Mom won't let me move to Madagascar
November 7, 2017 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I love this. It exactly covers how I felt in school being made to play sports -- no one taught you how to do anything, so if you weren't naturally able to do something, you were yelled at, by teachers and kids. It was torture, and nowadays whenever I'm down I like to count up how many years it's been since anybody was able to force me to play a sport (37).

Years and years later, I saw the cartoon Daria and wished I'd had the nerve back then to do this.
posted by JanetLand at 9:26 AM on November 7 [38 favorites]

This was really great! Thanks for posting.
posted by jillithd at 9:38 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

Contains one of my favorite Susie comebacks: "Relax. Stupidity produces antibodies."
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:40 AM on November 7 [15 favorites]

I still remember the first PE class in first grade. We were immediately organized to play kickball, and it did not seem to occur to Coach, or to any of the other kids, to discuss the actual rules of kickball. Everyone was totally bewildered that I was bewildered. Rules of baseball? Nope, didn't ring a bell. That just wasn't how we worked in my family. As it happened, that PE day was also school picture day, and nobody had told me that I might in fact want to change clothes. I still remember trying to kick the ball with my patent leather shoes and lacy anklets. It all ended in tears, and sitting under the tree poking at ants.

Until this piece, it hadn't really occurred to me that this happened to other kids, too, especially boys. I just assumed that this was something found wanting in me, whether you would care to interpret that as a sign of superiority, or lazy snobbishness, or nothing in particular. It didn't occur to me that it was, in this class as in others, a teacher's responsibility to teach. Granted, it occurred to few gym teachers in the '80s.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:41 AM on November 7 [73 favorites]

Until this piece, it hadn't really occurred to me that this happened to other kids, too, especially boys.

I really should have sent my organized baseball experiences in to the AV Club's old "Pathetic Geek Stories" column. The wrestling unit in 9th grade PE was even worse, though.
posted by thelonius at 9:46 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

it did not seem to occur to Coach, or to any of the other kids, to discuss the actual rules of kickball

I had the same experience with tackle football! And got assigned by the gym teacher to be some kind of defensive position that involved getting knocked down real hard with no apparent warning.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:51 AM on November 7 [7 favorites]

I really enjoyed this thoughtful essay. It only recently occurred to me how into their children today's parents are, whereas my folks were definitely the "you figure it out" types.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:55 AM on November 7 [10 favorites]

While I'm here I also would like to register a complaint about the time in ninth grade that I tried to take up running for my PE requirement. I ended up with stress fractures and limped out of it for the rest of the term. Until this year, I assumed it was because I was overweight. And I barely even was! I was a perfectly healthy girl! I was just trying to keep up with a standardized schedule on a hard track. I never tried running again. I wonder ... well --
posted by Countess Elena at 9:57 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]

I used to describe my participation in organized sports as being limited to ducking and screaming. I’m clumsy and have terrible proprioception. I wonder if these kinds of activity gaps hindered my development as, like, a person. I spent every field day sitting on the sidelines picking at flowers, it wasn’t fair to the other kids to have me in their teams. Like Calvin, nobody tried to remediate my skill level.

I have been able to connect this to my own performance of femininity as well. My mother wasn’t usually around and my grandmother and other female role models were very concerned about keeping me from admitting in public that I had bodily functions.

How to attend a sleepover party, wear makeup, match clothes, when and how to wear a bra (never mind a sports bra!), gossip, keep secrets, phone ettiquette, how and when to use deodorant. All of this was lost on me.

I’ve learned a lot of this as an adult, mostly thanks to therapy and book publishers, but my friendships definitely suffer, and I still generally refuse to shave. And now rosacea means makeup is mostly off the table for me, but even eye shadow still never looks quite right and there’s something about lipstick that I am getting wrong that even the folks st Sephora haven’t explained to me.
posted by bilabial at 9:57 AM on November 7 [16 favorites]

I signed up and learned how to be a passable Tennis player just so I could avoid being placed in my high school physical education program. If you're on a team, you get your sports/athletic credits that way. And I absolutely was not going to endure high school dodge ball or football or basketball or anything else.

Running laps around a tennis court was more preferable than having to be in a team sport where I was going to be picked on or made fun of for my small size. And at least with Tennis, I felt like I had more control over my body and the sport I was engaged in.
posted by Fizz at 10:01 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]

I completely absorbed the trope that no kids want to play organized sports, that they’re made to compete to fulfill their parents’ fantasies. Then I was blessed with a son who is in love with all sports.

I was pushed to play baseball as a kid, I kinda liked it I guess. But it also brings out the worst kind of cruelty in kids and my fantasies involving my own kids were about building robots in the garage and becoming a world class concert pianist.

But on his own, Kid #1 declared that physical competition was his thing and good, attentive parents recognize their interests and talents and encourage them. And you know what? It’s been kind of awesome.

His soccer team are his best friends in the world. All the other parents are similarly skeptical hippies and not only do these kids work hard to develop their skills, they’ve noticed each other’s particular strengths and use them together to build an effective team where they all fit in and they all encourage each other to play better. (In Seattle Youth Soccer you’re allowed to pick your team and you can stay together year after year.) I have never seen one of the kids complain, or taunt another kid and they even congratulate an opposing player for a good play. I know, it sounds totally nuts, and this is not the level of mature thinking we see at home. But if there’s a right way to Sports, this is it.

Kid #1 is setting the pace; anytime he expresses an interest in a new game, we encourage it. That might mean watching a Seahawks game, or playing NBA2K17 on the Xbox to learn the rules, or signing him up for a week of ski lessons. But it’s really amazing to see him go for it, the way other kids go after the Harry Potter books.

One day he came home from 3rd grade and told me Coach Murphy is letting him join the cross country team. I didn’t even know they had cross country at his school or that it starts at 4th grade, but the next Sunday, there I am at a track meet, watching my kid finish in the front third of the mile with a bunch of 4th and 5th graders. Now he goes on morning runs with my wife or me.

He’s not a terribly naturally gifted athlete, but he tries hard and isn’t afraid (ask me about trying to chase him down double black diamonds). I think at some point the competing and winning is going to a bigger part of all this and dealing with failure and success will be an added dimension, but I’m assuming that will be character building.

This author’s child is only three. I applaud him for recognizing that Disinterested Adults + Kid’s Forced Into Sports = Bad Things. But I’m also going to pull a #notallchildathletes on him. I think the important thing is to recognize what your kids’ interests are and be prepared to find what’s positive and useful about it and move them in that direction. Don’t dismiss the whole Lord of the Flies/peer pressure aspect of organized kids’ sports because your 3 year old might really love it and thrive on a baseball team.

Meanwhile, Kid #2 cannot ride a bike or even throw a ball, but he’s learning how to wire up circuit boards so I may get to build my garage robot yet.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:08 AM on November 7 [61 favorites]

Ye gods, first grade kickball is burned into my brain fortymumble years later. "We're playing kickball!" was announced one afternoon. "What?" "KICKBALL!!!!" everyone yelled back, as if I was a clueless visitor from Mars. And thus began a long and inglorious career of hating team sports.

I was telling my (awesome, caring, is a goddess) personal trainer at my gym about my traumatic experiences with PE (including a lecture on weightlifting in eighth grade that stressed how girls must lift light weights only, or we'll get muscles, WHICH IS UNFEMININE, BAD and WRONG) and how I wished I had come to her for training all these years ago. She told me that she hears this all the time from her middle-aged and older clients.

Stuff like this makes me want to slap those who wax lyrical about the Good Old Days Of Free-Range Childhoods. There was a lot of suck involved in having adults be hands-off. We weren't always resilient, bullying didn't build character, and many of us could have used caring adults in our corners.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:10 AM on November 7 [34 favorites]


thanks for posting this. I'mma go cry now.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:12 AM on November 7 [7 favorites]

This was me. Now I've got a baby on the way and this is poking at all my insecurities.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:12 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

Dodgeball, now, that I liked. It had one rule: do not be in the place where the ball is. And I was good at that.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:12 AM on November 7 [18 favorites]

My parents signed my brother and me up for team sports every year without having much interest in them themselves. And just like Calvin, I never really learned how to play any of them. I was also a chubby unathletic kid, which made matters worse.

One saving grace, I think was that all of the leagues we were signed up for had the "loser team" - the kids that none of the other teams wanted after tryouts. I'll give the parents who coached the losers a lot of credit, because they were always upbeat and tried to make sure we all had a good time while also making sure we got some exercise and practice (however badly managed it was). We invariably lost every game - one notable season of soccer we scored exactly one goal - and we invoked the mercy rule frequently, which was pretty frustrating. But I was hanging out with friends and we didn't get yelled at for sucking, so that was good.

It feels a little bad that I came away from all those years of baseball, soccer, and basketball still not understanding all the rules and with no desire to be involved in sports ever again. Nowadays I hate competition of any kind and would much prefer solitary or cooperative activities.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:14 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I had almost this exact experience with football in middle school. We were split up into teams and put on the field and then kickoff happened--or whatever it's called. We never discussed the rules of football, it was assumed everyone already knew them. I have the ability to do a lot of complicated things--edit audio into cohesive stories, run a bunch of mics through a mixer, navigate Atlanta's highways and surface streets... the rules and mechanics of football are as foreign and byzantine to me as anything.

My 4 year old just wrapped up his...second? year playing youth soccer and his mom and I have been really trying to be there and present, making sure he's having fun, listening to his coach, and helping his teammates. It is adorable.

Also I am now crying. C&H is so foundational to my childhood, basically anything having to do with it makes whatever room I'm in surprisingly dusty.
posted by Maaik at 10:14 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I love sports and could easily go head-to-head with the pe teachers as far as rules go on most sports on the curriculum, I just didn't (and don't) have the endurance to run around. It's not like I had a lot of space to actually play sports, either, so watching sports all Saturday and Sunday afternoon and reading encyclopaedias and books about sports is all I could do.
posted by lmfsilva at 10:15 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

I recall this sequence of C&H strips very well because I really empathised for Calvin. I was miserably hopeless at most organised sports but it was doubly hard because my dad coached baseball. By about 11 or 12 my dad finally gave up on me ever actually understanding baseball or most sports and attempted to teach me boxing. After one exhausting Sunday he gave up on that too and let me be the kind of kid I was. I did develop an interest in Track and Field and was a surprisingly acceptable short distance runner by the time I reached High School but by that point my dad had lost interest. For a long time I felt I like I had failed being a man but by High School I recognised it wasn't my fault.

I was reminded about this sequence of strips again recently when a friend of mine sent her son, somewhere on the autistic spectrum, to baseball camp one summer. It was his first real organised sports camp and never played baseball previously. I felt so bad for that kid.

For my own kid, he has a hearing disability which makes it difficult to play some organised sports, I let him decide what he wants to try. Generally he gravitates to the more solo stuff.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:17 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I had almost this exact experience with football in middle school.

