Like a lot of people, I enjoy doing things well. I enjoy doing some things better than other people do them, too, but I learned long ago that being the best, being number one, edging out someone else, doesn’t just not matter to me – it makes me uncomfortable. It’s partly an energy thing – there are few areas where I want to spend the immense energy it takes to get the marginal returns that deliver that level of performance. I’d rather be darned good at lots of things, so I can solve more kinds of problems, and so I always have options. And honestly I don’t much care for the attention that comes with being at the tip-top of any game.
I didn’t have a terrible experience in P.E. classes in school. In grade school, I was always one of the bigger, stronger kids, and my parents made activity a regular part of our lives, so I had good physical confidence as well. But I hated the team sports aspect. It was boring. Picking teams was a stupid popularity contest. There was always a lot of standing around waiting for stuff to happen, instead of just diving in and doing something. I loved recess – monkey bars, hopscotch, jump rope, tetherball, whatever sounded good that day, and not much time so you had to get right to it.
I look around me, and I see adults who have, almost all of them, been disappointed to some extent by that kind of early P.E. class experience, some of whom may even have scrambled out of the way when kids like me swarmed to the yard for recess. Some were always picked last, or never developed much physical confidence and felt tormented by class activities. Some had asthma or other serious issues, and were simply set aside by coaches and gym teachers that were out of their depth when it came to modifying their plans for kids who weren’t all showing up with the same health and mobility status. Other thrived on team everything, lettered lavishly in high school, and even competed in college, only to run to fat after they left school, and didn’t have the team-sports environment to structure and drive their activity – or the time after their full-time jobs to participate in neighborhood leagues.
I don’t believe in “Everyone gets a trophy.” If the activity is competitive, there should be rankings. If there are a real consequences for failure, there should be incentives – and measures – for success. But I do believe that more activities should *not* be competitive, and I think school P.E. classes are at the top of that list. There are good arguments for grading kids, even grading on a curve, in academic classes – it is important to impress the value of acquiring information and the means to use it well. It is important to help kids develop study skills – that form of discipline and organization carries over into all activities, and school is an excellent structure for it.
But physical education classes should not be about striving for excellence – they should be making sure everyone is active and comfortable with it. Some regular physical activity is mandatory for everyone, even – maybe especially – people who will never really get into it and would always rather read a book. Physical education should be a place where everyone learns some basic exercises – a range of activities that can be done with or without equipment – where they can develop some confidence in their movement, and ideally discover something they enjoy enough to be happy to do a little every day. It’s important for heart health, blood sugar stability, sleep regulation, muscle development, mood regulation — an awful lot of things that makes life better.
In short, phys ed is too important to risk turning kids off to it. There is no “first place” when it comes to physical and mental health – everyone needs those, and our society is worse in countless ways whenever people are held back or discouraged.
We all deserve to make it.