Remember P.E. in high school? Or primary school?
Remember how there was always one kid who struggled? That kid who got picked last when there were teams, that kid who couldn’t field a goal if their life depended on it and honestly wasn’t sure what “field a goal” even meant, that kid who always tried to get out of it by “being the scorer”? Maybe one day you were having trouble with the drills or the exercises, and you looked down the row and thought, “Well, hey, at least I’m not as bad at it as [That Kid].”
Or maybe you were That Kid. Hi! I’m That Kid too!
I was chubby, which makes running around uncomfortable sometimes – sometimes that’s just psychological, because kids can be gold plated arseholes. I was also hypermobile, although I didn’t know it, and looking back I now know that’s why it hurt so much just to move sometimes, and why I couldn’t move fast enough or well enough to do the things other kids took for granted.
Maybe you weren’t chubby, or bendy. Maybe you had some other issue you didn’t know about. Maybe you didn’t have any physical issues but you just didn’t like doing this stuff in front of other people, or maybe you were just a bit of a late bloomer with physical coordination, or maybe – just maybe – as it is in so many cases – it was a total self-fulfilling prophecy, with other kids giving you shit to the point that you couldn’t even remotely believe in yourself. Or maybe you had the kind of physical issue that makes the whole thing doomed from the very beginning.
There’s a whole club of us sedentary kids. Hating P.E. is not uncommon. I get frustrated when I see a lot of ranting about childhood obesity (oh for so many reasons, but I will only touch on one aspect of this today – trust me, there’s so much else to get angry about) and how kids “don’t want to move and they only want to play with their iPads or Playstations” or some other kind of generational judgemental wankery.
Have they considered that there is a reason kids don’t want to move that has nothing to do with laziness?
Have they considered that “going outside to get fresh air” might actually involve getting picked on by other kids?
Or feeling really stupid and sore when they trip over or bump into things?
Maybe the reason they like playing games, or reading, or whatever indoor sedentary thing they are doing, is that they are good at that thing and it is fun, and being good at things is fun, and doing something you are not good at that is physically painful is really not fun.
I just get a bit tired of this judgement.
I wasn’t completely inactive as a kid. I did like riding my little white BMX with purple tire rims. I came off it many times, but the whoosh of riding down the hill or the driveway was unbeatable to me, so I actually kept it up in spite of the pain. It was an activity that didn’t pummel my joints (not that I knew that was the problem back then). It was amazing. It was the only exercise I did for many, many years, and even then I walked my bike uphill (because riding bikes uphill messes with my hips).
The problem can also be with the system. The P.E. teachers that I had in primary school and (with one exception, which I will talk about in a moment) in high school didn’t seem to know how to deal with kids who didn’t want to participate. They didn’t seem interested in finding out why kids didn’t want to participate. I did have one teacher in primary school who let me score more often than he probably should have, and I suspect it’s because he noticed how much shit I got when I actually participated in the games, and took pity on me. It probably wasn’t an ideal solution, but he noticed, and that was something. I don’t even know if I could have articulated why I hated moving so much – I honestly thought I was a freak for feeling sore and uncomfortable, and that it was my fault for being lazy or fat, so I didn’t really engage with that feeling much – but not once did a sports or physical education teacher ask why I didn’t want to do it.
Remember this was mostly over twenty years ago, and maybe things have gotten better. Maybe P.E. teachers today are more in touch with the problem. And I’m not a teacher. I’m guessing this stuff is pretty challenging! All the same, I’ve seen maths teachers get really passionate about trying to get kids to engage, about finding out where the problems are coming from, about acknowledging when it is a confidence issue and trying to deal with that – as difficult as it is, and as impossible as it might be for one teacher to resolve such a huge issue – and I wonder: I had one P.E. teacher like that.
I had one P.E. teacher who, when she noticed how low my fitness test score was, took me aside and asked what physical activity things I liked doing, and could I make time to do more of those things? Were there places near where I lived where I could do that? She did not pressure me, or hassle me, or pick on me in front of the class. She waited until the end of the class and took me aside for a moment just as the bell rang. She did not make me feel like a failure, or harp on about my size, or emphasise what a terrible score I had gotten. She didn’t have to. She knew I was aware of these things and there was no point making a fuss. What we wanted was a way to make things better.
I rode my bike nearly every day after school for half an hour, and I got my score up by 45%. I still couldn’t run to save myself, but in every other area I experienced massive improvement.
Sadly, that’s not a “local girl makes good” story. In spite of my good intentions, the minute I wasn’t doing P.E. anymore, I was doing VCE (that was year 11 and 12 hell in my state at that time), and time or inclination for exercise – which was, on the whole, still uncomfortable and embarrassing – fell completely by the wayside.