Oh gosh, I just remembered something that happened to me at that age. I was hanging out with some neighborhood kids and they wanted to play football in the street. I did not know how to play, they told me it was easy and gave me the ball so I could play quarterback. I took the ball, everyone got in position... and then I ran to what we had marked as the goal line. I thought I was being clever, but then they all yelled at me so I handed them back the ball and never played again. Still don't really understand how the game works.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:19 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

It's a nice take on the article, flowing as it does from the author's own history. Mine, however, was different and also fits Calvin's perspective but from a slightly different angle.

Calvin hates the rules and restrictions of organized sports, but his explanation also suggests a lack of knowledge. He complains that, in sports, “Somebody’s always yelling at you, telling you what to do, where to be, and when to do it.” It implies a certain inexperience—people have to tell him what to do in organized sports because he doesn’t naturally know how to play them.

In this section Wong reads into what Calvin is saying and extrapolates that better teaching may be a solution for his feelings on team sports. That's legitimate enough and Wong follows that thread of thought throughout his commentary, mentioning his own lack of knowledge and abilities in athletics as a child and his perspective now as a father himself. Wong offers his feelings about team sports in this section:

As Calvin’s dad says, there is value in sports: learning teamwork, cooperation, and how to win and lose graciously. But Calvin doesn’t learn any of these lessons in this story arc, nor are any of the adults around him equipped to teach him.

And closes by taking on the responsibility of teaching his son what he wants him to learn.

And I need to be there for my son too. Anything that I want him to know how to do, I have to teach him what to do or find someone who can. My responsibility as a father and a role model is to send him into the world prepared. And if he walks into a situation with neither the skills to accomplish a task nor the courage to ask questions and learn the task, that’s my failure, not his.

That, again, is fine in theory and I'm sure works well for many, but my perspective on team sports was and is much like Calvin's in the beginning of the story arc. I dislike the authoritarian hierarchy involved in team sports and coaching, and had no time for orders and excessive emphasis on winning as a important goal in "play". I was pushed into team sports against my desires for all those allegedly meaningful values its supposed to teach and found none of that in evidence. I wasn't looking for someone to teach me how they wanted me to play and "learn", I was looking to find time for things that interested me, not them. Sure, I was a kid and maybe I wouldn't know what I was missing, but it terms out I did and the experience of being "taught" wasn't a rewarding one.

The article is a good one, it just doesn't fit my experience and preferred reading of the strip.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:21 AM on November 7 [9 favorites]

Good news Calvin: one of the primary way that young adults have for making friends is to join social sports leagues, so you can keep up the tedium of high school gym (that is for the non-athletic) well into your thirties.
posted by codacorolla at 10:23 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

When Calvin arrives at the baseball field for recess, Mr. Lockjaw—an educator!—is just as clueless as every other adult. It quickly becomes apparent that Calvin doesn’t know how to play, but instead of teaching him, Mr. Lockjaw just sends Calvin to the furthest corner of left field.

Sums up 13 years of P.E. for me. In six different schools. I can't think of any other subject where a teacher would be allowed to get away without even *trying* to teach the material.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:23 AM on November 7 [19 favorites]

Oh boy could I relate to this. I was Calvin. My dad never played catch with me or really taught me to do anything at all. He certainly wasn't a good role model and by the time I was in eighth grade he was out of the house. I was That Kid in gym class. The kid who sucked at everything, the kid who got laughed at and picked last. I remember the teachers doing nothing at all to help me, to teach me, or to stop the other kids from picking on me. Hell, the teachers picked on me too. My older brothers couldn't help because they were in the same boat, for the most part.

So I grew up thinking I sucked at sports, which of course turned into resentment about sports and jocks. i couldn't catch or throw a ball. My one attempt playing in a company softball game was legendarily bad. People are still talking about it 20 years later.

When my son joined little league (his choice) I was determined to help him so he wouldn't grow up the same way. I couldn't teach him the finer points of baseball, because I didn't know them, but I could play catch. So when I bought him his first glove I bought one for myself and we started playing catch every day. At first we maybe caught one out of every 20 balls, but after a while we were doing pretty well together. As he improved so did I.

At the same time I also started watching the Red Sox. When I didn't understand what was happening, or what a rule meant, I would google it. I started to understand baseball.

I attended every one of of his games for all the years he played. Almost all the coaches (except for one year) were fantastic. They taught the kids, they encouraged the kids, and they stressed fun. Sometimes they gave the kids a bit of a talking to, but never in a mean or hard way. It was always about trying their best.

Seamus went on to be a great player, even getting picked for the All Star game a couple of years. One year he won the All Star MVP and was the most feared pitcher in the league. He's still playing with his high school, though they're not sure there will be enough kids for a team this year. He doesn't live and breath baseball, he can take it or leave it, but he's a competent player. That's all I could hope for.

As for me? I got to the point where I could confidently catch and throw a baseball. I actually got kind of mad, thinking about all the missed opportunities. Had somebody taken the time to show me how to do things right, I could have, you know, not sucked. I could have been competent. I had the ability all along, but it was wasted. If I could find a league today of other people in the same boat, I'd join it.

I started loving the game in my 40s. I wished I had loved it my whole life. I still watch the Red Sox religiously.

I don't want to blame everything on the adults, I was an immature kid who half-assed everything, but I sure had a lot of shitty teachers who failed me.
posted by bondcliff at 10:26 AM on November 7 [29 favorites]

team sports in school taught me about competition: specifically, they taught me to despise and avoid competition in all its forms

team sports in school taught me about teamwork: specifically, they taught me to do everything i can to avoid inflicting myself on a team, because i'll only drag them down and they'll hate and abuse me for it
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 10:26 AM on November 7 [13 favorites]

Do parents, especially parents who both work, force their kids into sports any more? Our son has reached the age where all the local kids teams seem to involve practices from 3pm-5pm, weekend consuming away games, and required booster meetings/events and we have no idea how families that work 70 hours a week do that. One of the reasons we keep West at the YMCA for after school care is that there are some in-building activities (junior actors club, hip hop dance club, basketball) that he can be (after a lot of nagging and reminding) sent to.

We're willing to take this on some of our free time in support of stuff he likes. He got bit by the kickball bug this year, but luckily there are not any organized leagues that we're aware of. Tae Kwon Do has been a hit at school (he broke some boards on Friday and got a white belt), but all the local dojos are really vague when we ask about lesson times and cost (we will not bring him to a free class that we can't sign him up for because it's at Monday at 3pm). He does have his boffer sword class, but that's more an excuse to hang out with buddies and wail away on teenagers.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:27 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

Our ten year old loves swimming, hip hop dance class, hiking, the machines at the gym and general running and jumping around. He apparently hates recess. He hates it unless, that is, he can just twirl a jumprope by himself. I am certain that he is fully immersed in superhero world as he does so. Otherwise he would rather go to the library. The chaos of other children overwhelms him, as it did me when I was his age. It is falling upon me and my wife to run interference with school and ask them to let him find his space.
posted by vverse23 at 10:27 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]

Another thing that my trainer pointed out is that we send kids to school expecting them to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Kids need to be taught the body's language just as they need to be taught how to read. Thinking that kids just instinctively know how to move their bodies is as silly as thinking they can show up at school knowing how to read and write. But no, we think that sports are something kids know intuitively because they know how to play, don't they?

I also think that "kids just know this kind of stuff" is the refuge of jobsworths like Mr. Lockjaw. I had a high school PE teacher who mostly sat on the sidelines doing crossword puzzles. Must be nice to be paid to do crossword puzzles!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:33 AM on November 7 [19 favorites]

I don't think I was at least in college before it occurred to me that the games I liked in gym class were the ones where they taught us the rules (usually variations of tag, capture-the-flag, and dodgeball).

Years after school, I lived in a place where scuba diving was big, and I had a similar experience learning that. They made it clear the only prerequisites were knowing English, knowing how to stay afloat and having the right skill or stamina to swim a certain distance before running out of steam. But I had never been on a boat that wasn't like a passenger ferry and there were always things the instructors would forget to tell me because most of their students were experienced amateur sailors. Or I'd have the "oh crap, I half-missed the briefing because it was only the second time I've worn a wetsuit and I was trying to figure out if it was on right while he was talking" experience.

Then I happened to go diving with a friend who happened to have been a military dive instructor, and she was great at showing me what to do--presumably because she was used to dealing with random military recruits who had no special nautical knowledge.
posted by smelendez at 10:37 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]

"Granted, it occurred to few gym teachers in the '80s."

A lot of them got into teaching to avoid the draft. I went looking for a link, and CoolPapaBell's previous comment on the topic was the best on the internet:
If you were a member of Generation X, think back on your male high school teachers. Lots of football coaches and auto shop teachers and whatnot.

You probably had some really terrible ones, right? I know I did. I set of male teachers that were pretty much shunned by the other teachers because of their sheer incompetence and general fuck-you attitude. The kind of teachers that were relegated to driver's education duty.

Everyone has them, right?

Not so fast there. Realize that the many male teachers of the 70s and 80s were in the profession only because it provided them with the cheapest, easiest means of avoiding the draft. Getting a teaching credential bought you two extra years of college deferments. And getting a single-subject credential -- physical education for example -- that made you eligible for high school teaching, was the easiest of those.
I did luckily have teachers who taught rules and skills -- I grew up in a fairly intense district where parents were all super-strict about grades and vocal if their kids were unhappy, so gym was a lot fairer than in a lot of districts. Playing actual games was way at the end of the unit, after we'd spent some weeks on skills and rules (including a written test on rules) and various drills and mini-games, and they weren't super-competitive since they were about learning the game. Teachers balanced the teams and rotated positions (so that one guy didn't get to pitch the whole time). (By high school they assumed we generally knew the rules, and we'd spend a week reviewing the rules/skills and then mostly do drills/play games, but, again, appropriate to a gym class, not a competitive league.) I am not athletic, and not coordinated, and I was meh on gym class itself (sometimes fun, sometimes sucked), but in retrospect I'm grateful for it, which I realize means I was lucky. I learned the rules of tons of sports, so I can listen intelligently to other people's sports enthusiasms and be an engaged companion going along to a soccer game or a basketball game watch or whatever, and I picked up enough skills that I can teach my own kids and participate in summer barbecue festival softball games or Thanksgiving pickup football. I throw a better spiral than my husband does -- it's just a skill, which I was taught, and it's pretty simple so you don't forget. I can't throw super-far or super-hard, but I can throw a nice spiral across the yard to someone else fairly accurately. I can usually hit the ball in slow-pitch softball. I can generally toss an underhand pitch to a little kid without hitting them in the face. Etc.

Also in high school we spent six weeks playing badminton and that is hella fun in gym class. A+++ would sport again.

