Taking the Fear Out of Physical Education

by SPARK


A woman trainer at the gym helps her student lift weights.

An educator’s job goes beyond ensuring students learn particular facts and develop certain skills. Instead, educators play a critical role in instilling their students with a love of learning, discovery and exploration.

Ideally, an enthusiastic and skilled educator can help a student not only remember the year the Constitution was written or the Civil War broke out, but also imbue them with a sense of wonder and make them want to learn more about history.

Yet physical education is a subject where many educators can inadvertently have the exact opposite effect, making their students flee from the subject. Negative experiences in gym class as a child can make a person less likely to engage in physical activity as an adult.

What can physical educators do to ensure their classes are the start of a lifelong enjoyment of physical activity? And how can adults who are still intimidated by negative experiences in gym class learn to love exercise for the first time?

What Educators Can Do for Students

A bad physical education teacher doesn’t only scare kids away from gym class — he or she can also make them throw in the towel for the rest of their lives.

A 2009 study in the academic journal Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise found negative experiences in gym class as children keeps people far away from team sports for years. As one study participant said, “[physical education] robbed me of the joy of physical activity for many years…It destroyed my physical confidence.”

Another study examined the practice of picking teams in physical education class, and found this caused “real and long-lasting harm to people’s psyches and their physical activity participation levels.”

Doing the wrong thing can cause a lot of harm. So, what are the right things that physical educators should do?

Keep the Goal in Mind

As a physical educator, sometimes it’s easy to forget what the end goal is. Teaching children sports is not the end goal — teaching them teamwork and physical coordination and improving their physical strength and health are the end goals. Sports are one means to this end.

Keeping this in mind will change the way you approach teaching physical education. It will minimize the importance of winning and losing, and will help you adopt more creative ways of teaching skills.

Consider the example of teaching a child to dribble a basketball. The important thing is not that they know how to dribble a basketball; rather, it’s that they improve their hand-eye coordination. Having them dribble through a course of pylons is one way of helping them improve their hand-eye coordination, but there are many other drills and activities that can use a basketball to achieve the same ends. The trick is finding the activities that your students will find enjoyable rather than excruciating.

Make It Fun

The thought of physical activity shouldn’t induce feelings of apprehension or fear. It should be fun! A 2014 study of youth athletes found the overwhelming reason they played sports was because it was fun. When it’s no longer fun, the main reason to play is gone.

An important way to keep sports and physical activity fun is to minimize attention on outcomes. Avoid keeping score. Offer positive reinforcement. Make having fun a more important goal than winning. Emphasize self-improvement rather than competitiveness. Encourage your students to do better at a physical activity than they did the time before, rather than comparing them to other students.

These are particularly important principles when teaching physical education at the younger ages, but the overarching goal of encouraging fun is important to keep in mind at all ages.

Remember That Your Attitude Matters

Physical educators are often people who care a lot about sports and take profound satisfaction in athletic achievement. Sometimes this makes them too quick to push children harder and farther than children are ready to go.

Remember, the role of a physical educator is different than that of a coach. Children don’t need a drill sergeant, they need an educator who cares about creating a safe and fun environment for them to learn.

With your words and actions, demonstrate that effort is more important than perfection, and fun is more important than winning. Your attitude will set the tone for the class, and ultimately make a huge difference in how your students feel about physical activity.

Think Beyond Sports

Sports are great, and team sports in particular impart many important skills. All the same, some students will not gravitate towards sports as much as to other physical activities. It is important for them to understand that physical activity is not limited to competitive sports.

Introduce your students to other physical activities like dance, wall climbing, archery, aerobics, yoga and outdoor activities like canoeing. You’ll broaden their understanding of physical activity and make it more likely they hit on an activity they’ll enjoy enough to make a lifelong hobby.

Eliminate Picking Teams

One last suggestion: don’t let your students pick teams. Students who are picked last describe the experience as embarrassing, alienating and frustrating. It can invoke strong feelings of sadness, shame and even anger.

None of these are emotions you want your students to associate with physical education. When playing sports, make the teams yourself. As the educator, you will probably be much better at creating teams and making for a more enjoyable experience for the entire class.

How Adults Can Overcome Negative Experiences

If you’ve had a bad childhood experience with physical education, it can shape the way you view physical activity for the rest of your life. You may feel intimidated by the very idea of going to the gym or joining a sports team.

There a few ways you can overcome these feelings. For example, if you want to begin weightlifting, but find the gym an intimidating place, you can set up a home gym. Another option is to could go the gym with someone you trust, who can help make you feel more at ease. Even doing a few sessions with a personal trainer can help many people feel more comfortable.

It’s also worthwhile to think about the activities you have negative associations with. If you found team sports stressful and unenjoyable, consider trying solo sports like cycling, golf or swimming.

