Friday, July 18, 2008

Why Boys Fear Physical Education

[dodge ball is hell for some boys]

This showed up in my feeds, a link from UPI: Why boys fear physical education. There's lots of reason for boys to fear PE class, most of which revolve around shame and fear. Here is what the article contends (my thoughts below):
If a boy is thinner or heavier than he wants to be, the stress and anxiety of attending physical education may be prohibitive, a Canadian study said.

Michael Kehler and Kevin Wamsley of The University of Western Ontario said most teen obesity research involves inactivity linked to television viewing and the computer, but little research in masculinity, body image and health.

Kehler said that in Ontario all high school students are required to take at least one course in health and physical education. Most boys choose to take gym in Grade 9, but others postpone it to a year later when the topic is related to health and does not include gymnasium or playing field activities.

Kehler and Wamsley along with Michael Atkinson of the University of Loughborough in Britain did one-on-one interviews of high school boys as well as observations in physical education classes and Web logging.

Gym anxiety plays out in a number of ways, from disinterest to genuine fear of being harassed, Kehler said.

"Often boys who don't feel at ease are terrified to go to the locker room or class, fearing they will be mocked for their size, their lack of athletic prowess, or that they will fall victim to homophobia," Kehler said.

I think we had to take a PE class each year I was in school up until the 10th grade. I was good at sports, and relatively bigger than my peers, so PE was a breeze for me. Not so for everyone.

The little, skinny kids were picked on. The boys who were bad at sports were teased. The two or three kids everyone thought were gay got it the worst, snapped with towels, called names, whatever else the bullies could think of.

I had been bullied for other reasons -- I was a nerd, an athletic and physically imposing nerd, but geekdom stuck to me like flies on a cowpie. So I didn't pick on the kids with low self-esteem about their bodies, and my guess is that some of them still carry the trauma from those experiences.

When we are just beginning to develop a sense of who we are as males, body image is a big part of that in our culture. Those boys who are smaller and weaker than the rest are bound to suffer beyond the teasing in gym class.

As men (and I am not a father, but I have done some coaching) there is only so much we can do to stop this behavior. If we step in to defend a kid, the kid feels even more emasculated than if he takes his psychological lumps. But we can teach boys to be kind and considerate of others, educate them in the differences in development, and instill in them a sense of empathy for the pain of others. But if you don't think it's a big deal, please consider that bullying can lead to suicide in some kids.

Unfortunately, this type of teasing is going to happen -- it's a part of the process of growing up for most kids. Boys need to test out their strength, determine their social ranking, and physical prowess is one of the ways they do it.

If my son was being teased that way, I might help him find a way to develop his own strength and sense of self, either through a sport or weight training (which any kid can do), or a martial arts. If we instill in our kids a sense of self-worth, no amount of teasing will leave lasting scars.

It might be tough while it is happening, but be there for your son, do things with him that provide a sense of competence. In the long run, it'll pay off in a better relationship with your boy, and with him being more successful in life.


Anonymous said...

Bullying behavior in PE was tolerated in grade school and junior high by teachers and coaches, and positively encouraged by the high school coaches, who thought the weaker boys deserved it, and it promoted comeraderie among the jocks.

Anonymous said...

I'm a middle-aged man who has been working on a bodybuilding program at a health club for a year and a half. This has been very beneficial for me. So you might be surprised to hear me say that I am adamantly opposed to mandatory P.E. being forced upon nonathletic kids. The real purpose of P.E. has been to promote only sports, not physical fitness. I've heard of Remedial Math and Remedial English, but have you ever heard of Remedial P.E.? I dare say that many (not all) boys' P.E. coaches have absolutely no empathy for skinny or fat boys, and actually look down on them with contempt. More bullying goes on in P.E. classes than in all the academic classes combined. This totally callous approach to P.E., in which nonathletic kids are stigmatized from the very beginning, actually discourages them from becoming being physically active! I have no use for morally vacant people who condone bullying and blame the victim. There is absolutely no justification for forcing nonathletic boys to be subjected to the hell that is P.E., when their physical fitness needs are ignored by the coaches anyway. You'd be surprised how many middle-aged men carry emotional scars from P.E. I have absolutely no respect for most boys' P.E. coaches! If academic classes were taught in the same way, there would be widespread outrage against it.