"Do parents, especially parents who both work, force their kids into sports any more? "

Some do. There's a robust economy serving sports-intense parents.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:42 AM on November 7 [11 favorites]

Fizz: I signed up and learned how to be a passable Tennis player just so I could avoid being placed in my high school physical education program. If you're on a team, you get your sports/athletic credits that way. And I absolutely was not going to endure high school dodge ball or football or basketball or anything else.

This was my strategy in high school also. Even though it meant more time doing sports, I had fun, and we were mostly starting from the same place, as I randomly chose water polo and we weren't in Orange County, where water polo is a legit option for youth sports. I wasn't great, but I had fun, and I quit after two years of water polo in the fall and swimming in spring, having done my time on the team and gotten my PE credits. Most of my team complained about the training, particularly for water polo, so I thought "why keep doing something where people complain about the work?" So I had more time to be a geeky slacker. Win-win!

The Underpants Monster: I can't think of any other subject where a teacher would be allowed to get away without even *trying* to teach the material.

I don't want to make the whole world seem awful today, but I'll warn you that there are a fair share of teachers who are just getting by in various ways, if you didn't already know this.

Slarty Bartfast: This author’s child is only three. I applaud him for recognizing that Disinterested Adults + Kid’s Forced Into Sports = Bad Things. But I’m also going to pull a #notallchildathletes on him. I think the important thing is to recognize what your kids’ interests are and be prepared to find what’s positive and useful about it and move them in that direction.

I'll echo this. I have an uncle and aunt who adhered to the notion that their kids had to play sports for some period, and after that time, they could make up their mind if they wanted to continue or stop. The first two kids were pretty good, in part because their dad was seriously invested in sporting and their efforts in sports, but the third kid was just a natural at sports. As a little kid, he was telling us about the rules of Gaelic football when we all watched our first match in Ireland, as he was able to pick up details quicker than any of us, even his sports-focused father. Otherwise, he was a quiet kid.

Now, I have my own two sons, and the first is super cautious, which is generally pretty comforting for a parent with their first child. His little brother is made of tougher stuff, and might be the one to get into sports because sports are fun for him. My father, a basketball fanatic, got our boys a little plastic basketball hoop, and boy #2 has used it more than boy #1, often just because it's there and there's a few balls in our living room, so why not dunk a few balls, and maybe a dinosaur?

You never know what you'll get with kids. Support them in their interests, and they'll have fun, and so will you.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:59 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]

Yup, this was me too. I literally can't listen to Peter, Paul and Mary's song "Right Field."
posted by Melismata at 11:00 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

In 5th grade, our gym class had a unit on baseball. The gym teacher seemed to sense that the kids needed some degree of instruction. So he set up the two students who were last in the batting order to act as base coaches on first and third (swapping out the role with another player when their turn to bat came).

Also, the teams were chosen in the traditional "two captains taking turns choosing players" model.

Also also, the batting order was just the order the players were chosen in.

Which is to say: not only did this gym teacher NOT teach the finer points of baseball strategy, he appointed the last students picked for each team (i.e., the most athletically inept of the class) to advise our more competent classmates on that strategy. So that was fun.
posted by DiscountDeity at 11:01 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

What's funny is I actually liked (and still like) team sports. Pickup basketball? Hell yeah, let's get some. But when I was a kid I had exactly the same experience as Calvin. I signed up to play baseball but the coaches were all convinced their kids were going to The Show, so they got all the focus, and the rest of us were basically there to fill out a roster. One of them asked me once who taught me how to hold a bat, and I (not intending to be a wiseass) said I thought he was supposed to. I got ~~yelled at~~ pretty good.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:03 AM on November 7 [8 favorites]

I liked sports as a kid but was terribly, terribly uncoordinated. Which is its own special hell, different from the kids forced into PE participation - the ones who want to participate, even passably, and are shamed for failing to do so.

As I got older, and it became clear that although tall I was never going to make the school basketball team, my parents suggested that I become the team manager, or keep score, or try being a ref, or anything to keep me involved with a sport I clearly loved. But by that point, the idea of spending even more time with the jocks who'd pick on me was not something I was interested in.

As an adult I've participated in pickup and intramural sports, to varying degrees of silliness (I'm a pretty good kickball pitcher and a middling ax-thrower). But the sport I've never pursued is the one I grew up loving. Even playing weekly pickup basketball with friends of friends the "freeze out the guy who didn't play high school varsity" vibe came pretty hard and fast.
posted by thecjm at 11:05 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

I'm thinking back to the 7th grade when we had to play some softball. A particularly nightmarish incident that I still feel bad about. I was up to bat and I ended up letting go of my bat after the pitch and it slammed into the P.E. teacher's shins.

I was allowed to not participate in group sports after that. This is what contributed towards my desire to avoid general phy/ed in high school a few years later and my joining the Tennis Team, which I referenced up above in an earlier comment. Moments like these which you tend to hold on to as a pre-teen/teen. They cement themselves into your psyche and you replay them over and over again. I can still hear the groans and the "You suck!" comments from the other boys on the field.
posted by Fizz at 11:06 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

My main recollection from grade school softball is that if you have not been explained the hand signals, the sign for out can look a lot like a thumbs up.

"Get off the field." "What, no I'm good, teacher gave me the thumbs up."

Also, the rules for which bases you can overrun and which you have to stop at, as well as what a forced out is were only ever explained after I was out because of them.
posted by ckape at 11:08 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I'm taking solace that at least I wasn't alone in these types of feelings of sadness, fear, regret, shame, frustration that so many of us seemed to have had with group sports and physical education.
posted by Fizz at 11:10 AM on November 7 [10 favorites]

Same here, Fizz. And why Calvin and Hobbes remains to this day a national treasure.
posted by Melismata at 11:13 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]

I was one of those klds who would play any game that came my way, and picked things up easily.

My own kid was uncoordinated, moody, easily upset, and sensitive. She drove teachers and coaches crazy. She whined. She sulked. She didn't understand what was going on.* And from the beginning she played sports.

You can bet that was hard on her parents, because we wanted to support her but we winced every time things didn't go perfectly for her. So we did our best to encourage and support her, and not to be TOO sympathetic when things didn't go well (too much sympathy implies to a kid that what she's going through is going to destroy her utterly, and adds to her distress).

She rowed, played rugby, and fenced in college and, now in her thirties, does aerial stuff at a circus place. She's still a little uncoordinated and moody, but she's resilient as blazes.

I, on the other hand, failed swim class in college (for not showing up) and never took another sport in college. Now, I'll admit I ran long distances into my forties and picked up another sport in my forties, but once I grew up I was no longer any good at doing official gym class.

I guess what I'm saying is that childhood often stinks, people who deal with children, even when they're doing their best, don't always do the right thing, and parents have no idea how things are going to turn out. We all muddle along.

*She is really smart, funny, and kind, and I think she's incredible, but she would tell you the same thing about herself at that age.
posted by Peach at 11:16 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]

I was good at sports as a kid, but I was A Girl and so I spent a lot of time actively fighting with the boys to let me play football or soccer or or basketball or kickball or whatever at recess. It worked, and for a while I was The Girl and was usually picked around the middle of the pack, until Joe Eager, the worst 5th grader in the world, moved to my school and then wouldn't let me play and none of the boys backed me up and so I went back to a world of recess isolation and girls-only soccer, softball, and basketball leagues.

In high school, some of the guys in my gym class were guys who I'd played sports with in elementary school, and even though they let me down when we were 10-year-olds, a few of them remembered that I was a girl who was good at sports. John, who was one of the popular guys and a star on the team baseball team, picked me ahead of some of his friends one game that I distinctly remember, and suggested that I play 3rd base. In a sea of awfulness and divisions and all the terribleness that high school has to offer, particularly around the realm of social structures and organized sports in gym classes, that was such a kind moment and I distinctly remember it 13 years later. I didn't embarrass myself, I made a few good plays, and we all high-fived.

Anyways, now John has a 7-year-old daughter and she's playing Little League and John is coaching her team, and it makes me smile to think about all the kids he's teaching about sports and sportsmanship and the fact that it is OK to be kind.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:17 AM on November 7 [18 favorites]

whereas my folks were definitely the "you figure it out" types

Yeah, this is getting away from the "team sports" a bit, but my parents were divorced and my mom had primary custody, so she was the one that dealt with things like the Science Fair and Pinewood Derby and whatnot. And she was a "Hey if you don't do the work, you won't learn anything!" type. Which is fine, but then I'd go into the Science Fair. The Dads would have built a fully functioning miniature reactor for their kids or a working solar cell out of potatoes and I'd have some barely-functional thing an 8 year old could manage and would be totally embarrassed. Or I'd put together my Pinewood Derby car based on what was in the box and be ready to go, then get there and there'd be some aerodynamic wind-tunnel clay-modeled designs with all kinds of things we didn't/couldn't have known, so I'd get clowned out early and made fun of for my shitty car.

And she'd wonder why I hated those things.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:18 AM on November 7 [8 favorites]

I love my dad, and think that he's generally a good person, but he was an AWFUL teacher.

I think that impacted me in two ways: math and sports. I didn't cotton to either quickly, and I have distinct memories of my dad getting really angry with me for not understanding math homework, and not being very good at catch. I'm actually somewhat athletic in terms of reaction time, but never pursued team sports (despite the fact I'm sure that would've been healthier and more social for me). I managed to struggle through years of PhD level stats coursework hating every minute, because I've always thought of myself as 'bad at math'. I even have a disposition towards problem solving in certain math-adjacent areas (logic and computers) because I largely taught myself those skills, or learned them when I was in a college-level class. Even though math employs a lot of the same general approaches to thinking, if I'm faced with something that's recognizably "mathy" then I'll often clam up, make dumb mistakes, and second guess myself.

I sometimes wonder how I might be different if the parental figure who taught me math and sports had been better at teaching - I'm sure not being a good teacher is something that men of his generation (early in the boomer cohort) ever prioritized. I think that teaching, much like mathematical problem solving, is a disposition that one has to have, and it definitely feels like the disposition that a certain generation of men have involves yelling, derision, and privileging 'natural' talent over fostering burgeoning talent. The world will be a better place as that disposition slowly but surely dies off.
posted by codacorolla at 11:18 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]

I thank Charlie Brown for my attitude towards sports, actually. His baseball team always lost - but they were the good guys. It wasn't the end of the world if you lost. And maybe if you lost in some spectacularly messed-up way, it could be funny - like: when a friend and I on our softball team chased after a ball hit into the outfield, and finally caught it when it was all the way up against the fence. My friend got to it, picked it up, and reared back her hand to throw it into the infield - but her hand with the ball was sticking over the fence behind her, and at the very last minute she lost her grasp and dropped the ball over the fence. I felt for her, but - come on, that was classic.