Don’t let a bad gym teacher from your childhood ruin a lifetime of physical activity. There is an incredible range of physical activities suited to everyone’s skills and interests. Find the one that you’ll enjoy today to have a healthy hobby for life.

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  • Stephanie Foreman

    I have been teaching physical education for 25 years. In those 25 years, I have taught my students how important it is to set goals for their health. I was that student in middle school and high school that loved physical education. I would ask to take extra physical education classes to get out of study hall. I took the classes because I enjoyed being active instead of sitting around. I probably would have been labeled ADD by today’s standards. It was and always has been easier for me to learn by moving around and participating.
    At first, it was difficult to understand why all of my students did not like physical education class. My thoughts were, you are out of your seat and moving around with your friends, what is not to like about physical education. It then began to register in my brain that not all students would get enjoyment out of movement. At first, this was a struggle for me to comprehend so I started to ask my reluctant students why they did not like physical education. To my surprise, some of the students felt pressure from their friends to be great at all of the activities. Some students had never used some of the equipment before at home. I did not realize 25 years ago that students did not have the same love or experiences I had growing up.
    I took my students worries to heart and began to work on the things I could manage in my classroom to help overcome their fears. I would assign groups and partners to make sure no student felt left out or under appreciated. I gave positive feedback to all students on something that had happened in physical education class that day. I have, since day one, told my students that all I can ask of them is to try to come in and be better in physical education class than the day before. I begin each year with diagnostic tests to determine their skill set and prior experience for all different skills that will be developed over the coming year. The last and most important thing I have been doing is making contact with the families to open up communications between school and home to make sure positive relationships are formed from the beginning of the year.
    I believe that physical education is important to each and every student to foster overall development and learning. As an educator, lifelong learning and health is the goal we should have for each and every student that walks through our classroom door.
    ~Stephanie

  • ebenag

    Stephanie,
    I too was one to always enjoy physical education and exercise growing up. I had the experience of having both sides of the spectrum for loving and hating physical education class. In elementary, I absolutely loved my PE teacher and the things we did in class. I was constantly talking about my teacher and couldn’t wait until it was PE day. Unfortunately, when I got to middle school PE my views changed. I had teachers that would just sit on the bleachers while we played games and not fully be engaged. Along with this, we played the same games over and over, played the dreaded dodgeball, and we were even allowed to give ourselves our own grade. Having both of these experiences made me want to become a PE teacher more than I already did as a child when I had a wonderful experience. Not only did I want to becoming a Physical Education teacher to teach kids to love exercise as much as I do and to show them ways to stay healthy throughout their whole lives, but I also wanted to be that awesome teacher that was involved and make students feel good about themselves unlike I had in middle school. Today’s Physical Education is much different than it was before standards came along. I think these standards were in a way a good thing the hit the PE world. They made sure teachers are getting in skills and other activities that students can do the rest of their lives. I too don’t ask for my students to be perfect at everything we do in class, but I just ask that they try their best because I realize each student has different sports and subjects they are good at. My main goal in the gym is make the environment feel safe and fun for all students no matter what sport or skill we are learning. I am pushing myself to get better at communication with parents so they can be up to date with what we are learning in our classroom, understand the benefits, and if they had a bad experience in PE when they were younger, feel better about what their child will be doing and know that they will have a completely different experience in my class. I hope that all students in my class can say they have had a positive experience in elementary PE class, learned valuable skills and activities, and become lifelong enjoyers of some type of exercise just like I had when I was younger. If this happens, then I am doing my job as a Physical Education teacher in the “NEW PE”.
    -Alayna

  • Stephanie Foreman

    Alayna,
    I think we can both speak for the way things used to be and the “New PE” building better relationships with students than past PE. The worry for me is that so many students today are so invested in technology, they are missing out on the physical benefits of being outside and playing. Today there is also the fear of allowing kids to play outside because our world, sorry to say, is not always safe. When I was younger (many moons ago), I was allowed to stay outside until the street lights lit up for dusk. I lived in suburbia and all of the kids in the neighborhood would ride bikes, play kickball or baseball in the church yard, or just swing on our friends swing sets. Today families have to be afraid to allow their kids out of their site for even a few seconds because our society has changed so drastically.
    I think it is a great idea to give students activities they can participate in that do not involve being on a team or requiring traveling to some sport complex for participation. Many of our students today have families where both parents work or they are being raised by a single parent that cannot take them to required practices. It is important for these individuals to learn activities for lifelong participation that do not require organizations to support the participation.
    Parents today need to see the value of physical education class for the health of the child. It is important to reach out to the parents that still believe PE is old-school throw out the ball and play class. Our profession is to be respected and it can be well received if the community understands what we stand for with our students. We stand for lifelong activity and health for all students regardless of their strengths or weaknesses.
    ~Stephanie