The good intentions stuck around. In early uni, when I still lived at home, I’d go for occasional Very Long Walks (living in the hills has some bonuses), although that was less about exercise and more about ESCAAAAPE, FREEEDOM, AAAAIR, and getting out of a household that was genuinely frightening a lot of the time. When I moved out I’d go for occasional bike rides, and getting around just involved a fair chunk of walking. It never really moved beyond that, though.
What I really wanted to do was scuba dive. It’s funny, looking back on it now (I actually get paid to dive), that I felt like the major hurdle wasn’t money (I was living off student assistance and data entry work, so it was a major hurdle, and it would be some years before I did manage to get my Open Water certification). I felt like my major hurdle was fitness.
I’ve written before about being “diving fit”; the only actual requirement in terms of certification is being able to swim 200m, any stroke, without stopping to gasp for breath. While I can do this now without a problem, at the time the prospect was terrifying. It wasn’t just the idea of flailing about in the water trying to get my body to cooperate with me- it was the idea of people watching me and judging me on my ability to get my body to cooperate with me. I remembered how it felt to have my body watched and judged on its movement from primary school and high school. I remembered that my body pretty much always failed, and I remembered how horrible it felt.
I now know that I have a bit of an advantage on this front, having grown up in Australia. In Australia, we take for granted that kids will learn to swim. They might not swim well, they might not be strong swimmers, or fast, but they’ll stay afloat and be safe in the water. The vast majority of our population lives close to the coastline, and we like to go to the beach when we can (even in Melbourne). We prefer not to drown, so we teach our kids to swim. It’s a part of the school curriculum. Looking back, I also know that swimming was a great place for a hypermobile person to start.
But at the time, I didn’t think of things in that light. I knew I could stay afloat and get from A to B, presuming that A and B weren’t too far apart and there wasn’t much of a current. That was all.
So there I was, early twenties, and terrified of the limitations of my body in light of what I felt were its past (and apparently inexplicable) failures. And yet I was determined to do this thing. I just needed a push to get started.
I’ll be honest. If it hadn’t been for my one supportive P.E. teacher in high school, I wouldn’t have had even the shaky faith I did. She had supported me, and gently nudged me, and taught me that if I did push my body a little bit, it would get better at doing physical things. It could learn; it could get fitter and stronger. Before that, I honestly believed I was stuck. That it could never get better.
Enter my friend-who-would-probably-prefer-not-to-be-named. She was a serious gym junkie. So many classes, so little time! I told her I wanted to swim, and I wanted to get fitter, but I was really nervous and anxious.
She gave me a big spiel about how fun gym was, and how I should totally do Body Pump (which I eventually did) and Body Combat (which I also did, although in the first class I actually did have to sit down because I thought I was going to throw up about halfway through), but when I said I was too scared to do those things, she just said that was fine, she was happy to drive me to the pool anyway, because that was where her classes were.
It turned out all I needed was company, and a lift. I swam while she did her classes, and she drove me home, and we chatted.
That was all that happened for a while. Then I thought, “Well… I did do a little kung fu when I was fourteen…” and did Body Combat. When no-one made fun of me for having to sit down halfway through the class, and the instructor just accepted my “I’ll be fine in a minute” with a shrug and a wave, I thought, “Oh. It’s true. No one actually cares that I suck!”
And I kept going.
And then I did Body Pump, which I widely consider to be a gateway drug to free weights training.
And it went from there.
This was how I learned that my body could get better at moving. This was how I learned I could get fitter, and stronger. I needed the support; I needed the encouragement, the nudge, the lift to the gym and the company; and I needed enough of those things to offset the toxic experiences I had in my earlier years, living in an uncooperative body in a highly competitive sporting culture.
So, maybe next time you’re tempted to say something about how “kids these days” don’t move enough, or go outside, or whatever the relevant complaint is – maybe consider asking why exercise and the outdoors aren’t fun for them. Maybe consider that there’s a reason they’re making these particular choices rather than just assuming they’re lazy. We need to make movement and the outdoors fun for everyone, not just the kids who were going to do it anyway. We need to make it fun for the heavy kids, the uncoordinated kids, the short-sighted kids, the dorky kids, the disabled kids (for whom relevant or useful exercise is already a minefield). We need to learn not to turn a blind eye to the problems. We need to acknowledge them and solve them.
We don’t want people to have to wait until they’re 23 years old to cultivate a half-decent relationship with their body in motion.
Were you That Kid? Did you know That Kid? I’d love to hear stories and opinions in the comments.