I took it even less seriously when one of the neighbor kids sometimes came to play whiffle ball with my gang at our end of the street - me, my brother, and the neighbor girl and her brother. He would come to start pickup games with us, and would always, always, hammer out the teams with this prelude speech:
Okay, we gotta pick teams. I'll be captain of one team, and (to the little brothers) C and J, you can be co-captains of the other team, because let's face it, two of you put together equals one of me. So - I'll pick first because I'm only one, and C and J are two. (pause, to neighbor girl) Okay, L, let's face it, you're a double zero. (pause, to me) But then again, EC, you're a triple zero. I'll take L, and you guys take EC. Let's go.
Sounds kinda dickish, right? But I never was offended - on the contrary, I thought it was completely ridiculous how seriously he took it all. Because we were inept and ham-handed and klutzy, but we were also just having fun. And the neighbor kid was so horrified by our failure to take things seriously that I couldn't help but laugh at him.

...Not teaching kids the rules is part of it - forgetting that sports is supposed to be fun is another part.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:26 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I think there were different unspoken expectations over what PE was for; I started at a school small enough that all the boys were on all the sports teams, so they really did try to teach us at least some rudimentary skills in all the sports we were expected to play. As a large and uncoordinated child, that meant I played a lot of defense, since it was a position which required little running (though thankfully never goalie, the position reserved for the least athletic child for some reason).

When I got older, I moved to a school with its own sports teams, so PE was definitely just so the kids could run around and get some exercise. I still remember being super offended that a kid on the opposing team lifted his rear leg when he threw the ball in during a soccer match. I protested to the coach and he told kind of grinned and told me to let it go; in hindsight, he just wanted us to run around on the field, it's not like we were going to be playing soccer with real rules or anything.

Ironically it turned out that years later I picked up on of those weird jacket wrestling sports and turned out to be stubborn enough to get OK at it; it creates strange moments when people who think of you as vaguely athletic suddenly realize that you are incredibly terrible at every single other common American sport.
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:41 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]

Apparently I've been saying, "Every time I've built character I've regretted it" for 27 years now.
posted by tangosnail at 11:42 AM on November 7 [7 favorites]

My high school required two years of PE, but you could take band class as a replacement. I told my band teacher that that's why I joined band and she kicked me out, and I had to take PE anyway. (Later I learned from my more musically inclined friends that the teacher was considered to be a mean person.)

Why even offer the option if you're going to punish kids for taking it?
posted by bring a tuba to a knife fight at 11:43 AM on November 7 [7 favorites]

Dodgeball was fun, except at some point it changed from being a game about dodging balls to a game about catching them, and I was much better at the former than the latter.

We also had a game called matball which was like kickball except there was no limit to how many people could be on base (each base was one of those velcro-together wrestling mat panels, hence the name). It was fun, but it could get pretty absurd when you'd get these big crowds of kids running from one mat to he next.
posted by ckape at 11:45 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]

After we grew out of being able to play with the parachute, gym class was dead to me.
posted by Maaik at 11:47 AM on November 7 [26 favorites]

Dodgeball was fun, except at some point it changed from being a game about dodging balls to a game about catching them,

In my school district, dodgeball was fun if you considered dodgeball a game about harming other people and throwing a ball as hard as possible to inflict the maximum amount of pain.

I fucking hate dodgeball. I have glasses. Getting beaned in the face is already painful, having my glasses all warped and broken and shit, not my idea of fun at all.
posted by Fizz at 11:47 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]

It was fun, but it could get pretty absurd when you'd get these big crowds of kids running from one mat to he next.

that....that sounds awesome.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:49 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]

I have been in a number of different male-dominated environments as a novice alongside other novices, male and female. These included graphic design studio with printing presses - old school letterpress stuff, woodworking shops for furniture, woodworking shops for structures. I had experiences with teachers who were bad and would hardly teach the boys, preferring to just hang back and see how things went. Women, generally, are not comfortable with that teaching style. Often these teachers would instruct the girls and hover but not do the same for boys and were often not great in other ways, subtly undermining, making an environment that wasn't welcoming. I had a few teachers, real manly-men, blue-collar guys who were good teachers. They teached to everyone. They assumed we were all idiots and made sure we understood safety and protocol. I found that teachers that would actively teach the men were also very good at actively teaching the women without being cloying or undermining.

In several environments, there would be younger "student teachers" or aides as well. Some of these men also seemed to have a hard time teaching. It's almost like it's "unmanly" to some of them to step in and offer guidance. And for a number of students, sadly, it seemed "unmanly" to accept guidance. If you weren't willing to step up with no instruction or comprehensive knowledge and just start running that drill press, you just weren't a man.

I once needed to complete a woodworking project with two other ladies. We needed to borrow the shop of one of their spouses and we also needed his guidance and help. He was really great - showing us the equipment, helping us figure out the best way to build something and then staying nearby while we worked the machines. Afterwards he was agog - "That was so fun! I love teaching women woodworking!" I was all, "Why? What are you talking about?" He'd done a lot of projects over the years with buddies (dudes) and novice men and he said they didn't listen and often were unsafe and sometimes broke his tools. "You all listened to me and nobody got hurt! That was great!" To which I said, "Thanks for honestly helping us!"

I think sports is often the same way. Subtle codes and cultural norms that do little to make us happier, safer or more well-adjusted.
posted by amanda at 11:51 AM on November 7 [11 favorites]

...Not teaching kids the rules is part of it - forgetting that sports is supposed to be fun is another part.

So if you are kinda good at the rules of sports and grow to be a teen or almost-adult and have a younger sibling who is playing, but don't have kids yourself, you occasionally get to be an assistant coach or referee. And adults taking sports for small children way too seriously (and if you teach as a ref- no way - you are an impartial judge of children not a teacher) is the rule, not the exception.

I still have flashbacks. The only way to win is not to play.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:03 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

And adults taking sports for small children way too seriously (and if you teach as a ref- no way - you are an impartial judge of children not a teacher) is the rule, not the exception.

Please remember.
posted by Fizz at 12:06 PM on November 7 [9 favorites]

My elementary school had a version of dodgeball called "bean bag skid," where instead of balls it was bean bags, and they had to be slid along the floor. You divided up on opposite sides of the gym with like a hundred bean bags and started skidding them like crazy. If you hit another player in the foot, they were out (or, technically, "in jail"). When there were ten or so kids out, the gym teacher would yell "JAIL BREAK!" and everybody was back in.

It's great fun because you don't have to be super-coordinated, nothing's flying at your face, people are hopping around like idiots and it's hilarious, everyone's playing at once and it's chaotic, and if you're really uncoordinated or dislike trying to get people out, you can be a solid team player by standing in the back (where the bean bags have slowed down so much they're all dodgeable easily) and shagging bean bags to provide ammo to the kids up towards the front.

My kids love the Ga-Ga version of dodgeball, which is an Israeli game (brought to the US via cultural interchange and Jewish summer camps), and like every public elementary school around here has a Ga-Ga pit these days. You can only swat the ball (no catching (except for fouls) or grabbing or throwing), only hits below the knees count, and if you pop the ball above waist level and someone else catches it, you're out. The court is small so it's chaotic at the beginning and good players go out all the time in the first stage of the game. It's also a quick game, played in several rounds, so nobody's out for that long after elimination. Common house rules include adding a second ball when it's down to 3 kids (so the game ends faster and everyone can get back in), or letting kids sitting on the wall help get people out when it's down to just a few players. It's also, since not that many adults know how to play (it was JUST coming in around here when I was in high school), a game that's policed by children and pretty quickly settles into a rules equilibrium where everyone gets to play and games don't drag on too long. It's usually fourth- and fifth-graders playing a pretty fast-paced game, but when the littler kids come play, they have all kinds of rule variations they use to six-year-olds can participate with the bigger kids. Anyway, again, all the chaotic fun of dodgeball but none of the meanness and it's rare for anybody to get hurt.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:10 PM on November 7 [7 favorites]

Yeah one of my buddies quit doing reffing at little league games because the risk of getting shot by an angry dad outweighed the pocket money he was making.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:10 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

Here is a 9th grade PE story. Never mind about the wrestling unit. We did a cross-country running unit. The high school was across the railroad tracks from a wooded, hilly area around a lake, that belonged to the neighboring University. You'd cross the tracks andthen there was an entrance in the fence, sort of a weird one that was supposed to make it hard to get a bicycle through (why, I don't know). Running over there was really quite nice, and we did so for 2 weeks.

So, one day, there was a train stopped on the tracks, blocking the way. The PE teacher ordered us to cross anyway, between the cars, hopping over the coupling. And we did it, because we were more afraid of him than of the train.

Can you imagine that happening today? If one kid told their parents, or complained to another teacher or a principal, he'd be shitcanned so fast. Or, I think so. Probably the entire notion of crossing the tracks would be totally unacceptable (there is no longer an entrance to the park there, in fact).
posted by thelonius at 12:14 PM on November 7 [5 favorites]

I believe, with caveats, that having children participate in activities they are not fond of or are reluctant to try is an important part of their development.
We have them try foods they are convinced they won't like, we teach them things they have no interest in learning, why should physical activity be any different?

If you have to browbeat your child into going to every game, or you recognize that the team environment is toxic, of course you need to reevaluate, but we should always teach our children to give it a shot, even if they think they will fail.

And quite frankly, youth sports in this country needs more kids (and parents) who don't take it so seriously, that don't think they will be the next Michael Jordan, who realize that it's ok to suck at something.
posted by madajb at 12:15 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

One of the greatest moments of my life (this is terribly telling, alas) was when I committed an illegal foul on my phys ed teacher during hockey (shoved my stick between the supports on the blade of his left skate). Dude went down SO hard I thought I was going to jail.

...instead he just sorta stared at me in disbelief, and everyone else kept playing.

Fuck you Mr. [name redacted].
posted by aramaic at 12:17 PM on November 7 [12 favorites]

I was both Calvin (in not wanting to play organized sports in the first place) and also I'm horribly uncoordinated. To this day people are amused by my inability to catch a thrown ring of keys or toss a tool to a guy standing on a roof.

My high school coach was apparently a super football coach which was great I guess if you cared anything for football but he apparently couldn't teach anything else and also had no patience for anyone who didn't think Football was the manly sport of all sports. EG: I got 30 hills once (the local equivalent of laps) for having the audacity to set my helmet on the grass. I got beat up by bullies enough that I didn't see any appeal in school sponsored violence. The girls got to play field hockey during Football season and it looked eminently more sensible but boys weren't allowed to defect.

The only time I remember enjoying PE was during a one time orienteering segment. Finally a sport where you didn't need to be coordinated or able to run down a cheetah and math skills were an asset. Sadly my school didn't have an orienteering team.

My father, though not a sports guy, never really got the idea I'd rather participate in activities without losers. I played a lot of role playing games as a kid and he'd ask me without fail every time I got home who won.
posted by Mitheral at 12:23 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]

"...a game about harming other people and throwing a ball as hard as possible to inflict the maximum amount of pain."

