Bad Phys. Ed. Teachers Can Turn Kids Off Fitness For Life

Filed under: Big Kids, Tweens, Day Care & Education, Sports

The gym teacher has always gotten a bad rap in pop culture. From Billy Bob Thornton's sadistic Mr. Woodcock to Glee's cold-hearted cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, phys. ed. instructors are often depicted as mean and monstrous figures who scream insults into a bullhorn while weak students cower. It's an exaggerated image no doubt, but one that resonates with many people who had negative childhood experiences in P.E. class. And a recent study at the University of Alberta has shown that humiliation at the hands of a bad phys-ed teacher can turn people off of fitness for good.

Billy Strean, a professor at U of A's Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, found that an individual's lifelong attitude towards physical activity could be determined by either a good or bad early experience with a coach or phys. ed. teacher. Study participants with negative attitudes towards physical activity recalled having teachers who had low energy, who were unfair and who embarrassed students.

With obesity rates skyrocketing and the siren call of digital entertainment swaying children away from physical exercise, it's a sobering question: Are your children receiving positive influence from their phys. ed. teachers, or a negative, humiliating experience that could lead them away from the possibility of a fit life?


Keeping kids positive about physical activity is an issue that Murray Hamblin takes seriously. Hamblin teaches phys. ed. and coaches basketball and track at Algonquin Ridge Elementary School in Barrie, Ontario. Here are his 5 tips to help kids feel good about physical education:

1. Change up the game: Though he includes traditional sports like football and basketball, Hamblin also varies his program by including individual sports, group games, dance, etc. "I didn't like Grade 9 phys. ed. that much myself because it focuses on such a narrow band of sports," he says. "Football, wrestling and basketball seemed like 80 percent of the program. The more variety of physical activities you offer, the more chance everyone will participate in something they like."

2. Recognize positive efforts and ignore mistakes: Hamblin tries to establish a "positive script" in the hope that students will internalize it (this technique was reinforced after he read the Andre Agassi autobiography, Open). For example, Hamblin verbally encourages his students with phrases like "I'm impressed when you do this," "that's a great move," or "your effort and practice are really paying off."

3. Turn off the spotlight: To avoid putting his students through the embarrassment and anxiety individual tests can cause, Hamblin mostly assesses his students by observing them during drills and games. "I try not to have students perform in front of a whole class, individually, if I can avoid it," says Hamblin. "So no 'lay-up test' where everyone in the class watches you miss basket after basket."

4. Take the sting out of picking teams: When students pick teams, less athletic kids can find themselves repeatedly in the humiliating position of being last. If there's a need for teams, Hamblin will usually pick them himself. As well, he tries to pick students first who, if it was left to their peers, would probably be picked last. Alternatively, he'll use simple games to divide up a class (eg. find a partner, the older student is on team A, the younger student is on team B).

5. Outlaw trash talk: Hamblin has seen negative or insulting comments from peers really turn a struggling student off of physical activity. So he insists that students be encouraging to their teammates rather than putting them down. "We talk a lot in phys. ed. class about being a good participant," he says. "I have a simple rule of thumb I've used with some overly-competitive students in the past: 'If you aren't positive, you don't play.' It works!"


Does your child feel positive or negative about phys. ed. class? Are they being treated fairly by their teacher? Let us know what you think.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.