This girl can’t: why PE lessons ruined exercise for me

When you think back to your time at school, do you look back fondly on PE lessons? Do you remember all the amazing times you had with your super-sporty friends – all the highjumps you aced and the relay races you won? Oh. GR8. Good for you. I’m sure you have really toned legs and a load of trophies and I’m not bitter at ALL.

*Returns ten minutes later with puffy eyes and a tissue in-hand* Sniff. See, I don’t feel nostalgic about old PE lessons. I don’t long for the days of rounders (DEEP FIELDERS UNITE) or for an hour spent wheezing during the bleep test. Instead, I tend to reminisce with a strange, part-sad, part-angry feeling.

I don’t like the idea of putting someone down when they’re struggling with something. In maths lessons or science lessons, the teachers wouldn’t ever make comments like “Well, don’t pass Sophie the hydrochloric acid; the place’ll go up in smoke!” NOTE: I don’t know if hydrochloric acid causes fires or not. I don’t even know what it is, such is my lack of scientific know-how. But that’s my point – in my experience, all of the science and maths and art teachers saw when you were finding things hard and went out of their way to encourage you. They wouldn’t make sarcastic comments or actively draw attention to where you’d gone wrong. So what was it about my PE teachers that made them think “Aha, I spy a shy, unconfident pupil who can’t throw a ball. LET’S BE AS AWFUL AS WE CAN”?

The jibes were always so hyperbolic, too. It was if my PE teachers were tweeting out loud, ten years ahead of schedule. “That was honestly the WORST javelin throw I’ve ever seen in my entire 22 years of teaching,” I remember one saying. Well SHIT, Mrs H, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad?! You drama queen. I ain’t retweetin’ this.

You know what I hate, though? How I still remember what she said to me – in front of a class of 30 sniggering girls – a decade later. I recall another teacher (who despised me even more) declaring “You throw the shotput like a ballerina!” and me wanting to pirouette the hell out of the gym. What’s wrong with looking like a ballerina? I’m sure that throwing a heavy, metal ball gracefully is something NOT MANY PEOPLE CAN DO. And why insult someone instead of showing them how to improve?

The worst day of the year, without doubt, was sports day. Bloody sports day. WHERE’S THE ENGLISH LITERATURE DAY, that’s what I wanna know. Ten house points to the kid who can read Paradise Lost the fastest.

Here is my list of sports day excuses, used from years 7-11:

  • My hayfever is so bad I can’t see.
  • My leg hurts…I think it’s broken.
  • I feel sick and I’m scared I’m going to throw up on the person who hands me the relay baton.
  • I’ve got REALLY bad period cramps. Oh…yes, I know I was on my period last week. I have…an unusual cycle.
  • I had a dream I died while doing the 100 metre sprint so I think it’s best I sit this one out.

Did anyone listen to me? Of course not. They were used to a sea of excuses from anxious kids like me who had been dreading this event since the end of the last one. “Nonsense!” the teachers roared, “You’ll have a great day. Being out in the sun, getting active…”

‘Being out in the sun, getting active’ usually translated to ‘Sitting on the astroturf all day watching other people do sporty stuff, while dreading your own event and becoming increasingly conscious of the pins and needles in your legs and your sunburnt nose’. Gone were the days of the egg and spoon race and the let’s-all-jump-in-pillowcases fun for everyone (although I can understand why health and safety shelved the latter) – sports days in 2001-2006 were serious. And fairly traumatic.

The only time I really enjoyed PE was when we got to do something like dance. For some reason, I could deal with dance (probz cos of the fantastic ballerina in me). It was solitary, it didn’t involve throwing anything or catching anything or hitting anything, and it made a lot more sense to me than running around after a ball in the freezing cold. The only time I ever scored remotely highly on a PE test was when I had to create and perform a routine in year 8 – I fed off this for years and was always very quick to remind my teacher of “that time I did well in dance.”

Sadly, other lessons weren’t so much fun. When teachers are making mean comments, that unspokenly makes it okay for the 14 year-old girls in your class (who are really good at sport and find your lack of co-ordination laughable) to do the same. These girls were the worst. They all had to stick blue plasters over their recently-pierced bellybuttons and used Jane Norman bags to carry their PE kits in. They didn’t just hate the fact you weren’t good at PE, they hated your ENTIRE BEING. If it wasn’t your catching skills, it was your hair. If it wasn’t your slow running, it was your Clarks trainers. If it wasn’t your terrible netball playing, it’d be your eyebrows, which were FAR TOO BIG (God damn you all, if I’d listened to my mum instead of you I’d have Cara brows right now).

It probably will not surprise you to learn I haven’t played sport or ran or done anything remotely exercise-related since 2006. I REJOICED on the last day of PE in year 11, when I knew I would never be forced to dress in a pleated netball skirt and run around an unforgiving grey pitch ever again. I was a happy girl.

But remember when I said that now I feel sad and angry when I look back to PE? I do. I feel like something that’s intrinsic to health and wellbeing – exercise – has been grabbed and ripped from the ‘happy’ filing cabinet in my brain. It’s not even in the ‘not bad’ category. It’s in the ‘ugh, no, please, get it away from me’ category, alongside pork chops and driving in rush hour traffic. Fair enough, I was never chosen to play Sporty Spice at breaktime in primary school – I was always Posh because she could sit on the bench and do some thinking while everyone else played hopscotch. But something I found difficult didn’t have to become something I hated. It could have turned into something I grew to enjoy, or at least learned to cope with. I wish I could stop associating running with people laughing at me, or thinking of organised sports as a tiny taste of hell, but I can’t seem to.

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