That sounds like every game I ever played at recess.
Looking back, we were violent little shits with apparently no adult supervision.
posted by madajb at 12:24 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

The only time I remember enjoying PE was during a one time orienteering segment. Finally a sport where you didn't need to be coordinated or able to run down a cheetah and math skills were an asset. Sadly my school didn't have an orienteering team.

LOL! Orienteering is also the only sport that I needed to get stitches for after! (me running and an unseen tree root)
posted by jillithd at 12:38 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

Yeah. The gym teachers at our school were also the school team coaches, and they tended to be ex-marines and so on. They taught to the jocks, the dudes who were going to make those coaches look good by winning all-county or whatever. If the coaches had spent the class period teaching kids like me what a ball looks like and how to throw it, the experienced kids and the coaches themselves would have been bored to death.

It was a big school. They could easily have split the jocks off into a fast track and had them all play baseball, football, and basketball with one another to mutual benefit, and let the rest of us play some leisurely games of catch without all the unnecessary pressure, but either they thought humiliation was how to build character or they just enjoyed humiliating little kids.
posted by pracowity at 12:43 PM on November 7 [4 favorites]

I guess it was predictive of the person I turned out to be that while I accepted that I was not a gifted athlete (shrug) I did NOT assume the crap that happened was my fault. I distinctly remember demanding of my P.E. teacher, after the President's Challenge day, "Why didn't you teach us this stuff? How am I supposed to know how to climb a giant rope or run 12 laps if we never learned that in class*??" She said "All kids are supposed to know that stuff. Don't worry it doesn't count toward your grade."

That was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I was humiliated that I'd done so poorly and I blamed her.

Same thing happened, different gym teacher, when in 8th grade she told a bunch of gawky teen girls that it was time to learn how to jump off a springboard onto a gymnastics beam and land feet first. I had watched enough Olympics to know that you started that shit when you were 4, not 14, and that she would be lucky if we didn't all get concussions. We each got three tries, so I barely tried each time then went to the back of the line because fuck her.

*In class we learned a. squaredancing b. sit-ups c. softball and soccer (sort of). Probably kickball and relay race games in there too.
posted by emjaybee at 12:43 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]

My parents sent me to "Leadership Camp" when I was a kid. It was a week of sports, a different one every morning and afternoon session, and nights spent in the cinderblock cells of a small, rural prep school.

I got half-drowned in water polo, was dunked upon in basketball, and I am sure that I whiffed playing baseball.

For a scrawny kid who just wanted to read, it sucked. I was just telling one of my kids about it last night: still bitter about that week of misery in the farmlands...
posted by wenestvedt at 12:47 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I have a fraternal twin brother and in the '70s we played Lilttle League. He's gifted athletically; me, not so much. He was a home run hitting first baseman, and in 4 years of organized baseball the best I ever hit was a double. Also, I was put in right field for pretty much every game, you know, because the ball rarely comes there.
I still can't believe I finally got up the nerve to tell my parents I didn't want to play anymore, and they listened, which was great. Back then almost everyone played, it was just expected in small town BC in the '70s, so yeah, character building, indeed.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 12:53 PM on November 7

Fizz: I signed up and learned how to be a passable Tennis player just so I could avoid being placed in my high school physical education program.

Dude, I did JROTC in high school to get out of phys. ed. Wore an Army-issue green uniform for four years, learned to march, and got sweet shoe-shining skillz. TOTALLY WORTH IT.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:53 PM on November 7 [4 favorites]

This video is one of the best things I've ever seen on how to actually coach kids. It's not about skills specific to the sport, which happens to be ultimate frisbee, it'a about movement, which most kids do. It's longish, but everything you need to know about what's right in this approach is said in the first 3 minutes.
I watch it every year before I begin to work with middle and high school kids because it reminds me that perhaps my biggest responsibility is to begin to make kids comfortable with their physical selves, especially if Ultimate is the first sport they've played.
I was Calvin when i was a little leaguer, but i loved play and gravitated to sports that promote the joy of play. I coach to get kids running and catching and laughing and let them decide if winning is important.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:55 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]

Dude, I did JROTC in high school to get out of phys. ed. Wore an Army-issue green uniform for four years, learned to march, and got sweet shoe-shining skillz. TOTALLY WORTH IT.

The sad thing is that I had to give up Orchestra. I had 3 years of Orchestra (played a viola) and both Tennis and Orchestra were in the same period. I almost cried when I found out there was no way to do both.

I went to the VP and he told me that there's no getting around this. I was growing up and these types of choices were going to be made, so I could either keep Orchestra and go with PE or I could give up Orchestra and join the Tennis team. I went with Tennis. And as much as I miss that part of my life, and music-making. I was happy with that decision.
posted by Fizz at 1:06 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

I had a few bad years of gym, but in elementary school, the gym teacher was amazing, and my high school had a head who really cared about the students, so we picked teams by "second letter of your maternal grandmother's first name" or the like, with the teacher balancing them out a bit. (The bad years were TERRIBLE, though.) I enjoyed volleyball, though I gave it up when I was too depressed/self-injurious; I'm not sure if I want to do it again or not. And in the last year of high school, the gym teacher often decided to be nice to us so we played parachute a lot. It is more fun when you are 16 than when you are 6.

I just wish that gym class had sort of gotten me to like being athletic in general -- I am not terrible coordinated, so most of the team sports are not for me, but that's all there was.
posted by jeather at 1:12 PM on November 7

I never cease to be amazed at how adults constantly force kids to do shit they themselves wouldn't put up with for even a minute.
posted by prosopagnosia at 1:13 PM on November 7 [12 favorites]

I never cease to be amazed at how adults constantly force kids to do shit they themselves wouldn't put up with for even a minute.
Well you see you have to build character as a kid. As an adult, your character is already built, and nobody has time to remodel their character.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:17 PM on November 7 [6 favorites]

I fucking hate dodgeball. I have glasses. Getting beaned in the face is already painful, having my glasses all warped and broken and shit, not my idea of fun at all.

In my school they called it battle ball since it was played with six of those ubiquitous red vinyl balls out on the floor at the same time. I actually kind of liked it since I didn't like the jocks and they didn't like me and my friends so we would take it out on each other with the school's blessing.

One of my friends though thought battle ball was the worst thing ever since he was uncoordinated, wore glasses, and had this mysterious ability to somehow manage to get hit in the face at least once during any game played with a ball. So a game with six balls and kids actively encouraged to try and hit each other was like a nightmare come to life and one with grading no less. How that games like that worked their way into schools is hard to fathom other than as a way for gym teachers to enjoy seeing the jocks act as proxy outlets for their anger issues.

(We also had floor hockey in a concrete walled gym where the coach actively encouraged hard checking, so, yeah, contained and supervised violence was a thing.)
posted by gusottertrout at 1:20 PM on November 7

So much of all of this. I think I can count the times I've had fun playing some kind of team sport on one hand and have enough fingers left over to roll a joint.

At one point in grade school I actually laid down in the outfield, put my glove over my face and tried to take a nap. Hell, I used to just sit down and draw in a notebook or pick flowers.

My fondest memories of watching baseball are falling asleep to the drone of the crowd noise when I was a kid at my dad's place on the weekends. I find baseball so excruciatingly dull that if it's even on at a bar or someone's house or something I'll be physically trying to fight off falling asleep, and I can't help it. It's like some kind of somatic response.

Thankfully my dad was a surfer and skater, so we did plenty of athletic things. I was and still am very active and agile, but I definitely tend towards outdoors and individual sports. Biking, walking, hiking. frisbees, skateboarding, body surfing, body boarding, knee boarding, surfing.

My coaches in high school wanted me to play football so bad that it was pretty much abusive and harassment. I was stout, burly and fast without being oversized, and more importantly, smart. I probably would have made a great QB or whatever. One coach in particular gave me D-'s for like three semesters running in PE because I told him just how I felt about football, which wasn't even remotely positive, including something along the lines of "I have much better things to do with my head than ram it into someone else's head."

I'm so, so glad I didn't play HS football. My knees are already pretty rough from a life of walking, biking and skateboarding and stuff. I'm really thankfully I missed out on the traumatic brain injuries. I'm glad I didn't bulk up and end up in the massive powerlifting room that my HS could afford for the jocks while simultaneously cutting arts and music.

Which leads me to the one time I had fun playing football. It was just me and a bunch of random scrawny artist friends from an arts village I used to live in. And for some random reason we all ended up playing pick up mud football (co-ed, of course) in a park and drinking beers in the warm spring rain. The game eventually devolved into pretty much everyone else against me as I was so stout and athletic by comparison. I could pretty much walk leisurely the ball up and down the field while everyone piled on me and tried to take me down. Somewhere out there there's a picture of me with someone on each leg and arm, someone up on my back and shoulders and me bearhugging the ball and slogging through the mud like I'm wearing a suit made out of muddy, skinny pale art weirdos.
posted by loquacious at 1:21 PM on November 7 [16 favorites]

I can't think of any other subject where a teacher would be allowed to get away without even *trying* to teach the material.

I’m afraid music was like that at my school. You already played the piano, could read music, and played another instrument too, or you were of no interest and would be told nothing. Both subjects where the teacher was only interested in putting on a performance.

I had a colleague who studied sports once, who said it was mainly due to fuckwit army gym sergeants who had nothing else to do after WWII. They became teachers and imposed retrograde attitudes on a whole generation. According to him, it should have been all different by the eighties, once they had gone.
posted by Segundus at 1:22 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

I never cease to be amazed at how adults constantly force kids to do shit they themselves wouldn't put up with for even a minute.
posted by prosopagnosia at 1:13 PM on November 7 [+] [!]

I don't know many adults who would willingly go to elementary/middle/high school, but that doesn't mean that every kid who doesn't want to go shouldn't have to.

Sports is tricky because it's hard to separate competitiveness from simple play, rules from structure, and the goals of PE (exercise) from the torture of making kids who don't wanna move, move.
Adults don't have to be saved from themselves, but there is certainly value in physical activity during a school day, the issue here is that poor educators and coaches make it harder than it needs to be on kids who aren't athletically inclined.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:23 PM on November 7 [4 favorites]

I remember one occasion when the music teacher failed to turn up, and a kind of mild riot gradually broke out. Eventually the Head of Music stormed in.

“What the hell is going on here? And above all, who was that beating out primitive rhythms on the desktop? Oh, Segundus, was it? You’re percussion in the second orchestra, aren’t you? Hm. The rest of you, shut up and wait for your teacher.”
posted by Segundus at 1:29 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]

It only recently occurred to me how into their children today's parents are, whereas my folks were definitely the "you figure it out" types.

It definitely seems like a generational thing, though my dad was big on sports instruction because he originally was a p.e. teacher, lol.

Not only was their generation filed with "you figure it out" types, it was also filled with "lets not talk about difficult emotions" types, like Calvin's dad.

