discomfort that can come through PE lessons, but physical too, explains Hannah Cooper, a 33-year-old writer. Years later, she still feels deflated when recalling a time she was put in goal by the Head of PE – and had to endure an hour of having footballs "blasted" at her by the other girls "with the clear intention to cause humiliation and pain".

This act of bullying could be passed off as 'friendly competition' when carried out in front of a busy, or otherwise-engaged teacher. "Meanwhile, other equally terrified students were being bellowed at by the teacher to work harder and 'do better'," Hannah explains. "Every time the ball came towards the goalpost, I would actively run away from it which of course resulted in being shouted at aggressively."

But, the experts stress, it is possible to move beyond those upsetting, school time memories and embrace exercise as an adult: at the start of the pandemic, like many, Jessica and her girlfriend made the joint decision to start a Couch to 5k challenge to stay active during lockdown. And at first, Jessica says she "refused to run and had flashbacks" of being ridiculed as a schoolgirl.

Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Katie Wilde - Getty Images

"I struggled a lot in the beginning, so much so that I walked or biked the first few Couch to 5k sessions that my girlfriend did," she adds, but says luckily, with the encouragement of her partner, she was able to develop confidence in her ability to run and didn’t quit when things felt difficult. Now, for the first time ever, Jessica says she’s actually enjoying exercise.

For Hannah, after a long time spent feeling self-conscious when exercising around others, things changed when she was convinced by a colleague to join the company's adult-only, mixed gender netball team – where the focus was on fun while playing, rather than taking home any trophies.

"When we finished last in the league, we piled straight into the pub to celebrate the fact that we’d had a great time," she says. "I’m so glad I agreed to take part. It was a window into how secondary school PE should, or could, have been."

Will things ever change?

In contrast to the horror stories shared by Jessica, Hannah and myself, PE teacher Abigail Chadd says she has spent her career "creating a respectful environment and one where students are praised on their efforts, rather than solely on the final result", something she feels can be hugely motivational. It's inspiring to hear that there are brilliant coaches out there like her.

"I think the best adaptation that can be made is having a [more] balanced curriculum that allows students to thrive in different areas," Abigail continues. "People often perceive PE as just being games based, which in some schools it is, but more forward-thinking schools will adopt a range of activities that suit their learners' needs, such as Zumba, yoga and rock climbing."

The teacher adds that students who are exposed to a range of activities are far more likely to engage positively. "Over the years I’ve taught orienteering, yoga, dodgeball and dance," she says, remarking that "being a positive role model is extremely important."

"In sport there will always be a competitive dynamic, as it’s what underpins sport itself," she notes. "But it’s the nature of how it’s managed within PE lessons that is so key."

At that start of my journey of learning to loving exercise, I found it difficult to pinpoint exactly why I was feeling disconnected to it, until I realised I needed to identify what exactly made my experience so negative in the past – and work out how to overcome those factors.

Experimenting is key, too. Netball was fun for a short while, but quickly became too competitive. Cheerleading seemed great, the pretty bows and spending time with my friends, but again, the performance was prioritised over the enjoyment.

Picking a tennis racket up and learning the basics again, but this time in a healthier setting (which paid little mind to my ability), was the turning point for me. As I hit the ball back and forth across the net, this time with far greater enthusiasm than I had with a hockey puck all those years ago, the rush of endorphins I’d been longing for finally kicked in. Loving exercise is about regaining control. All students – all adults – are worthy of taking up space and deserving of being a priority.

* Name has been changed.

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