Anonymous said...

I've come back.

Yes, I'm still working out at the same local health club. I've spent a small fortune on a succession of personal trainers, all of whom have been excellent. (William, I understand you're a personal trainer yourself.) I have more muscular development now in my mid-sixties than I ever did when I was young, including the four years I was forced to take "sports only" P.E. -- a school-imposed misery that turned out to be completely useless.

Aside from the handful of reformers today who actually recognize that the nonathletic students historically have been shortchanged by mandatory P.E., I have absolutely no respect for the so-called "Physical Education" establishment. They forced a time of misery upon nonathletic boys particularly while offering absolutely NOTHING in the way of exercise programs. Not even bodybuilding.

More often than not, these so-called "classes" were "taught" by coaches who were prejudiced against nonathletic boys. These P.E. coaches regarded nonathletic boys to be inferior and deserving of no respect. They could have helped these boys by training them in bodybuilding or some other exercise regimen, which would have given them a lot of self-confidence. But did they do this? Of course, not! They only cared about student athletes.

Many of them also had no problem with bullying. I've done Google searches on "phys ed bullying" and "p.e. bullying" and have come across some of the most appalling tales I've ever heard (but not surprised), including instances of physical assault that should have been prosecuted in court.

In none of my P.E. classes (as well as those of other middle-aged nonathletic guys) was there any instruction as to how the games of baseball, basketball, or football were played or how to properly throw a baseball or a football or how to shoot a basketball (all of which are physical skills that must be taught).

Incidentally, in her senior year in high school, my older daughter had a calculus teacher who did not give lectures to her students, but just said, "Read the textbook. Figure it out for yourselves." Fortunately, her mother (my wife) had been a high-school math teacher for ten years and had taught calculus before she retired the year our daughter was born. So, my wife assumed the responsibilities of our daughter's calculus "teacher" and helped her get an A in the class. At the end of the academic year, the teacher was FIRED for not doing her job. For generations many P.E. coaches haven't done any teaching, either (except, of course, for football players and other athletes); yet they continue to be allowed to hold their jobs. They're not held to the same standards as academic teachers. A bit inconsistent, wouldn't you say?

Anonymous said...

(continued from above) What nonathletic boys DID learn was to resent and fear coaches and athlete classmates. Yet the claim has been made by all the promoters of this sort of P.E. (who oppose any reforms, such as the innovative PE4Life program) that they are concerned about the physical health of sedentary students. Baloney! What hypocrisy!

I continue to be amazed by the stark differences between health clubs and mandatory P.E. As a nonathletic guy, I know what works and what DOESN'T work for nonathletic boys because I have personally experienced both in my life. But don't expect the phys ed establishment to show any real concern for the physical fitness needs of nonathletic boys. The only boys they care about are the athletes.

So, the record of the phys ed establishment has been to neglect the nonathletic boys and to set them up in situations in which they're bound to be bullied; and the bullying was (and has been) condoned (and sometimes even encouraged) by coaches who utter(ed) inanities such as "Boys will be boys," "The victim brings it upon himself," "Who cares? The victim is just a nerd/geek/sissy/wimp/queer/fag," or "It's just a rite of passage." But most importantly, the nonathletic boys did not get the exercise they needed!

The phys ed establishment has a lot to answer for. I have absolutely no respect for them and their incompetence, lack of empathy, and their blatant hypocrisy.

Thank you, William, for presenting a point of view that has been completely ignored by the sports media and just about everyone else.


(Sorry if I messed up the order of my two-part message. :) )