All this talk of P.E. seems quaint though. P.E. continues to disappear for most kids in the U.S. public school system.

My kids get 30 minutes of physical education per WEEK, paid for by our PTA, not the school district.

I was a successful multi-sport athlete who loved "gym class" (every day). We used to play dodgeball (or "rockets," with every person for themselves) at break times. I do now question the value of spending so much time on organized athletics (and definitely question the value of spending much time on spectator sports). But on the flip side, my PE did instruct us how to throw, catch, and run, etc. ... this generation of kids is not getting that in public schools.

"The decline of mandatory physical education in grade schools resulted in the current childhood obesity crisis and consequently an unsustainable rise in health care spending" (pdf)
posted by mrgrimm at 1:30 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I hated P.E. I can understand why the push for team sports - it's an easy way to organize a large crowd of kids with varying physical abilities. (Presuming, of course, that they have some athletic ability and interest .) There's spots for slower runners, fast runners, up-and-close tasks, distant watch-for-it tasks, good aimers, good planners, and so on. And of course, teamwork and coordination blah blah blah.

Trouble is, if you're not athletically inclined at all, ALL of the team roles suck, whether it's baseball, basketball, football, soccer, whatever. And way too many coaches and parents think that "good at sports" is an innate masculine trait and that any boy who's not, is somehow defective. Some extend that to girls, but it's rarer. I had several PE teachers who had the boys playing sport-of-the-month, and the girls got waved off in the direction of whatever field the boys weren't using.

I suppose I was lucky in having an interest in games and puzzles - I had no problem picking up on the rules of team sports, even when I had no interest or affinity for them. I used to read stories about how this or that great game was won because of some odd technicality in the rules. (I read these because I ran out of science fiction. Babysitter's kids had sports books so I read those.)

I do remember noticing that the books that explained the rules never pointed out the difference between official rules and "friendly" rules - if you have 8 people playing (American) football, 4 to a team, you don't get a full lineup. You get a quarterback, a center, and two "others," and the rest of the rules bend to that shape. If you're playing in the street, you don't get field goals because (1) there's no uprights and (2) kicks can go wild and send the ball into a neighbor's window. And so on.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:31 PM on November 7

Adults don't have to be saved from themselves, but there is certainly value in physical activity during a school day, the issue here is that poor educators and coaches make it harder than it needs to be on kids who aren't athletically inclined.

Our P.E. "teachers" are instructors from the YMCA, not certified educators. And they are not great.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:32 PM on November 7

My kids never attended a school with "normal" PE. They had small courtyards where there could be a bit of exercising or a single basketball hoop, but they were working in buildings converted from other purposes, not designed as schools.

At one point I considered complaining to the state that the schools were violating the law requiring PE, because I don't think it's good that they never learned to run or throw or do any coordinated team activities. I decided not to bother because I didn't want to see what nightmare workaround the school came up with... I do know that one of their high schools had "drill practice" as its only PE for one year - some kind of marching thing.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:36 PM on November 7

You already played the piano, could read music, and played another instrument too, or you were of no interest and would be told nothing.

Also the idea that either you could sing or you were tone-deaf: no one seemed to consider that singing is a skill that can be developed.
posted by thelonius at 1:41 PM on November 7 [11 favorites]

Flashback to 6th grade PE, we're playing floor hockey, and I'm of course totally not into it but because they mixed grades in the class, I'm on the team led by the 8th grade dude who matured early so he's big and muscley. At some point I did something insufficiently aggressive and he gets right in my face yelling "I WANNA SEE BLOOD!!"

Luckily I had some mental fortitude about it after a previous incident in 4th grade where - I forget exactly what happened in gym class that day but I think it involved me not catching a ball in a bad enough way that a LOT of teasing ensued, to the point where I was sobbing my lungs out when we got back to regular class and the teacher had to take me out to her office to talk it over. I'm sure she was floundering for "what do you say to this kid to calm him down." She just said y'know, some people are good at throwing and catching balls, some people are good at other things. You don't have to be great at catching balls. I gave up on anything gym related right then and there, thinking I'd never look back.

But this is where I could go off on a rant, really, because I eventually realized what a massive disservice to me the whole focus on "team sports" as the only form of P.E. really was. I did my one required year of P.E. in high school, as a freshman, and was glad to be done with it. Then I get to college, where I was a theater major, and suddenly everyone's talking about how your body needs to be fit and healthy for good acting, and in fact the program required 3 credits of something physical. And people around me are taking dance classes and exercise things, and heck my acting class even introduced me to yoga for the first time. But in my head "physical activity" is "not me," is "not something I can do," and even though in college I began to want that to be different, I didn't know quite how, since everyone else seemed to already know this stuff and I was too embarrassed about it to ask for help.

So where, back in elementary/high school, where was the other option? Where was anyone recognizing that "hey some of these kids just aren't into the team sport thing, what can we offer them to learn physical activity and health without the pressure?" Exactly ONCE in my year of high school gym, ONCE, near the end of the year, the teacher actually spoke to me personally and asked if I felt any stronger from the daily calisthenics. Once. Where was that attention the rest of the damn year?
posted by dnash at 1:45 PM on November 7 [4 favorites]

Heh, I remember the first time my high school PE class was "instructed" to play football (as in, ordered to: no actual instruction involved). This was in a place where football is really not part of the culture, so we ended up going off contradictory directions from the 3 or 4 kids who were Into Sports and like, our vague recollections of what football looks like in American movies and stuff.

But there was one glorious semester of 11th grade where I got to satisfy my PE credits with "Outdoor Pursuits" class, which was awesome. Taught jointly by 2 or 3 "regular" teachers in the school who also happened to be crunchy granola types, the whole class was built around a week-long backpacking trip at the end of term - physical conditioning as well as learning how to set up camp, behave responsibly on the trail, etc. It was the only time I recall being evaluated on concrete progress and improvement - one of the teachers, who also taught biology, plotted our individual weekly run times and assigned grades based on the overall trend (higher downward slope = better grade, with some adjustment accounting for people who were already fast to start with). And there was much more motivation to actually work at it, because we knew that we'd have to be hauling all our gear for the big trip. And of course the teachers arranged for all of us to have the proper gear, and took time from the regular schedules to, as one of them later put it, "drag 30-odd suburban kids through the mud for a week". My year it rained the entire time we were on the trail and I nearly fell into the ocean at one point, but I was certainly more fit at the end of the year than at the beginning, and it certainly instilled in me a healthy respect for the outdoors. I wish that sort of thing were more widely available and accepted as an alternative to the "play competitive sports 3 times a week" model of gym class.
posted by btfreek at 1:46 PM on November 7 [6 favorites]

By the time the army gym sergeants had left, you had the guys who got their PE teaching credentials to get out of the Vietnam draft. If it was an improvement, it wasn't enough of one.

The only things we did in PE that I didn't hate were things that weren't team sports and things that didn't involve throwing, kicking, hitting, or catching a ball. I preferred dodgeball to anything with throwing or catching a ball, because avoiding a ball is easier than catching one or trying to get a ball to go anywhere near where I want it to go. That's just not a skill I picked up. If it's something that can be taught, PE teachers when I was in school didn't try to teach it.

I was able to take a class called Recreational Games in 12th grade to satisfy my PE requirement. It was at least better because it wasn't the PE class that the real jocks took, and it didn't involve team sports, so I wasn't getting abused for letting the team down by my lack of athletic ability.
posted by Anne Neville at 2:04 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

All this talk of P.E. seems quaint though. P.E. continues to disappear for most kids in the U.S. public school system.

My kids get 30 minutes of physical education per WEEK, paid for by our PTA, not the school district.

"The decline of mandatory physical education in grade schools resulted in the current childhood obesity crisis and consequently an unsustainable rise in health care spending"

If the concern is for giving kids a healthy level of physical activity, a daily walking program would be far more effective than a traditional competitive team sports PE class in which a certain percentage of kids get no exercise at all.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:16 PM on November 7 [8 favorites]

The advantage to Calvinball over other sports is that Calvin gets to be the one to say no you didn't actually accomplish anything because of some nonsensical rule you never heard of that sounds totally made up.
posted by ckape at 2:23 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

I feel like this article is too harsh on Calvin’s dad, particularly the “goofing on” part. In isolation I guess it looks a bit callous (and I wouldn’t make that joke if the same thing happened to my son) but I think in the context of the relationship they have (as wisecracking cartoon characters) it’s reasonable. Even their initial interaction seems reasonable to me—it’s not like Calvin dealt with the teasing by taking up drinking or something. Clearly his dad thinks, well (he even says “well!”), maybe the initial motivation wasn’t great, but sports could be a fun and good thing if all goes well.
posted by No-sword at 4:14 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

I just got my high school transcript sent to me after having not looked at it in 10 years. I failed fitness class.
posted by gucci mane at 4:27 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

And do kids still have to shower? They started that with us in middle school. Nothing like showing your horrifying teenage body to your horrifying judgmental peers and staff to build your confidence for the day. At my middle school they didn't want to take up a lot of time so they just turned on every shower in the shower area, then lined us up and had us shuffle around the perimeter of the shower room like some screwed up Lords of the Flies thing.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:36 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

The message a lot of us got from PE class was that physical activity is something that is only enjoyable for people who are good at it, often with a side of body shaming. That is not how you motivate the kids who aren't athletically inclined to exercise. The kids who are athletic aren't the ones who need motivation to exercise.
posted by Anne Neville at 5:13 PM on November 7 [11 favorites]

The wrestling unit in 9th grade PE was even worse, though.

Ohgawd, here's my 9th grade PE wrestling unit story:

Okay, so I went to a pretty small private school which went up to 9th grade. When I was in 8th grade, the 8th and 9th grade boys had PE together, and we had a wrestling unit. The coach spent weeks going over wrestling moves, and how to perform them. We learned all these different moves, but in a "self-defense class in a movie" sort of way: we learned very specifically where to grab or hold our opponent, and we learned what the move was supposed to do, and what you could do to counter that move, and all the moves were geared towards throwing your opponent off-balance so that you could get them on the ground and score a point. We went over different ways to score points, too. At the end of the unit, we were weighed and we had to wrestle against someone close to our weight. As the matches went on, the boys who were good at other sports seemed to also be the boys who were good at wrestling. I was (and am) terrible at most sports, and like Calvin, I was often stuck in far left field (or that sport's equivalent).

Before the matches started, the coaches told us that we had to demonstrate that we had learned some of the moves that we had spent weeks on- that is, if we just went limp and let ourselves get pinned, we'd get dinged grade-wise. My first match comes up, and I'm against this other kid named Matt who (like me) was a nerd who wasn't good at sports. When the match starts, I can basically remember like only one move, which is a move designed to sweep an opponent's leg out from under him. Matt remembers the counter-move to my move, which is designed to stop you from getting knocked to the ground. I keep doing my move, thinking at the very least, I'm demonstrating that I've learned this one move, and worst-case-scenario, the match will time out and that will be that.

