‘Old-school’ PE lessons – survival of the fittest?

Picture1Recently I was reminiscing with a friend about games we used to play in PE lessons when we were at school (a very long time ago!). We were both struck by how many of them were ineffective at improving fitness and skill levels, and how many were potentially humiliating for the kids. I have listed a few below.

  • Shirts versus skins: okay, so this is not actually a game; but it was common practice for my PE teacher to have one team play shirtless during basketball lessons to differentiate them from the other team. I remember being absolutely horrified at the prospect of this and used to dread basketball. For those who had low self-esteem and poor body image, this must have been even more terrifying. Bibs do not cost much!
  • Wall ball: the way we used to play it at school was one team stands against a wall whilst the other team throws tennis balls at you as hard as possible to get you out. The general tactic was to ‘take the bullet’ as quickly as possible, as the ‘last man standing’ then had half the class throwing tennis balls at him alone! I seem to remember everyone emerging from this game with bruises and in pain. I remember loving it, but it is definitely a lawsuit waiting to happen. The only fitness development that seemed to occur during this game, took place during the jostling that took place as you tried to hide behind someone else!
  • Relay races: these can be great for fitness if the teams are small and the activities are inclusive of all abilities. At school, however, we used to have huge teams of at least 10 people on most occasions. We spent most of the time standing around waiting and performed for only a short time. The activities always seemed to be aimed at the most able, and as a result some children’s ineptness at certain sport skills was on public display for all to see – not a great way of promoting physical activity beyond school.
  • Public display games: this includes a whole host of games we used to play in PE lessons which were basically a variation of a theme. They invariably involved the whole class split into two teams, and on the PE teacher’s command one from each team would run into the centre and compete against their counterpart on the opposing team. This might involve trying to score a goal or shoot a basket, for example. You spent most of the lesson sitting down, and you would suddenly find yourself then having to give a public display of this sport skill. Not very good at instilling self-confidence and bolstering self-esteem, especially for those who were not so adept in sport.
  • Elimination games: most of the games we played in school PE lessons involved some sort of elimination. I personally like competition and winning and losing are important lessons to learn, but what seemed to happen was the vast majority of the class were always eliminated quite fast and then spent an inordinate amount of time watching the kids good at sport play the game. It appeared that if you were good at sport you always got to play more, and the less able always got to watch you play – a demonstration of survival of the fittest, but not a great way of developing everyone’s fitness and skill levels.
  • Rope climbing: I used to personally love this, but then I could do it. For those who couldn’t, a period of ritual humiliation ensued, where they repeatedly failed in front of all their peers, who indubitably jeered and mocked. If you add to this the fact we were encouraged to touch the gymnasium ceiling with no mats underneath us, and the plethora of rope burns experienced by the whole class, rope climbing was definitely not a suitable activity for the whole class in a PE lesson.

Simple adaptations to the games could have made them so much more inclusive, enjoyable and safe, whilst also developing fitness and skill levels for all. I have only scratched the surface here!! I used to love ‘old-school’ PE lessons, but I know most of my peers were filled with trepidation and anxiety by them, and very few of them are now active. Thankfully, my children don’t experience such occurrences at their school, which whilst promoting competition, also promotes inclusiveness and well-being. I hope this is a common experience for all, but I can’t help suspecting that some relics from the past are still practiced.

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Dave Lee

Dave Lee

Dave Lee is the co-founder of Amac, he continues to write and produce all our courses and you might even find him teaching you.

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