So I keep doing my move, and Matt keep doing his move, and we're both like pretty scrawny dorks, and then at some point, the most deafening "CRRRAAAACCCKKKK" fills the air, and Matt drops to the mat screaming the most horrible pain-filled scream. Whatever cheering the spectating boys had been doing stopped pretty much immediately, and for a couple seconds, I just stood there in shock while Matt screamed his head off. The coaches swooped in, and picked up Matt and moved him to an adjacent room, and told all the rest of us to wait on the mats quietly. It got pretty quiet in our room (but Matt was clearly in pain one room over), and then the coaches came back and told everyone that I had broken one of Matt's femurs, which the coach said was the thickest bone in the body, and the way he said that, it was almost like he was weirdly proud that his teaching had produced this outcome. And the whole time, I just kept thinking that nobody had told us that these moves could like seriously injure each other with broken bones and whatnot.

The next day, a couple things happened. 1) Matt was in a cast, which went up the entire length of his leg, and he was in that cast for a good chunk of the school year. 2) The school realized they could get sued out the ass over this, because they never had any of us kids sign any waivers or anything- so immediately waivers went home with the 8th and 9th grade boys for participation in the wrestling unit. 3) I was immediately switched from being in a PE class with 8th and 9th grade boys to a PE class that was (until I joined) exclusively for 7th grade boys. And word hadn't gotten out yet that I'd broken Matt's leg, so all the 7th graders were like "What is he doing in our PE class? He's in 8th grade", but the coaches just did that 80s-coach "Quit asking questions or I'll make everyone run laps" thing, and as the rest of the 8th and 9th grade boys finished out the wrestling unit (without me or Matt), I finished the last part of whatever unit the 7th graders were doing.

Epilogue: I was so freaked out over the whole incident that I never told my mom when I got home from school that day- partly because I was afraid I'd get in trouble for breaking some other kid's leg (even as an accident), and partly because I just figured the school would be sending a letter to both me and Matt's parents explaining the whole situation better than I could. Huh, wouldn't you know, that letter never came. The first my mom heard about it was years later when I was in high school, and me and my friends were reminiscing about things from middle school, and one friend goes "Hahaha, remember that time you broke Matt's leg in PE class in 8th grade?" And my mom goes "What do you mean, Erik broke Matt's leg in PE class in 8th grade?" and then I had to quickly convince my mom that my friends were just making crap up.

Epilogue 2: I'm pretty sure that was the last year they did a wrestling unit as part of PE, because when nobody did wrestling the next year when I was in 9th grade, and I can vaguely remember that it all got boiled down to "Yeah, we can't do wrestling anymore because Erik broke Matt's leg last year." Ughghhg, sports.
posted by 23skidoo at 5:22 PM on November 7 [16 favorites]

Same thing happened, different gym teacher, when in 8th grade she told a bunch of gawky teen girls that it was time to learn how to jump off a springboard onto a gymnastics beam and land feet first. I had watched enough Olympics to know that you started that shit when you were 4, not 14, and that she would be lucky if we didn't all get concussions.

I wasn't smart enough to do a half-ass job at this particular thing and ended up in the fucking emergency room. And then got kicked off the activity I LIKED (debate) because I had to miss practice because of being in the fucking emergency room.

In conclusion, all of my high school teachers were fucking assholes.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:53 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

Oh god, PE class. I hated it so much. We had teachers of varying ability who sometimes taught us the rules to a sport in a half assed way but usually it was just assumed you knew what you were doing. I never knew what I was doing. Their method of teaching you to run was saying, okay, now run 5 laps around the field. No buildup. I had no stamina because I never built up to it and just assumed I was shitty at running. No one taught us how to do things, it was just assumed you were either good at sports or that you were bad at sports and if you were bad at them it was hopeless and you'd never get better.

I remember having a unit on gymnastics where a very sweet classmate who was a good gymnast took me under her wing and helped me with my routine (we all had to make up a routine and execute it for a grade). I actually learned a lot from her and for once I put a lot of effort into PE class. I practiced and practiced and had a routine I was kind of proud of. When the time came, I did my routine and my teacher gave me a C+. I was like are you fucking kidding me? This was literally the hardest I'd worked in PE class, ever, and I had put in actual effort and actually CARED about how it turned out. But there was no recognition of my effort, hard work, or good faith attempts.

That was the day I said fuck you to PE class. I quit as soon as I could (right after Grade 10) and never looked back.

Then I graduated and went to university and it dawned on me that oh my god, the point of physical activity is for keeping you healthy. Holy shit. Literally never once in PE class did I make that connection.

So I taught myself to run using a self-improvised couch to 5k method and joined the intramural hockey team. To this day I still enjoy physical activity.

But it's no thanks to PE classes.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:04 PM on November 7 [7 favorites]

"I do know that one of their high schools had "drill practice" as its only PE for one year - some kind of marching thing."

It can actually be kinda fun ... it's mostly a ROTC thing or a marching band thing. Basically you learn marching commands -- old-timey commands that if you were in an 18th-century army you'd get in the field to all move as a unit, which are now strictly parade-ground and showing off. So you all line up in a formation and the drum major or commander or teacher shouts, "Right ... HACE! Left ... HACE! Present ... ARMS! Parade ... REST!" and you do different turns and standing positions and so on. Then you start marching with a forward march (and a steady beat provided by a drummer or clapping or a click track) and the drill instructor starts giving you commands while marching. The commands come closer and closer together and the beat gets faster and faster, and when you screw up, you drop out and run off to the side (marching bands call it a "drill-down"). It's sort-of like playing a video game -- the mental mechanics feel quite similar -- and physically all you need to be able to do is walk to a beat and tell your left from your right. (You do execute the turns in specific ways but only matters if you're actually in band or ROTC.) You have to concentrate and pay close attention and it's a real mental workout. Here's one in motion outdoors; here's an indoor one (where you can hear how much the spectators and participants are enjoying it).

I don't know how I feel about it as an entire PE program, and it certainly can be very drill-sargeant-y, but drill down competitions are mostly good natured and pretty fun, and they favor smart kids and kids who concentrate well, while getting a decent workout, and the competition is really with yourself, you're the only person who determines if you stay in or out, nobody else is in direct competition with you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:21 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]

I remember that comment of Cool Papa Bell's that Eyebrows linked to, and for me it was the Rosetta Stone to understanding much of my childhood education, as it was the case for quite a few of my male teachers in grade school. Some of them seemed to positively resent having to deal with kids at all, and it made so much sense if they'd decided to go into teaching because they hated the idea of going to Vietnam even more.

The funny thing is, as a non-sportie, I probably would have gone for JROTC if it had been offered at my school. At least the JROTC instructors (who are all ex-military, I think) have some idea of how to teach.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:34 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

I do know that one of their high schools had "drill practice" as its only PE for one year - some kind of marching thing.

I know someone who volunteers in rural Minnesota public schools. The curriculum standards are that gym classes have a PE unit that includes rhythmic movement, but in that district a bunch of kids were from Mennonite sects that banned dancing. The students did a lot of drill practice...
posted by phoenixy at 9:09 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]

While we're talking about unusual PE programs, my high school had a pool, and our local park district had a bunch of canoes, and when the park district pulled them out of the lake for the winter, they would bring them to the high school for a few weeks before storing them, and juniors and seniors in certain gym classes spent a few weeks canoeing on the pool ... and most importantly, learning to climb back in the boat. So I spent a whole gym unit with this big ol' football coach swimming around in the pool and popping up underneath a boat with me and two friends in it to tip us over. Then we had to right the canoe and climb back in. I am not a water person, but it turned out to be actually pretty fun, floating around and periodically being dumped in with much shrieking, and then teamwork to climb back in the canoe.

(I am nervous on the water, and not a particularly strong swimmer, so I actually did feel better about being on boats after falling out of them three times a day for a few weeks, and consistently not dying.)

We also had a tap dance unit -- rhythmic movement! -- and the school tap shoes all had ginormous 4" heels. After learning to tap dance in 4" heels, walking in heels was NO PROBLEM. I'm sure "walking comfortably in heels" was not part of the PE curriculum goals, but it may be my most useful PE life skill!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:44 PM on November 7 [9 favorites]

I actually liked gym class in high school?

But then it might've been the eighties, but it was in the Netherlands and the whole culture is just different. For one, no school clubs or school sports teams -- if you wanted to play football, you'd join the local club's youth division, not get to do it at school. For another, all sports was mixed, save for the occassional football session as a treat which tended to be mostly boys. Also, at my school PE wasn't graded so didn't count for anything so was just basically goofing off for two hours each week, in a more or less organised fashion.

Team sports wise it was usually volleyball during winter, indoors, softball with a bit of football for the boys when we could go outdoors. There'd be sports days once ever few months or so with other schools were we'd usually do not that good but nobody cared.

I can't remember any bullying going on at all in PE; helps not to have draft dodgers for gym teachers I guess. Even dodgeball was fun rather than terrifying as in the movies.

As an aside, as a not terribly popular kid in high school, not to mention neither all that sporty or coordinated, I liked turn based team sports like volleyball. You rotated positions, could take a rest every now and then, everybody had good and bad turns, unlike say football where you'd have to run up and down the field the entire time.

What I disliked was something like badminton where you'd have to chose a partner and there was always that bit of anxiety that maybe you'd end up having to play with the teacher...
posted by MartinWisse at 11:46 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

Playing actual games was way at the end of the unit, after we'd spent some weeks on skills and rules (including a written test on rules) and various drills and mini-games, and they weren't super-competitive since they were about learning the game.

Holy crap. We were never taught the rules to any game. Ever. Maybe our gym teachers assumed all boys were like the boys they coached after school: already playing baseball, football, and basketball every chance we could get, or at least watching sports on television and eagerly reading the sports section of the Times Sun Telegraph Post Journal News Tribune Herald Press Star Gazette when dear old Dad was done with it. Pretty much what I would have been like in the goatee universe.
posted by pracowity at 12:24 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]

This series of strips resonates with me on many levels now, just as they did when I read them as an awkward kid. Thank you, Bill Watterson.
posted by duffell at 2:24 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]

When I looked for a way to get some exercise as an adult, two of my top criteria were:
1. Must not involve critique or judgment by another human. No sports where anyone might be mad at me for letting down the team.
2. Must not involve another human seeing me undressed. No communal showers or locker rooms.

I suspect that my experience in PE had something to do with why I need those things to be true to exercise now.

In the past, when I tried doing group exercise classes, I would stay in the back, not talk to anyone any more than absolutely necessary, and leave as soon as the class ended. I had a lot of trouble sticking with any exercise classes. Again, I suspect my PE experience had something to do with this.

(For the record, I got an under-desk exercise bike, which not only meets those criteria but also allows me to not go outside in bad weather and do something that is actually interesting while I exercise)
posted by Anne Neville at 5:47 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]

With all the negatives, I have to speak up for my gym teacher. She was a young teacher when I started elementary school, she showed everyone how to play (kickball, baseball, basketball, soccer, cartwheels), she divided teams pretty fairly, and even had a "no hitting in the head" rule in dodgeball. Of course, I was a whiny kid who didn't take losing in PE well and often accused the other team of cheating, but I guess that's on me and I'm sorry I made your class worse Ms. Rambo.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:54 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]

While we're talking about unusual PE programs

Ohman, I moved towards the end of my junior year, and my new high school had all these different PE requirements (like, you had to take a certain number of team sports classes, a certain number of fitness classes, etc) but since I was basically only getting one year at this high school, they just let me take whatever PE classes I wanted. So I always took the wackiest PE class they offered. Archery? Hell yes. Roller-skating? Sweet. Bowling? Damn right I'm taking bowling. (We left the campus and got to go to a bowling alley!) I also took tap-dance, and remember that the class was co-ed but grouped by ability: experienced, inexperienced, and "boys". Ha, I remember basically if you were a boy and you earnestedly tried to shuffle off to Buffalo, the whole class would cheer. Awwww, sports.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:09 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]

I (female) have got a suite of learning disabilities (relatively mild but definitely can cause problems), and a part of that includes left-right confusion, and really crappy spatial relations and hand/eye coordination. So, growing up, any sport that involved throwing, hitting or catching something like a ball, or things that involve movement and sequence, like dance and gymnastics, were extremely difficult for me to do. I could run and dodge fairly fast in field hockey, for example, but also using the hockey stick to move a ball somewhere I wanted it to at the same time, was nearly impossible. Now people are more aware of learning disabilities, but growing up in the '60's and '70's, most gym teachers just assumed I was lazy and not trying. It was pure torture. I remember well the time a teacher decided she was going to make sure I could hit a softball. She made me stand, with the whole class of girls watching, while she repeated threw the ball to me and I tried (and failed) to do a solid hit. I broke a finger playing volleyball once, and I was routinely picked last for teams, and the other kids would argue over who was stuck with me.

In high school, one of the gym units was touch football, but if you wanted to you could opt out of it. The alternative (i.e. disincentive/punishment) for opting out was to have to run track, which I and several others were happy to do, much to the surprise of the gym teacher, who had assumed we were just lazy, rather than bad at football/throwing.

I later finally had a more enlightened gym teacher, who let us opt out of certain sections and play bocce instead. Sweet relief, since we were allowed to do it for fun, rather than competitively, so it didn't matter if I was bad at it as I was just playing for myself, instead of "letting down the team."
posted by gudrun at 8:13 AM on November 8 [3 favorites]

If the concern is for giving kids a healthy level of physical activity, a daily walking program would be far more effective than a traditional competitive team sports PE class in which a certain percentage of kids get no exercise at all.

Or, like our school, you could just have kids run (or walk) laps. More engaging and entertaining activities, however, might inspire kids to acquire athletic skills and stay physically active as they age.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:27 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]

we were allowed to do it for fun, rather than competitively, so it didn't matter if I was bad at it as I was just playing for myself, instead of "letting down the team."

That's one blessing all my P.E. classes had--stress on fair play and fun over competition. Maybe it's because it was the 1970s, but a general consensus for all my gym classes and sports teams at that time was: "it's more important to play fair and have fun than it is to win."

It's when the whole notion of participation trophies was born, i.e. it's more important to participate than it is to win. It was 1977, I think, when my soccer team starting handing them out.

Anyway, one of the saddest parts of all of these sad P.E. experiences: the lack of teaching friendly competition. Being a good loser or good winner is a critical "soft skill" that will benefit you over and over again in life (e.g. playing cards with your in-laws; a game of darts with a possible boss; feeling confident enough to join a work LAN party even though you suck at FPS.)

And kids need that instruction on how to be competitive without caring. I see kids at school competing over who has the highest reading level, or the best lunch, or the coolest shoes, etc etc. It's one of the major vectors for bullying behavior. Proper physical education teaches students how to lose and win while regulating very difficult emotions.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:37 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]

I was able to take weightlifting and aerobics a couple of times, and enjoyed both (despite the cautions against developing muscles!). Other times I could take tennis, badminton, or archery, and was able to get in a small team with just my friends and have fun without competition or trying to win. Just swat the ball and watch it go! This was in classes with the aforementioned crossword-puzzle-doing gym teacher, or ones where the teacher was understanding or hands-off and didn't try to chivvy us into Making A Real Effort and Following The Rules.

The horrible miserable PE units were the ones where we had to play large-scale team sports like volleyball or basketball where there was no hiding from the jocks and mean girls, people took the game seriously, and you had to get in there and play or else.

I think the whole "divide the kids into two big teams and throw them a ball" way of playing PE was a form of crowd control on the cheap with minimal effort from the teacher. Form the kids into big teams, throw them a ball, and voila! you're in business. And if some kids hate it, are bad at it, are bullied, etc. - well, Children Are Resilient and Bullying Builds Character.

There's plenty of ways for kids to enjoy physical activity without team sports and competition. Loads and loads. Teachers and schools need to make it more appealing and stop taking the "throw the kids a ball" cop-out option.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:43 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]

How to be competitive without abusing or harassing others would be a really good lesson, too. Obviously, this is not something that was taught in our PE classes.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:51 AM on November 8

"Playing actual games was way at the end of the unit, after we'd spent some weeks on skills and rules (including a written test on rules) and various drills and mini-games, and they weren't super-competitive since they were about learning the game."
"Holy crap. We were never taught the rules to any game. Ever. "

The attitude my school system had -- which I think is an appropriate one -- is that if the question is "Are you good at soccer?" the answer is "varsity team, with tryouts and cuts and competitive games." But for a PE class, the appropriate question is, "Did you learn something about soccer?" The twin aims of the class were to get kids some exercise and ideally turn them into lifetime exercises, and to teach about sports culture (including, like, how to play sports). So the grading rubric was like 5% being on time and showing up dressed appropriately (once we had to change into PE uniforms starting in junior high), about 25% knowledge of rules/safety/strategy/etc (a written test, but also how well you demonstrated it in class/during play); 25% effort/participation (get out there and trot those laps! Attempt to kick that ball! Go down swinging that bat!); 25% skill acquisition/improvement; 15% sportsmanship and fair play; and only 5% how good you were at something.

So basically if you showed up on time in your gym uniform, participated in all the activities and gave it your best shot (regardless of how terrible your best shot was), passed the written test (which was usually like 20 questions, mostly multiple choice, and focused on the main rules, not the obscure weird ones), and were kind to other students, you could basically get a B. If you managed to gain or improve a couple skills, you could get an A. Skills were broken down into steps and taught step-by-step, and then you'd do drills on just that skill to try to master it. So if you started the soccer unit unable to dribble, and by the end of four weeks you could dribble it 20 yards or so (by yourself, not in a game), that's skill acquisition, you get an A! Maybe in the baseball unit you know how to pitch, but you learn a curveball. Skill improvement!

Anyway, when I look for youth sports for my kids (6 and 8 right now), I look for programs with a rubric of what discrete skills they're going to be teaching at what ages or in what order, and I look for programs where the goal isn't "win at soccer" but "teach kids about soccer, including rules and skills to play the game, and incidentally play some games so kids get an idea of how it all goes together, while encouraging good sportsmanship and stick-to-it-iveness." Some sports always have this -- gymnastics and swimming are good examples. It'd be a bizarre-ass swimming class that took beginners and said, "Here, let's have a swim meet and hold races." No, you start with the skills that build up to being able to do various strokes and dives and not-drowning, and only after the basics are mastered do you introduce (the possibility of) competition. It's a bizarre-ass soccer program that takes a bunch of 5-year-olds onto a field and says, "COMPETE!" They should be learning how to kick and handle the ball and pass to teammates, and maybe when all those skills are mastered, play the game so they can see how the skills come together. And yet we accept an awful lot of bizarre-ass youth sports and PE classes that yell at people who don't even know the basics for not competing like experts.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:56 AM on November 8 [3 favorites]

Maybe having two options- team sports or running/walking laps- might be best. The kids could choose which they wanted to do at the start of each unit focusing on a particular sport. Then the kids who really hate team sports or a particular team sport have another option that gets them some physical activity.

Whatever the solution, I think it needs to include some way to address the bullying, exclusion, and harassment that a lot of us remember from PE. We know now that that doesn't "build character" and doesn't motivate less athletic kids to become more athletic.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:59 AM on November 8

We also need to address the locker room/showers issue. I can't even IMAGINE what that's like for trans kids, intersex kids, and kids with visible scars, birthmarks, or disabilities. Those kids need exercise, too, of course.
posted by Anne Neville at 11:05 AM on November 8

At least at my high school, grades in PE only depended on showing up, wearing your gym uniform, trying to participate, and passing written tests. Your grade at least didn't depend on your athletic abilities. There was harassment of kids without much athletic ability, which was awful and unacceptable, don't get me wrong, but at least you could pass.
posted by Anne Neville at 11:09 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]

Early elementary school gym class memory: doing calisthenics daily to the sound of Robert Preston's "Go, You Chicken Fat, Go."

"Push up every morning - ten times
Push up starting low
Once more on the rise, nuts to the flabby guys!
Go, you chicken fat, go away!
Go, you chicken fat, go!"

This cheerfully sadistic tune may be the root of my dislike for mandatory fun.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:09 PM on November 8 [3 favorites]

I (female) have got a suite of learning disabilities (relatively mild but definitely can cause problems), and a part of that includes left-right confusion, and really crappy spatial relations and hand/eye coordination.

Oh! Hi. I had all those issues too, plus a total lack of depth perception. There's a reason sports are my own personal hell.

Except swimming. I was okay at swimming -- not great, mind you. But I guess growing up in south Florida, where everyone has a pool and there's access to the beach, you have to learn how to swim. So I enjoyed that, if only because there were opportunities everywhere, and I was too stubborn to not swim. I am still terrible at it, though.
posted by PearlRose at 6:36 AM on November 9

This cheerfully sadistic tune may be the root of my dislike for mandatory fun.

Oh my god, Chicken Fat. My gym teacher played that for us all the time. Not sure how an adult can play a song that third graders roll their eyes at, but looking back I figure he just played it when he was hungover and didn't want to actually teach.

Sit ups... every morning TEN TIMES!
posted by bondcliff at 7:59 AM on November 9 [1 favorite]

Somehow I never put it together that it was Robert Preston who sang "Chicken Fat," but as soon as I read that, I realized it could never have been anyone else.
posted by duffell at 7:33 AM on November 13

Also, apparently Meredith Willson (who wrote The Music Man) also wrote Chicken Fat. I feel like there are some excellent mashup opportunities here.
posted by duffell at 7:33 AM on November 13

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